Editorial: Some progress amid the hail of promises

Stephen Cook, editor

"Shock and awe" was one response to last week's Three Sector Summit, where Tony Blair and four other ministers strode to the podium of a London conference centre to fire volleys of congratulatory rhetoric about the voluntary sector and set off a bombardment of new initiatives.

There is to be a new central-local government-third sector engagement board, a Department of Health review of the way local authorities supply community equipment, such as wheelchairs, and a new social enterprise unit to encourage innovation and entrepreneurialism in the supply of services to the Department of Health. On top of that, there's to be the public service innovation team in the Cabinet Office, which is intended to spread best practice from the third sector to the state.

Dramatic stuff. But what does it all amount to? The first thing to note is that the action plan, originally promised for June, has been postponed until the autumn. Understandable, perhaps, given that third sector policy has moved departments and been given a whole new impetus since the original promise was made. Another disappointment is that the community equipment agenda is moving more slowly than many hoped. And the plethora of new bodies, reviews and partnerships can leave you feeling that they could be a substitute rather than a catalyst for real action.

But if there's been a step back in some ways, there has been more than one step forward in others. As one participant remarked, an event like this would have been inconceivable 18 months ago. The mood music has changed dramatically and it will be difficult for people to go back on some of the extravagant pledges they have made.

The most significant development may be that local government is coming on board. This is probably the widest and most prickly interface between the voluntary and public sectors, where justifiable reservations and important questions of local autonomy make simple and sweeping solutions impractical, as Sir Michael Lyons makes clear in his interview on page 11 this week. The establishment of respectful relationships, longer contracts and full cost recovery is bound to be a painstaking process.

All such moments, however, require the usual caveat: service delivery is only one part of the sector, and it's important not to forget the entirely voluntary, community-based part from which the entire sector takes its core values.

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