EDITORIAL: Service delivery mustn't damage sector autonomy

Lucy Maggs

More voluntary sector involvement in the delivery of public services is inevitable, according to Will Hutton in a book about the future of the state, published last week by Acevo.

Gordon Brown said in 2001 that we would see "the biggest transformation of the relationship between the state and voluntary action for a century".

The Treasury's Cross Cutting Review focused on the role the voluntary sector could play in service delivery, and the Active Community Directorate has been looking at how the sector can be strengthened and modernised.

It seems from these and myriad government sector-related initiatives that Hutton is right. The voluntary sector is a great solution for a government wanting to contract out more services. Privatisation doesn't seem to fit with the public sector ethos and is proving to be unpopular with the general public. The voluntary sector presents a far more palatable option.

The sector is embracing the potential for running services as an opportunity to grow and ensure their beneficiaries are served in the best way possible.

But these organisations must step back and consider what the effect of taking on government contracts might be.

Hutton argues the voluntary sector is particularly good at service delivery because it is entrepreneurial, with a talent for fundraising and innovation.

Charities can be quick to act, compared with the lumbering bureaucracy of the state, and they operate close to the ground to make sure services reach the most disenfranchised members of society.

But by taking large public sector contracts, organisations may find they take on the guise of the state and lose exactly those qualities that make them effective. If they are to take on the delivery of health and education, the values of independence, flexibility and innovation must be recognised by the Government. The challenge for the sector is how to preserve them.

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