Editorial: Tide's in our favour, so let's swim with it

Stephen Cook, editor

There are many similarities between private and voluntary sector organisations when they bid for contracts from government departments.

For example, they're both good at conveying how they can provide a better service than is there already. We know this because Richard Clarke, head of the voluntary and community sector delivery unit at the Cabinet Office, said so at the Acevo funding roadshow in London last week.

So far, so good. Most encouraging. But what about the differences? Well, what comes over from the voluntary sector, according to Clarke, is an emphasis on all the barriers it faces. He didn't quite say "stop bloody moaning and get on with it", but then civil servants seem to have a gene that prevents them from speaking in such terms.

What's the sensible way to react to this? One possibility would be to pull on a fixed smile and adopt a mantra of "don't mention the barriers" in the hope that this will make the paymasters feel less uncomfortable and improve the chances of pulling in the contracts.

This approach might increase dividends in the short term, but it would reduce the pressure for real change in the vital areas of fair contracts and full cost recovery. There is high-level ministerial commitment to change, and it was heartening this week to hear the Local Government Association pledge to give the sector three-year contracts. But unless and until these changes are firmly bolted in place, it's best to keep the foot on the accelerator.

At the same time, it would be unwise to ignore Clarke's message entirely.

Nobody warms to the sort of people who start griping the moment they come through the door, and the more skilful negotiators know how to adapt their messages and tone of voice to the prevailing circumstances. The tide is beginning to flow in the sector's direction, thanks partly to people such as Clarke and his new ministerial boss Ed Miliband - perhaps it's time to cut them some slack and drop the grievances down the agenda a bit.

Oliver Dowding of Somerset wrote to The Times last week to complain that his morning's mail had just weighed in at 1,290g, "of which 1,100g was in the recycling bin within 30 minutes".

Two thoughts: should we be worried or encouraged that Times readers work in metric nowadays? And does Dowding's outburst contain food for thought for fundraisers?

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