Many government departments do not understand charities and do not do enough to commission from the social sector, Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, told delegates at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester last night.
Hurd, who was speaking at an event for the Social Economy Alliance, a network of bodies formed to promote social enterprise and led by Social Enterprise UK, was asked whether enough had been done to promote the social sector. "Most of the honest answers are no," he said.
He said the public sector was "not sufficiently ambitious" in its work with charities and social enterprises. It was important, he said, that government was prepared to fund experimental commissioning, but civil servants felt their first responsibility was to protect ministers' reputations.
"We have to be prepared to fail," he said. "If we fail, I will get it in the neck at the despatch box. And civil servants hate that, because their job is to cover my arse.
"But that underestimates the risk of the status quo. We're paralysed by the idea that that might fail, but look at what we achieved in the past, when we had all the money."
Hurd said that much of government still did not understand the benefits of contracting with the social economy. "There are departments of government that don't get this stuff at all," he said. "It's our responsibility and our mission to push it so that they do."
He said the attitude of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills towards social enterprise was "a source of constant frustration for me" and that he was "not overwhelmed by its enthusiasm for the social economy".
The probation reforms, he said, would be a big test of whether other government departments were listening.
He said the Cabinet Office had "fallen over backwards" to work with the Ministry of Justice to make reforms suitable for the voluntary sector.
Hurd said that it was time for the government to think differently, because "big government and big private sector commissioning hasn't delivered good enough results".
"We have a window of opportunity now to do so, because circumstances have changed," he said. "People are having to think differently."
Public sector bodies could not meet demand with so much less public money being applied, Hurd said, so commissioners would have to think differently about how they delivered services.
And he said the evidence was already there to show that support for social enterprise was a good idea.
"You would think in a government obssessed with growth, someone would notice that one part of the economy was growing faster than the rest," he said.
Hurd said, however, that there were too few large social enterprises able to deliver services at the scale government wanted, and that third sector organisations had to be prepared to take steps to grow to scale to deal with government commissioners.
The current tax break proposed for social enterprise "isn't quite right", Hurd told the meeting, but the government would work to get it right.
"But everybody wants a tax break," he said. "The Treasury hates tax breaks. There are a lot of people out of that door in the rest of the conference who aren't getting anything at all."
He said that there had already been "a significant transfer of power from government to the community" through the Localism Act and the Public Services (Social Value) Act, and through the spin-out process.
"We can see the power they have taken from liberation from the environment they were in beforehand," he said.