Interview: Michael O'Toole

The new crown representative tells David Ainsworth he hopes to help the sector to win more contracts and wants charities to know he's on their side

Michael O'Toole
Michael O'Toole

Michael O'Toole, the new crown representative for the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector, wants to make it clear that he's on the side of charities.

While other crown representatives were appointed to help the government to negotiate better deals with big business suppliers, O'Toole says his job is to win better deals for what he calls the VCSE sector.

"My brief is to engage with the sector to improve relationships," he says. "We want to open up public service delivery and create opportunities, and to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of VCSE organisations across government."

O'Toole says his part-time role is advisory and he will not be able to demand changes in the way government carries out its commissioning. He will, however, have an extensive remit to make recommendations.

He will meet procurement specialists and champions of small and medium-sized enterprises in different government departments, he says, as well as with voluntary sector organisations and civil servants in the Office for Civil Society.

"I'll be looking at the obstacles in the process," he says. "It will mostly be about providing advice, but if I find specific issues on which I can write reports and recommendations, I will."

Until now, the crown representatives have been very successful at introducing changes, he says. "And departments are obligated to show how they are delivering services through small and medium enterprises, so there is motivation to work with me."

The government wants to commission 25 per cent of services from SMEs, says O'Toole, and increasing the number of voluntary organisations that win bids will help hit that target. He says he is keen to measure the effectiveness of third sector delivery and, where possible, prove what many believe: that the sector delivers better results.

He wants to know what services the sector is delivering already and he wants to find good examples that show that sector organisations deliver better results.

O'Toole also wants to address a commissioning mindset that he says makes contracting with the sector difficult. In particular, he wants to avoid situations in which contracts are too large, or constructed in such a way that charities cannot compete.

Changes are already under way to remove what he calls "systemic bias in tendering specifications", although much of this is focused on SMEs, rather than on the specific problems of the voluntary sector. Nevertheless, he feels the sector will benefit.

One thing he is keen to see is more early engagement with the sector when developing contracts, to ensure that organisations are able to bid and know what is needed.

He says: "We need to deal with the idea that large is good. We need to make contracts simpler."

O'Toole believes that the number of contracts won by third sector organisations is only going to increase in the future. He says that while he will focus on changing government to help the sector, the sector might also need to adjust itself to meet the needs of government.

"I expect to see different models of delivery that could include collaboration," he says.

He sees a potential opportunity for charities in payment by results, which he says offers them a chance to show how effective they can be. "Providers in the sector should embrace the opportunity to compete because they offer the best deal," he says. "It's important that we don't shy away from that."

But he says several issues must be ironed out - most importantly, that charities must have access to sufficient finance to allow them to carry out contracts. They must also think about building themselves to a large enough scale to manage the risk.

O'Toole describes 3SC, the third sector bidding consortium he used to run, as an "ongoing experiment to create some scale", adding that "collaborative models are one way of overcoming that scale deficit".

He says work is also needed from the government to ensure that sector organisations receive an appropriate level of payment and balance of risk and reward.

"But a slightly different cultural view towards risk is required by charities," he says. "Perhaps they need to be more entrepreneurial and have a more commercial approach."

O'Toole has several ideas about what he will do with the two to three days he is not working at the Cabinet Office.

"I'm setting up a new charity that will be a collaboration of a number of other social care charities that aims to meet changes in commissioning," he says. "I also sit on the boards of other charities.

"And I'll be involved in quite a lot of childcare, which is my favourite job."


2012: Crown representative for the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector

2010: Chief executive, 3SC

2008: Development director, the integrated services provider Connaught

2008: Chief executive, National Extension College

2002: Sales and marketing director, BSS.

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