At the annual All Party Parliamentary Group on Civil Society and Volunteering bash before Christmas, Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, spoke with impressive honesty about his disappointment that he had not done more to make it easier for charities to work with the state.
This, you will recall, was one of his key objectives when he got the job in 2010. A week later, the Cabinet Office published a "progress update", called - fittingly - Making It Easier for Civil Society to Work With the State, listing 14 "actions" it is taking to support intelligent commissioning. A lot is going on but, as the minister admitted, it doesn't add up to much change.
So what measures would help local charities in particular? Here are seven I would put on the minister's new year 'to do' list:
- Persuade Department of Health colleagues to require clinical commissioning groups to sign up to their local Compacts, as they have already done in Cumbria. Without this, the good local relationships built up over the past decade with primary care trusts will be lost.
- Refresh the brilliant Grant Making Powers guidance, written in 2009 by the DoH official Olivia Butterworth, and make it compulsory reading for all those going through the new Commissioning Academy courses.
- Appoint the determined and popular Chris White MP as your social value adviser. He is worth a car and driver to take him to every major council in the land to explain how they can use the Social Value Act to commission locally for maximum community benefit.
- Make sure the Home Secretary, Theresa May, understands why the public sector equality duty - up for Home Office review - is vital for the protection of funding for women's groups, advocacy for disabled people and grants for BME services.
- Ask your officials to work with Social Enterprise UK on guidance for commissioners to stop the rush to 'payment by results'. It is discredited as a funding method for the Work Programme and has so many perverse consequences that it should not be used for anything more complicated than replacing street light bulbs. As my insightful friend, the public policy adviser John Tizard, said recently: "Public bodies seem to be pursuing the use of payment by results with the vigour of a drunk in search of the next bottle of alcohol."
- Have the courage to use the Best Value Statutory Guidance to mount a legal challenge against one local authority that is threatening massively disproportionate cuts in local sector funding - such as Derby City Council. Just one judicial review would make every council cautious about abusing the sector.
- If we really face a future in which local charities have no choice but to subcontract from a private sector company for funding for employment or criminal justice services, admit the Merlin Standard is useless and work with the sector to find a new way of regulating the prime/subcontractor relationship.
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser