News analysis: A shot in the arm for the Compact

Annie Kelly

Five councils have been named as 'pathfinder' models for Compact compliance in England.

Another day, another plan to show that the Compact is more than just a good idea. The Treasury has recently launched its Pathfinders initiative, naming five local authorities as official 'pathfinders', charged with acting as role models of Compact compliance.

Announced in Gordon Brown's Budget on 22 March, the Treasury-backed initiative will see Portsmouth City, Cumbria County, Tower Hamlets, Dorset County and Nottingham City councils acting as national partners, investigating how the voluntary sector delivers national services and how national and local government can improve their work with these organisations on the ground.

Central government will send experienced civil servants to each borough as consultants to help local authorities improve their support of their voluntary sector public service partners. It's a bid to make public service delivery at a local level more effective.

The councils involved believe this will have a positive effect on the delivery of services at grass-roots level. For instance, in Cumbria, one of the first steps will be to examine community transport initiatives and encourage more community volunteering.

Chris Scally, external funding and development manager at Dorset County Council, says the project will allow the council to develop a sophisticated procurement system and develop online commissioning capacity. He sees the scheme as an opportunity to show voluntary sector organisations that the local authority is serious about improving relationships.

"This shows the Government and local authorities are ready to take action over Compact compliance," he says.

Changing perceptions

His optimism is shared by Stuart Pate, acting head of the community unit at Cumbria County Council, although he acknowledges that the public sector has a lot of work to do to convince voluntary groups that the Compact can make a perceptible difference to their day-to-day work.

"We hope projects like this will transcend the fine words within the Compact documents and bring them to life," he says. "We know people in the voluntary sector are often dismissive of the Compact as being all talk. Schemes such as this may prove them wrong."

The five local authorities were selected to represent a cross-section of councils delivering public services with partner organisations in different funding and cultural climates.

"I think it's wise that the scheme has been set up this way," says Pate. "We have no idea of the demands placed on a borough in inner-city London. It will be interesting if we can all find some common ground from which we can develop best practice models."

The reason these councils have been chosen is that they have also all shown innovative thinking about how to improve their relationships with voluntary sector partners.

According to Sharon McGilchrist, third sector manager at Tower Hamlets Council, her borough has worked hard to develop effective working partnerships with what she describes as "our strong and strident voluntary sector service delivery partners".

She cites examples such as developing a third sector commissioning code of practice alongside a separate third sector strategy. She says the voluntary sector in Tower Hamlets is already involved in the design, development and delivery of public services.

Central government also has high hopes for the Pathfinders initiative.

According to a Treasury spokesman, Pathfinders will provide evidence to inform the cross-government plan on service delivery and could influence the Government's forthcoming White Paper on local government. It will also lead to a local authority action plan on harnessing the potential of the third sector to deliver local services and will result in a report before the summer recess, which will form part of the review of the future of the sector.

The Compact Working Group is also throwing itself behind the scheme, calling it a "sign that the Government is starting to take the Compact seriously".

McGilchrist believes the initiative has the potential to improve support of public service delivery, but she's not ready to give the Compact all the credit. She believes a lot of the hard work was already being done.

"Boroughs were doing great work with their voluntary sector partners before the Compact was in place," she says. "What the Compact and initiatives such as Pathfinders are doing is moving this work up to a regional and national level."

However, those eager to herald a new dawn in Compact compliance will have to wait. The results from the Pathfinders initiative won't be made public until September. Only then will the sector know if the project can deliver the kind of best practice it so desperately needs from the Compact.

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