OPINION: Contracts can let you play to your strengths

The recent Demos report highlights the concerns of community groups that working with statutory authorities may threaten their independence. This has worrying echoes of a previous era.

Fifteen years ago, a debate raged about whether voluntary organisations should be involved in the provision of statutory services, whether those services should be partly or fully funded by the voluntary sector, and whether contracted services would blunt campaigning activity if voluntary organisations bit the hands that fed them.

Some of those fears proved justified. Most, however, did not. The voluntary sector soon grappled with the contract culture and found it could do what was needed without selling out or being gagged. In fact, handled well, the new relationship enabled us to have more of a say in shaping service delivery.

It's surprising, then, that the debate has reared its head again. Third-sector agencies have a choice about whether to get involved in service provision. We have refused to provide subsidised services and have proved the value of what we do. We can choose whether we adapt our focus to win contracts. To regard engagement with statutory services as threatening is to miss out on a huge opportunity to play to our strengths.

This applies to all forms of engagement with government. The introduction of the Compact, with its expectation that all strata of government should consult with the sector, gives us a real opportunity to influence the world in which we work. Identifying key issues and participating in consultations means engaging with local government. But it does not necessarily mean agreeing with everything.

It's about being grown up and abandoning the parent-child relationship.

It offers a better opportunity to represent our beneficiaries and supporters, to influence statutory perceptions of those we represent, and to help shape policies.

Voluntary groups are often best placed to support and amplify local concerns to local government. To shy away from this opportunity is to waste the chance to grow in influence. If we lack the confidence to grab with both hands every opportunity as it arises, how can we expect anyone outside our sector to have confidence in us?

Geraldine Peacock, chief executive of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association

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