Opinion: Creative, untidy - that's what we do best

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief

A New Year letter reaches me on behalf of two huge service providers with a lot of business in the voluntary sector.

The writer tells me he's inspired by the examples he sees everywhere of committed people doing wonderful things, but is struck by the duplication and inefficiencies that arise through fragmentation. He tells me he is fascinated by the initiatives under way to look at new business models, alliances and outsourcing and invites me to a workshop to look at some of these examples of good practice. It is quite an arresting letter, until I realise that the examples of good practice involve charities that are customers of both providers.

Usually, it's government that criticises the complexity of the voluntary sector, failing utterly to observe the same strictures it advocates for others. Even after the latest cull of quangos, the convolution of government is undiminished. If you take only those arms of government trying both to produce more information and reduce it at the same time, you have an industry the size of a small republic. The Active Community Unit in all its incarnations over the past 30 years has repeatedly pleaded for the voluntary sector to speak with a single voice. But the sector doesn't even have a single ear into which this message can be shouted.

It's less common to hear this from the commercial sector, and I wonder if the writer has thought about the fragmentation and duplication in his own neck of the woods. There it's considered such a positive virtue it even has a special name - competition. Lloyds TSB, HSBC, Barclays, NatWest: just a few of the massive number of financial institutions competing for our business and vying for priority on internet search engines, none of them adding much to the sum of human happiness - quite the reverse, if my experience in trying to wind up my parents' little estate is any guide.

Strangely, government thinks it would be a bad idea for banks, grocers or broadcasters, or any other segment of commerce or industry, to act as one. Then it would be considered against the interests of consumers.

A whole chunk of UK government and a large piece of the European Commission is dedicated to keeping them apart. The point of the voluntary sector is to be diverse, to reflect individual and communal interests and differences - and it manages this rather well without interference. Give me creative untidiness rather the regulation of a busy autocracy any day.

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