OPINION: Don't shy from politics but try engagement

GERALDINE PEACOCK, chief executive of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association

What with party conferences, leadership battles and the threat of war with Iraq, politics with a big "P

seems omnipresent. Working in the voluntary sector, politics with a small "p

is no less ubiquitous as issues such as competition for the support of big givers, recruitment of influential trustees and the struggle to define user involvement, demonstrate.

To many people, however, politics is a dirty word. Politics is what makes lives difficult, complicated and creates barriers. In my book, however, engaging with political systems at every possible level is vital if the voluntary sector is truly to represent the interests of its stakeholders and realise its potential.

We seem to be in a moment in time when, if we get our politics right, the voluntary sector can turn the vital key to make active citizenship work. We can help define new rules of political engagement within and between our organisations, and across sector boundaries, that play to everyone's strengths.

By this I don't mean the usual campaigns, parliamentary officers and boards of trustees who are well plugged in to the system. What I mean is real engagement, with the voluntary sector facilitating a role for all sectors in policy formulation, service delivery and resourcing. And doing so within a fiscal and ethical framework formulated by government consultation with myriad partnerships and alliances across sector boundaries.

What we need is vision, lateral thinking and for the voluntary sector to act as the broker between sectors, spurred on by new institutional forms. We can help to ensure that the user's voice is a key element within sustainable delivery mechanisms.

Evidence of this can be seen already in the growth of community development finance institutions, social venture capital, venture philanthropy, social accounting, new umbrella organisations, national agendas, quality standards and a number of other initiatives. Within our organisations, flatter structures, redefined relationships between governance and management, investment in infrastructure, and broadened capacity are all evidence of a new and transparent political approach.

So welcome to a new kind of politics - one that can work.

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