Opinion: Third Voice - Public service delivery can compromise charities

Sukhvinder Stubbs, chief executive of the Barrow Cadbury Trust

Over the past couple of decades, the arm's-length relationship between voluntary groups and the state has been eroded. Until the late 1980s, state funding was guaranteed as long as groups didn't interfere with government programmes, but today voluntary and community groups act as the third sector, competing for delivery of public service contracts alongside the private sector.

Although many groups effectively balance their service delivery and advocacy roles, countless others find their activities compromised. It's not only that funds for campaigning are less forthcoming, or indeed that it is hard to criticise paymasters - it's more that the Government's procurement policies are usually based on a one-size-fits-all approach that fails to recognise the distinctive qualities that the voluntary and community sectors bring to service delivery and to service reform.

Studies comparing the different sectors show that, for the same output, voluntary groups devote far more resources to securing contracts than other providers. This may seem expensive, but it is essential because the outcomes are generally richer and more sustainable. Unfortunately, bidding tends simply to assess outputs. In doing so, it misses the real added value the sector brings to public services, which is what makes the sector so effective at reaching the most marginalised: flexibility and closeness to the beneficiaries.

At the same time, voluntary and community organisations can be relied upon to demonstrate common sense and pragmatism, ensuring that limited resources are pooled and targeted for the greatest good.

If, as the Government claims, public sector reform is about boosting individual initiative and social innovation, public servants could gain insights by analysing and adopting the approaches of the sector. Rather than making organisations fit into often bureaucratic and senseless procedures, procurement should aim to change the culture of service provision through engagement with the voluntary sector.

A healthy and vibrant sector is one of the hallmarks of a progressive society. Public bodies would benefit from understanding the insights it brings - after all, the voluntary and community sectors have proven their ability to deliver where public services can't and private ones won't.

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