New models of commissioning are one of the main ways the Labour Party can seize back the initiative on voluntary sector, according to Tessa Jowell, the shadow Cabinet Office minister.
Writing in The Purple Book, a publication of essays by prominent party members published by the Labour pressure group Progress, Jowell says the big society "should be Labour territory" because it "speaks to Labour’s principles of solidarity, mutualism and collectivism".
"Labour also understands that the third sector has always played a complementary role to the statutory sector, campaigning and agitating for improvements, rather than just taking over failing services as in the Conservatives’ view," she says.
She describes the big society as "sepia-tinged nostalgia" based on the Conservatives’ ideological "naked hatred of state intervention".
The left, she says, "must find ways to give communities the means to solve problems in their own ways" and supports the view espoused by Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, who says governments should seek to address "the quality of their relationships with the public, rather than doing so indirectly through promises and their delivery".
Jowell identifies commissioning as one of the key ways of making this happen. She talks about "community-led commissioning" in which the state is required to commission services in conjunction with local people.
"Often, local people know more about their needs than commissioners do and that, with support, they can help commissioners to build smarter solutions to local problems," she says.
She says the state should encourage local authorities to adopt the same practice. "Within the commissioning community, there is clear recognition that making users commissioning partners is good practice, but there needs to be a stronger steer from government that this should be the norm," she says.
Jowell suggests including social clauses in all contracts to "force commissioners to consider the extra community benefits voluntary and community organisations provide over and above single outcome measures".
She also says that all public bodies should be required to develop a voluntary sector commissioning strategy.