He said the sector’s potential to “cure real needs government agencies will never spot, let alone cure” was being stifled.
“Once you narrowly specify the goal a programme is supposed to achieve, it is inevitable you lose what is most characteristic about civil society,” he said. “The whole joy of civil society is that it responds to human need on a human scale in a particular community. It’s a response, not a programme.”
However, he admitted that there would be difficulty in changing the mindset of Whitehall officials, who “think in terms of setting goals, drawing up contracts and monitoring, inspecting and auditing the deliverers”.
He said: “There is no reward in Whitehall for taking risks that go wrong, and there are great penalties.”
Letwin said the Conservatives were working on ways to change that culture, such as plans for social enterprise zones, which the Tories have suggested in the past. The zones would be set up in deprived areas, and risk capital would be at the disposal of local groups to address need.
He also said the Office of the Third Sector should become the Office for Civil Society. “Its role should not be to govern contracts but to achieve change in Government,” he said.
Pam Giddy, who was director of the Power inquiry into why public participation in charities is declining, called on the sector to take up a “more challenging and influential role” in the political process.
“The voluntary sector has been the main beneficiary from the disengagement from politics,” she said. “People no longer identify with political parties, but they are proud to do so with local voluntary groups. Shouldn’t we be using that and bringing it into formal politics in a greater way?”
Giddy, former chief executive of the constitutional reform pressure group Charter 88, called for charities to form “deliberative assemblies” to communicate the views of their beneficiaries to policy-makers. However, she also warned that people in the sector needed to be wary of their own arrogance and avoid becoming a bar between people and the assembly.
“We in the sector tend to slightly mistrust the public,” she said.