Voluntary sector 'not always best at public service delivery'

Consumers don't always find that charities are the best providers of public services, according to research published today by the National Consumer Council.

The council asked job seekers, people who live in social housing and older people what they thought of third sector service provision as compared with services run by the state or private companies. The results didn't always paint a rosy picture of charity-run services.

"The third sector often does well but our research scotches the notion that it will always be better," said Ed Mayo, chief executive of the council. "How an organisation is structured matters less to consumers than whether services work well and treat people with dignity."

In the area of domiciliary care services for older people, the council found that members of the public consistently scored privately-operated services higher than those provided by charities. In particular, it found that consumers felt they could trust private sector providers more and they believed privately-employed staff cared about them more as individuals.

In the area of social housing, the council found that tenants thought there was relatively little difference between state- and charity-run services.

The sector scored exceptionally well on employment services, however. Consumers found that charities were head and shoulders above both local authorities and private organisations when it came to operating services aimed at job seekers and the unemployed.

"They actually genuinely remember conversations you have," one jobseeker told the council. "They're listening to what you say and don' t just sound like they're just doing it for the job."

The employment scores will come as good news to charities such as the Shaw Trust which are keen to get more involved in employment and training services if and when the Department for Work and Pensions implements the Freud review, which recommended a revolution in the way such services are contracted out (Third Sector 21 February).

The research also showed that what consumers look for from service providers are the ability to trust in an organisation and staff going out of their way to help them.

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