The woman in charge of training commissioners

As manager of a programme to teach public service commissioners to understand the voluntary sector, Sarah Wood believes that charities have much to learn as well. John Plummer spoke to her.

Sarah Wood
Sarah Wood

The relationship between charities and public sector commissioners sometimes appears to be as fractious as the one between Paul McCartney and Heather Mills.

This mutual distrust is a barrier to the Government's plans for charities to deliver more public services. So as part of a programme devised by former third sector minister Ed Miliband, 2,000 public sector commissioners will undergo training in the New Year to help them "understand what the third sector can offer".

The National Programme for Third Sector Commissioning, which was conceived in last year's public services action plan, has progressed slowly. In March, the Office of the Third Sector awarded £2m to the Improvement and Development Agency to manage the scheme, and in June Sarah Wood was appointed programme manager.

As a trustee of umbrella body Navca and former director of policy at the Local Government Association, Wood is familiar with the terrain. "There are patches of good working, so it's not an absolute desert out there," she says. "But myths and perceptions have built up over time." Such as? That the third sector isn't capable of handling large contracts, she replies, that social enterprise is too risky and that the public sector is over-bureaucratic.

Things are finally speeding up. At the end of the summer, a third sector commissioning advisory group was established to oversee matters. Chaired by Labour peer Glenys Thornton, its 26 members include voluntary sector luminaries such as Jane Slowey, chief executive of the Foyer Foundation, Liz Atkins, director of public policy at the NCVO, and Clive Martin, director of Clinks, which supports groups working with offenders and their families. Numerous civil servants are also members. By mid-November, the group hopes to have decided which 2,000 commissioners will be selected and what their training will entail. By Christmas, it should have decided who will deliver the course, and by early 2008 training should begin. Third Sector minister Phil Hope has indicated that he is willing to join the inductees. "He is very supportive of the programme and he's up for being used in as many ways as we want," says Wood.

Most inductees, however, are likely to be middle managers at local and national public sector organisations. Wood attributes this to the 'sandwich effect', whereby senior managers familiar with new policies and junior staff who have to implement them have learned to recognise the value of the third sector, but middle managers have not. "This will help them in their demanding jobs," says Wood. "It is about delivery, not writing a nice paper. It should help them get home five minutes earlier."

There will be different types of training for people from various professional backgrounds, such as finance directors, procurement officers and accountants. The curriculum will be flexible, but it is likely to cover such areas as what the third sector can bring to services, how to draft social clauses into contracts and how to include the value of the third sector in training programmes.

Wood hopes trainers will come from leadership academies, universities and the National School of Government. "It should not be 'sheep-dip' training," she says. "It has to be more 'Blackpool rock' and go right through what people do."

She hopes that by the end of the programme, which is scheduled to last four years but has so far received funding for two, there will be "2,000 evangelists in the public sector who understand how the third sector can help them". Which will mean more contracts for charities? Maybe. "It doesn't mean that if you address the issue you get a volume rise in the number of contracts," says Wood. "I'd be happy to accept that metric only if there is an understanding that this is a two-party dance. The public sector has to have more awareness of what the third sector can do, but the third sector has to understand contracts and get its head around issues such as subcontracts and prime contracts."

These terms, says Wood, refer to charities collaborating with private companies on bids in which the company is prime contractor and the charity the subcontractor, a rare arrangement at present. But how will this initiative make charities think about this? Although training 2,000 commissioners has attracted the most attention, the programme has two other strands.

The first, which steals the name Hearts and Minds from the Audit Commission report on voluntary sector commissioning published earlier this year, is about changing how government thinks about the third sector. "It's about embedding it in their DNA," says Wood. That's not easy; details on how it will be achieved are scant, and Wood is promising no quick fix. "This is the catalyst for long-term change," she says. "Ten years ago I would not have thought about recycling newspapers. Now it's second nature."

The other strand is about increasing the capacity of the third sector to meet the Government's commissioning agenda - not by giving them more money, but by assessing existing capacity-building organisations and making recommendations. Wood says the plethora of organisations operating in this field has created confusion. "There are lots of organisations doing different things. How do community organisations get access to them?" she asks. But she won't speculate on what this might mean for some existing capacity-building organisations.

To measure the programme's impact, voluntary sector staff will be surveyed on their perceptions of commissioning. It seems perceptions, rather than hard results, will be the mark of the programme's success, which is perhaps understandable because of the size of the challenge and the small amount of money it has. There are, Wood estimates, about 20,000 public sector commissioners, which means the training will pass 90 per cent of them by.

Wood makes no grand claims, nor does she indulge in meaningless rhetoric about how great the voluntary sector is. She bluntly goes against the trend of calling for an end to short-term contracts. In fact, she thinks they are sometimes beneficial. "If you are commissioning more of the same, then bigger and larger contracts might be appropriate," she says. "If you want to change to something new, it might be appropriate to do something that tests the water, so you might want short-term contracts."

These may not be the most reassuring words for innovative, service-delivering charities seeking surer funding. "Everyone has to be pragmatic," she says. "Three years is a goodish rule, but there are occasions when that might not be appropriate. We should not be scared to use innovative or short-term ways of working."

As for the programme she oversees, she says it will create more opportunities for the third sector and more public awareness of it. But tangible rewards are not guaranteed. "If we can encourage good commissioning, the third sector should feel the benefits, but it must be willing and able to meet that challenge," she says.

What is the most important lesson the 2,000 public sector commissioners should learn?

Staff at some service-delivering charities tell us what they think

"That small is beautiful. Funders like to deal with one organisation that contracts across a county, but local schemes are more efficient. What works in Goole is different to what works in Beverley or Bridlington."

- Gill Pirt, senior organiser, Home-Start Goole & District

"Save us from drowning in paperwork. I am filling in a 92-page tender document for two contracts worth £40,000 each. Our creativity and capacity is being limited because of the stifling terms and conditions of contracts."

- Margaret Allen, chief executive, Hull and East Yorkshire Mind

"Voluntary organisations want to work with the public sector but frequently struggle to find the internal resources to respond to tenders, consultations and forums. Commissioners need to understand this capacity issue and work with the sector in finding creative ways to overcome it."

- Robin Currie, chief executive, social care charity PSS

"The training package needs to take account of the challenges that small and local voluntary organisations face, particularly if commissioners are seeking large, single contracts that will require small and local voluntary organisations to work together to submit consortium bids."

- Neil Irving, chief executive, North Yorkshire Forum for Voluntary Organisations.

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