Left in suspense
The role of the third sector in delivering large parts of public services is suddenly no longer cut and dried
Third sector minister Ed Miliband’s vision for the voluntary sector’s role in public service reform, set out last week in the pages of Society Guardian, was a clear message. It drew a line in the sand, pulling back from the Blairite concept of the transfer of large swaths of public services over to the voluntary and community sector.
He was not in favour, he said, of third sector delivery of public services for the sake of it. Rather, public service reform should be a selective process allowing voluntary organisations the space to contribute their particular strengths to service delivery, and using those strengths to help transform statutory services.
It is a message that has resonated throughout the sector, with many voluntary groups praising the minister for the ‘intervention’ in the debate. ‘It’s refreshing hearing a government minister reflect the mood of voluntary and community groups on the ground,’ says John Knight, head of policy and campaigns at disability charity Leonard Cheshire, one of the UK’s largest service providers.
Knight is relieved that Miliband appears to be calling for a more measured approach. ‘There’s been a sense that the voluntary sector has been harried into a new relationship with the government over the issue of public services,’ he says. ‘The headlong rush for public services has not always been as strategic as the minister now recognises it needs to be. We need a period of reflection.’
Neil Cleeveley, director of policy at the National Association of Voluntary and Community Associations, believes that Miliband, a close ally of the chancellor, Gordon Brown, is subtly applying the brakes to Tony Blair’s approach to public service reform that embraced and encouraged large-scale transfer to the voluntary community associations. ‘I think it’s fair to say that the chancellor has been less keen on the wholesale transfer of public services than the prime minister,’ Cleeveley says. ‘So if Miliband’s vision does reflect a break with the Blairite line, then quite frankly it’s welcome.’
He hopes that Miliband’s words will help curb some of the ideas voiced by politicians in recent months on the subject of public service reform. He singles out Richard Kemp, a Liberal Democrat member of the Association of London Government’s executive committee, who declared in July that 50% of local services could be provided by the voluntary and community sector by 2010, a concept Cleeveley dismisses as ‘wildly unrealistic.’ He says: ‘At the very least, Miliband has provided a really welcome clarification on a subject that has turned into a confusing minefield of political rhetoric. I think he’s got it about right. There is a role for the sector in delivering public services, but it is often overplayed.’
Others disagree. The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo), which champions an increased public service delivery role for the third sector, dismisses claims of a political shift. ‘I don’t think the minister is in any way implying that the voluntary sector should not play a robust and significant role in public service delivery,’ says Acevo chief executive, Stephen Bubb.
‘Brown’s language when talking about voluntary sector’s delivery of public services has always been the same as Blair’s. Anyone who thinks the agenda will change significantly with a transferral of power is kidding themselves. Ed’s words should be seen as clarification and nothing more.’
Miliband was also keen to emphasise the voluntary sector’s role in helping transform public services. He said that, in part, public service reform should be about getting statutory providers to draw on third-sector skills and experience.
But why should the voluntary sector be responsible for the transformation of statutory services? Lord [Victor] Adebowale, chief executive of the social care charity Turning Point, says: ‘I’m interested in delivering partnerships, not about teaching people how to engage in service delivery. And I’m certainly not going to turn over any of Turning Point’s hard-earned expertise, staff or service delivery models to the public sector just because they might be able to learn something. We need to keep focused on deciding what provider is best matched to deliver the best services to those that need them.’
The political manoeuvring over the issue of public service reform has ensured that the voluntary sector is higher on the political agenda than ever before. The National Council for Voluntary Organisation’s (NCVO) credits the sector’s own lobbying for this, but acknowledges that Miliband will be aware of the political importance of keeping the sector on-side in the coming months.
‘There’s been a significant increase in interest in the voluntary sector from all political parties and our voice has never been louder on the political stage,’ says Campbell Robb, head of policy at NCVO. ‘The sector needs to make sure we take advantage of this. We’ve had a great statement of intent from Ed Miliband. Now we need to see what mechanisms he’ll put in place to put this into practice’.
NCVO believes that the local government white paper, expected this autumn, will be a clear sign of how seriously the minister has been listening to issues such as local commissioning and procurement. Robb says: ‘We’ve heard a lot of words from politicians around this issue. Now we have to see some real delivery.’