Features: June 22nd, 2007

Time for Action on Public Service Delivery

By David Hunter

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm

‘If we want to increase the amount of creativity and innovation in public services, then we should be using the creativity and innovation there is in whatever part of society. And the truth is some of those organizations that are doing the most ground-breaking work, most innovative works are to be found in the third sector today’ (Tony Blair, Future Services Network Summit, 22 June 2006).

The debate about improving public services has now moved on from whether to involve the third sector to how to best engage with providers. John Hutton, secretary of state for work and pensions, conceded as much in March 2006 in discussions about the welfare reform green paper in a Work Foundation event, stating that it is ‘really a matter of discussing terms’.

So where are third sector organizations likely to be playing a greater role in public services? What benefits can they bring, and what action is needed to translate this rhetoric into reality? There have been many promises, but what progress?

Areas for growth

In July 2005, in association with the Social Market Foundation, Acevo published Nick Aldridge’s Communities in Control: The New Third Sector Agenda for Public Service Reform. The book established the case for several areas ripe for reform and greater third sector involvement. The main four highlighted in the book (not an exclusive list) are:

• Employment training.

• Children’s services.

• Correctional services (prisons and probation).

• Education.

Talk of a radical take-over of public services is exaggerated: the sector currently only accounts for 5% of total public sector spending, and this amount is hardly likely to dramatically multiply overnight. However, a step-change in delivery can, and should occur.

Benefits and barriers

Third sector organizations bring numerous benefits to public services. They are user-led, driven by need and mission. They operate successfully on a local level, and frequently reach out to some of the most socially excluded and neglected groups. They are often trusted more than traditional groups due to their independence from government.

The Acevo members who met the prime minister in 2006 discussed how collaboration on removing obstacles to a greater sector contribution to service provision. Key discussion points were:

•The need to reform outdated contracts and funding which limit opportunities. Longer term contracts should be constructed on a par with the private sector.

•The potential for establishing departmental taskforces. One model to follow could be the Department of Health’s taskforce led by Liam Byrne.

•The idea of establishing a cross-governmental team for driving forward this agenda and reporting in a year.

The leaders also asked the prime minister to set a 12-month deadline for an action plan from government departments to achieve these goals.

From promises to progress

In recognition of the increasingly important role the third sector plays in both society and the economy, the prime minister announced a new Office of the Third Sector in May 2006 with Ed Miliband appointed minister for the third sector.

Promises are slowly turning into progress. The local government white paper, launched on 26 October 2006, includes a chapter on the third sector for the first time. There are welcome proposals for longer term funding (three-year funding for grants is to become ‘the starting point in all cases’); proposals to build local sector capacity; and the creation of a fund to give local authorities capital support for asset transfer to community groups.

An action plan for change; value for money; building capacity. We now have the opportunity to discuss terms, to remove obstacles, and to see more promises materialize. As Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth: If it were done when ‘twere done, then ‘twere well/It were done quickly.

David Hunter is with the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations