Headlines: February 22nd, 2006

Plans for double devolution, where power is moved from Whitehall to town hall and then on to communities and individuals, will rely heavily on the voluntary sector. David Miliband, Minister of Communities and Local Government, has set out how he sees the voluntary and community sector, working in partnership with the public sector contributing to the proposed changes. He views the local government reforms as a major opportunity to rebalance the relationship between the state and the third sector.When councils develop their vision for their area through their Sustainable Community Strategies, they need to be open to the views and perspectives of third sector organisation. Sometimes this will involve frank exchanges and disagreements. But the role of local government must be to encourage this dialogue not to stifle it. That is the significance of the consultation currently underway on the future of Local Strategic Partnerships.

The voluntary sector role should start early in the tendering process. Councils will be expected to use citizens and outside expertise as part of the process of making decisions, so that decisions are based on an independent and user-centred view of Best Value. When decisions have been taken there should be transparency over the level of funding that goes to private and voluntary sector providers so that councils and their partners can benchmark their performance.

In addition to being a service provider the voluntary sector could also be a “choice advisor” or “broker” helping to inform citizens, particularly the most disadvantaged, of the services available to them, and negotiate packages of support to meet their needs.

Where voluntary organisations cut across traditional professional silos, councils and their partners will need to look at how to avoid the problem of voluntary organisations having to manage multiple contracts from different parts of the public sector, each with different reporting arrangements and timescales.

The White Paper setting the Deal for Devolution will be published in the summer.

Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of National Council for Voluntary Organisations NCVO, said: ‘We were delighted to hear David Miliband recognise the invaluable contribution small organisations make to their communities, but also the need for local government to engage with them in order to strengthen the voluntary sector at a local level.