Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The NCVOs on the Third Sector, public services and the efficiency agenda

Yesterday I went to an excellent conference run by Bristol University’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation on The Role of the Third Sector in Delivering Public Policies. As third sector organisations such as charities, mutuals and social enterprises are being considered as vehicles for both delivering public services and (to some extent) delivering public policies, the conference was timely.

The keynote speaker was Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. (I should declare an interest – Deed Consulting is a corporate affiliate of NCVO.) He outlined the main issues facing the Third Sector in its relations to ‘the state’ clearly and thoroughly – all without the use of Powerpoint.

Stuart Etherington raised concerns about key elements of the government’s agenda. On the subject of the ‘efficiency agenda’, he was concerned that interpretation by the public sector was often a narrow one concentrating on cost cutting with implications for project prices and, hence, the Third Sector. He also suspected that this agenda was driving a scaling up in procurement exercises like the recent letting of large regional contracts by the Department for Work and Pensions.

There was also an intelligent analysis of choice, ‘personalisation’ and localism for the Third Sector.

On the issue of potential conflicts of interest between designing policy as campaigners and delivering policy as contractors, Stuart Etherington suggested that there may be a split between Third Sector organisations concentrating on advocacy and campaigning and those focusing on delivery. There will need to be a response from the Third Sector to critics and cynics on these concerns when they are aired.

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