Five thoughts on the voluntary sector delivering public services

james-reesJames Rees is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership (CVSL), Open University. CVSL provides access to free courses on the voluntary sector and leadership and is carrying out research on leadership including an innovative Leaders Panel. He was previously a member of the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham.


Our edited book The third sector delivering public services: Developments, innovations and challenges was published last week by Policy Press. In this blog post I draw out some of the key implications for people involved in the sector.

1. Service delivery is about so much more than replacing the state

David Cameron’s Big Society initiative was high profile but it did have the unfortunate effect of lodging an impression in many people’s mind that the third sector’s role in public services was both an ephemeral and short-term phenomenon.

More problematically it was often conflated with ‘cuts’ and a shift of responsibility as the state withdrew from provision. But as Pete Alcock makes clear in his chapter, there is a long and rich history to the sector’s involvement, often pre-dating the welfare state and indeed innovating and agitating for change.

Delivering public services under contract has many complexities, but the third sector should celebrate its hugely diverse involvement, as well as recognise and reflect on the risks and threats it brings with it, in the context of decades of involvement.

2. The role has deepened in complexity and scope since the 1990s

A key aim of this book was to bring the story up to date since an earlier generation of texts in the 1990s; no recent book details the breath-taking changes in the service delivery landscape since 1997.

‘New Labour’ gave sustained policy attention to involving the third sector in a spirit of partnership: creating the Compact, investing in leadership and capacity building, and commissioning sector organisations in employment, health and regeneration programmes.

The Coalition continued the rhetoric in the flagship Work Programme and Transforming Rehabilitation (see chapters nine and 12), but the reality of delivery was more nuanced, as we show.

Understandably there is a lot to learn from this period, and many of the chapters reflect on key developments, such as: increased demands for monitoring and new, more sophisticated impact measurement; payment-by-results and prime-subcontracting; and the ‘spinning out’ of services. But as Rob Macmillan shows in a chapter on probation, there is still a long way to go in understanding the unsettling effect of market-based reforms.

3. It has been very hard to ‘prove’ the worth and value of the third sector’s contribution

Recent years have seen the growth of attempts to measure the impact and value of the third sector. Despite a wide range of different approaches, all have perhaps struggled to convince.

In the new environment, ‘hard’ evidence will continue to matter, but even within this ‘commercial’ terrain there is a need for the sector to articulate and fight for alternative narratives of progress and the achievement of good outcomes.

4. The third sector’s role has been controversial – but it’s not all doom and gloom

In many ways the traditional concerns about contracting have remained salient: mission drift, threats to independence and the stifling of voice. Many of the authors recognise and reflect on these issues, for instance Angela Ellis-Paine and Matt Hill add a detailed account to the under-researched impact on volunteers in service delivery organisations.

Many organisations in our research demonstrate time and again their mature recognition of the tensions that service delivery creates, they deal with them in order to bring about positive change for their service users or communities. We offer a nuanced account that digs below some of the hyperbole encountered on both sides of the debate.

We also recognise that, even under austerity and with mainstream services under pressure, there is some hope for new innovative partnership approaches at the local level, and new initiatives around, for instance mental health and wellbeing and homelessness. Third sector organisations should channel learning from earlier programmes and projects into the new generation of approaches, whatever exact form they may take.

5. The future is more uncertain than ever

The book covers, in some depth, developments between 1997 and the 2015 election, and we were able to reflect on the likely implications of a majority Conservative government. But a year is an aeon in politics – we now find ourselves in a post-Brexit landscape, with a new and as yet untested PM Theresa May.

What seems certain (besides widespread uncertainty) is that the third sector’s status in policy has been further downgraded. Funding (particularly European) is under question, the direction of specific policies is unknown, and the demand for third sector services seems set to increase. It’s a good time to take stock of the last two decades.


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