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Community groups have been identified by the UK-government as key providers of
public services. Their intended central role became clear in September 2002 with
the announcement of the results of a crosscutting review of relations between
government and the voluntary sector. This made 42 recommendations to overcome
barriers preventing voluntary and community groups from delivering more public
Just days later, a potentially even more important report was published Private
Action, Public Benefit, by the Strategy Unit (formerly the Performance and
Innovation Unit) within the Cabinet Office. The overall thrust of its findings
is to assist charities and social enterprises deliver services without
compromising their charitable objectives, relieving them of the need to set up
trading subsidiaries. Increasingly, the definition, which separates charities
and community groups on the one hand from social enterprises - businesses, which
seek to achieve social objectives through trade - is blurring.
Some commentators say this policy development represents the implementation of
Tony Blair's famed commitment to the third way. "It's finally as if New Labour
rhetoric has got a meaning to it," says Peter Hunt, general secretary of the
Labour-linked Co-operative Party, which promotes co-operatives and other types
of social enterprises.
Hunt believes the Strategy Unit report could be a massive boost to community
groups wanting to deliver public services. Some councils have handed over
capital assets to community groups and social enterprises, to enable them to run
services on behalf of the councils. But most statutory bodies have been
reluctant to do this in case the groups demutualise -in the style of the former
building societies - and use the gifted assets to pay off members. The Strategy
Unit report recommends an extension of protection of mutual organisations, which
would prevent this and could lead, to a big increase in asset transfers.
Already community groups across the country are involved in running many social
services for local authorities. Hunt believes that as well as seeing an
acceleration in this contracting-out and handing-over - with more elderly
people's homes being transferred to social enterprises, for example - there
could also be more pre-school childcare and regeneration projects led by the
voluntary sector, while housing associations might be converted into
tenant-controlled bodies. He believes that community control of primary health
care trusts could lead to democratic management of GP's practices, which could
see patients, decide which hours surgeries are open.
In particular, Hunt hopes that many community centres and other public buildings
will be handed over to locally controlled mutuals to run. This, in turn, might
see previously separated local and central government services run from the same
premises. The local job centre, post office and library, for instance, could all
be based in the same community building, which might happen to be the
community-owned football club.
The charity Age Concern is just as enthusiastic about the government's latest
moves. It already has a subsidiary company which sells insurance policies to the
over-50s, while many of its local groups run social services on contract for
local authorities, involving meals on wheels and elderly people's homes.
Age Concern is also involved in PRIME - the Prince's Initiative on Mature
Employment - which delivers training and work services for the over-50s,
including through the New Deal. With the encouragement of the latest government
reports, PRIME is likely to move into more ambitious work and training schemes,
such as intermediate labour market projects which could help unemployed people
between 50 and 65 gain skills and work experience.
The key groups representing the voluntary sector similarly welcome the
government's moves, particularly the National Council of Voluntary Organisations
and the Community Development Foundation. But some activists in the sector have
Dr Jill Mordaunt, lecturer in voluntary sector management and social enterprise
at the Open University, says, "I think this is a complete co-option of the
voluntary sector. One of the roles of the voluntary sector is not to deliver
services for the government, but to challenge the government." She adds that
there is already experience to show that contracting out services to voluntary
groups can be driven by cost cutting, with volunteers replacing paid workers.
Neil Churchill, communications director of Age Concern England, dismisses this
view. "We would hope to add value where we run a service," he says. Bringing in
volunteers to provide additional services - such as mentoring of the unemployed
may represent that added value. A group representing service users may also be
able to provide a more responsive service, or a more innovative one. "There is
always a point at which voluntary organisations have to consider why they are
taking on a service," argues Churchill. "Typically, they only want to do so if
they are adding value." He adds that money donated by the public would not be
risked in any of its social enterprises.
It is highly likely that the involvement of the voluntary sector will focus more
on taking over services from local authorities - and possibly from the National
Health Service (NHS) - than from Whitehall. It is implausible to see a social
enterprise taking over part of the Ministry of Defence, though the Co-operative
Party's Peter Hunt speculates that the Crown Estate might be a possibility.
But at local government level - where the government remains frustrated at the
sometimes-slow pace of reform and improvement - there is likely to be a major
expansion in the number and range of services provided by voluntary groups and
social enterprises. This could range from the small scale - Surrey County
Council handed over its village halls years ago to local community groups to own
and manage - to the large, such as networks of leisure centres.
Greenwich Leisure is a multi-stakeholder social enterprise - its board contains
representatives of the local authorities, service users, the workforce and the
executive directors - which runs sports halls in six local authorities. In doing
so it has cut costs, raised standards and expanded service provision.
David Evans, project officer responsible for community and voluntary sector
development at the Local Government Association, says councils have come to
realise that some services are simply better run by the community themselves.
"There is a strong argument that the voluntary and community sector is better
positioned to meet the needs of minority groups," he says.
The question is whether that sector is able to move beyond the niche markets of
social services, such as those for the elderly, ethnic minorities and gays and
lesbians. Evans thinks they can, from historical societies taking over small
museums, to larger environmental groups perhaps running waste management
contracts. He predicts the development may come as much by voluntary groups
bidding against the private sector for existing contacts, as from local
authorities seeking to transfer services.
This, in turn, implies a cultural challenge for councils, suggests Evans. Can
local authorities, which are used to an often-hostile relationship with service
providers, based on the old compulsory competitive tendering, move to a genuine
partnership with organisations with which they share social objectives?
"This is a serious procurement issue for local authorities," says Evans. "It
depends on the capacity of a local authority to develop relationships with the
community and voluntary sector. Local authorities will need to move away from
specific contracts, towards arrangements, which are much more flexible and
partnership based. I think a lot of local authorities have yet to get their
minds around this."
Contact the editor of Public Service Magazine or Paul Gosling at:
Web site: www.fda.org.uk