Increase in role of VCS in public service delivery

The operating environment for VCOs delivering public services continues to be broadly favourable.  Many government policies seek to expand VCS involvement in the delivery of public services and there is growing recognition of the role VCOs have in transforming public services.  As VCOs take on public services, there is an increasing blurring of boundaries between the sectors, and in some cases hybrid organisations have developed.  Future public services that the sector may become more involved in include probation services, employment services, extended schools and childcare.

What are the implications?

Moving Forward

An increased role in public service delivery offers many opportunities for the VCS but also comes with risks such as: mission drift; loss of public trust; loss of independence; and becoming more like the public sector organisations that traditionally delivered a service.

  • Is public service delivery the best option for your organisation?  Are funder imposed outputs and outcomes compatible with your mission and constitution?
  • What measures do you need to take to ensure accountability and easy access to information by the public?
  • Will a service delivery contract account for a disproportionate amount of your income?  What steps can you take to ensure a sustainable mix of funding?
  • Do your staff have all the necessary skills to take on public service delivery such as managing contracts?  Is training available to fill skills gaps?

The VCS has a good reputation for innovation and creative thinking.  It is important that public services are not simply transferred to VCOs, but that they are able to use their innovative skills and relationships with communities, to transform services.

  • How can you identify need amongst communities to design and influence public services?
  • Can you use partnership arrangements at a local level to communicate needs and influence public services?  Which VCOs sit on the Local Strategic Partnership (LSP) and can they communicate your message?
  • How can you ensure that your organisation's ability to innovate continues to flourish if it becomes a public service provider?

Want to know more?

Partnership in public services: an action plan for the third sector

Published by: HM Government, Office of the Third Sector

Date: 2006

Format: PDF

What is it? A Cabinet Office action plan for third sector involvement in public services. It sets out the steps that government has already taken to support the sector in the public services arena, and the steps that will be taken in the future.

How useful is this? This document provides an overview of the policy environment for third sector involvement in public services. The plan outlines future government proposals to improve partnership, in both commissioning and procurement and, support innovation from the third sector to help design and campaign for improved and more accountable public services. The plan also details measures to improve the capacity of the sector to deliver public services in the future.

Other comments: For a short summary of the key recommendations of the action plan for VCOs, see NCVO’s briefing.

The voluntary sector delivering public services: Transfer or transformation?

Published by: The Joseph Rowntree Foundation – a social policy research and development charity

Date: 2005

Format: PDF

What is it? The two papers in this study review both the political impact and the practical effect of the proposed expansion in the role of the voluntary and community sectors in delivering public services.

How useful is this? The first paper – ‘The voluntary sector and the state’ highlights the VCS’ role in providing public services and its contribution to civil renewal, examining how these agendas interact and what the future might hold for the sector. It also contains an overview of recent policy and trends impacting on the sector in this area. The second paper – ‘Beyond transfer to transformation’ examines how best to manage the transfer from state to VCS to deliver effective and sustainable change. Drawing on several case studies, it shows how different organisations have transformed a particular service.

Other comments:

Transforming public services

Published by: NCVO

Date: 2006

Format: PDF

What is it? This 15 page document sets out the VCS policy response to the government drive of increased VCS public service delivery.

How useful is this? Although a policy position, this briefing gives a good summary of the VCS policy perspective on its recent increased role in public service delivery. It also discusses some of the risks and opportunities associated with this role for VCOs and how they can think strategically to ensure that any future public service delivery is appropriate to their organisation.

Other comments:

Last updated at 16:01 Wed 06/Feb/08.

Recent discussion

How will this affect your organisation? Have you considered it during your strategic planning? Can you share any interesting relevant links?Join the discussion!

Author Comment

There are major impacts for infrastructure organisations like ourselves not only in terms of providing services but in supporting other local organisations to ‘up the ante’ and, where appropriate, become more commissionable. Training in impact and outcome assessment being a key priority.

My concern is for those groups delivering quality services at a local or neighbourhood level who lack the capacity to engage at commissioning level. Partnership arrangements need to be developed to enable smaller, local groups to be funded to work on local priorities and feed back through appropriate frameworks without being overly bogged down with administration. It is my firm belief that a small grants programme should form an integral and meaningful part of partnership arrangements.

I agree Saskia, smaller groups need to be assisted to engage with commissioning.

I also think it is important that in taking government money, VCOs are still allowed a degree of operational autonomy as the high quality services they deliver are often a result of their public service ethos.

In designing an ‘action plan’ for the 3rd sector it is important for the government to recognise that part of the attraction that voluntary organisations hold is due to their very nature of being ‘voluntary’ and that bureaucracy and regulations might make it impossible for voluntary organisations to continue delivering a high quality service once funded by local commissioning.

Karl's picture


Third Sector Foresight

This driver raises some fundamental questions about the future of the sector in the mixed economy of welfare, to use the academic language. The arguments are well-rehearsed: should VCOs deliver more statutorily funded services (but in essence only really provide a sticking plaster) on the basis that it helps them to deliver their mission, or should they focus on campaigning to head off the root problems of social ills?
Presenting the future of the sector in such a binary format is of course splendid for debate but of little use for strategy. I don’t have time to properly research my arguments either, although my colleague Ann Blackmore has written eloquently on the issue of service delivery and independence a number of times. But for now, I’ll ask you to cross the pond and read an article forwarded to me by Professor Mark Rosenman of the Union Institute (who, incidentally, is well worth googling to read his numerous insightful articles). This op-ed piece from the New York Times compares the philanthropic efforts of givers with the expenditure of the federal government and is well worth a read. Its short and well researched.
The article raises a number of issues that are not just about the future of public service delivery, but about the future of our sector and our common purpose of a civil, indeed a civilised, society. Is it right that individual philanthropy trumps democratically accountable collective welfare? Should the latter subsidise the former? And will philanthropy ultimately resource the sorts of services that are needed by those most excluded from society? In asking such questions it implies some potentially difficult truths about the role and limits of philanthropy and perhaps voluntary action. It might suggest these are two quite different things, though I wonder if we conflate them and, worryingly, don’t question them.
But back to public services. If service delivery is fundamentally bound up in the future of our sector then strategies to deliver services to the most difficult to reach surely cant depend upon philanthropy seems to be the gist of the NYT article. That worries me: the US is frequently held as a model of where we might head; it is also widely acknowledged as a country with a strong not for profit sector. Both Labour and the Tories are speaking at NCVO’s annual conference in February…and I will be listening closely to see what they have to say about the role of philanthropy, and indeed if they make a connection with the role of the sector as a deliverer of public (though not publicly funded?) services.

Karl's picture


Third Sector Foresight

There have been a couple of replies to the NYT article here.

They both seem to be critical of the original article, standing up for the role of philanthropy, and in one case berating the performance of government. But I thought the original article was a bit more nuanced than that. Anyone got a view?

In light of the fact that the Government is commissioning ever more service delivery from organisations in the voluntary and community sector, the Public Administration Committee recently published a report on Public Services and the Third Sector: Rhetoric and Reality. The approach taken is slightly different, since it looks not just at the effect on Government and the sector but also at the effect on service users and the public at large.
The report makes a number of recommendations in order to get the best out of commissioning. Perhaps the most significant argument (certainly the one that made most impact in the press) is that users’ rights should not be affected by the identity of the service provider. It follows that the scope of the Human Rights Act needs to be extended so that non-public sector organisations can be considered public authorities when they are discharging functions on behalf of the State.
A similar issue is addressed with regard to information rights: again, the report calls for bodies outside the public sector to be considered public authorities under the Freedom of Information Act when delivering public services.
The Government’s Response to the Committee’s Report agrees ‘the exercise of public functions should be covered by the HRA, regardless of who is performing the function’. But it also says that charities should be subject to the act only when they are providing public services. It is proposing to consult on extending the Human Rights Act to voluntary organisations delivering public services

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