Charities ‘revolutionary’ to public service reform

Charities and voluntary organisations will play a “revolutionary” role in the future delivery of public services, social exclusion minister Hilary Armstrong has argued.

Addressing charity leaders at a conference last night, Ms Armstrong said the third sector was often better at delivering public services to marginalised members of society than public or private bodies, and would be a key part of her agenda for reform.

“Third sector organisations have a potentially revolutionary role to play in our renewed drive to tackle social exclusion,” she told the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo) in London.

“A reformed public service has to be one that is better than any previous one at delivering to the most excluded people in society. You have a unique ability to amplify the voices of the isolated and disempowered,” she insisted.

“We will not rest until everyone is equally empowered as users.”

The government has been quick to court charities and voluntary organisations with high-profile contracts traditionally provided by the state or private enterprises, particularly in the sphere of NHS and local authorities.

However, some charities have expressed concern that their contracts will be used to subsidise underfunded public services, while others fear closer relationships with the state may compromise their independence or ability to campaign.

Speaking after Ms Armstrong’s address, Conservative policy chief Oliver Letwin said the government must not blur the boundaries between the public and third sectors.

“Voluntary organisations bring great localism and human scale to public services. However, the state must be careful not to “destroy” the third sector through over-bureaucratisation,” he said.

Delivering an impassioned speech, in which she drew on her background as a social worker, Ms Armstrong said it was now commonplace for charities to compete with private and statutory organisations as equals in tackling social exclusion.

“It is the job of government to create a genuinely level playing field, so that the organisation best equipped to deliver the highest quality of services is ultimately selected,” she said.

The minister also hit back at claims of cost-cutting by charities keen to win the prestigious bids, saying the government was “committed” to allowing charities to reclaim their overheads, a principle known as full cost recovery.

However, she warned the third sector must step up its professionalism, saying: “You must rise to the challenge that faces every organisation in every sector – and that is to recruit a workforce that is more reflective of society as a whole.”