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James Rees

Inlogov and TSRC recently held a stimulating and well attended seminar involving guests from University of Illinois at Chicago. It was a great opportunity to share knowledge on the role of third sector organisations in public services, and to compare the ways in which there are similarities facing TSOs in both the US and UK.

But as so often it begged many questions as well and I want to reflect a bit on both the state of what we know and what we ought to know about the third sector’s role in delivering public services (in the UK!).

When I talk to people about the research that I do, the usual response is “what on earth is the third sector?” followed by “do they really deliver public services?” I’ll come back to the first question but the second is certainly very interesting.

There is a very long history to the involvement of what we now call the third sector in meeting welfare needs and providing services. Many are aware of early charitable and philanthropic action in the 19th century (Barnardo’s, RNIB and RSPCA for example); there was an explosion of mutual, co-operative and associations in the early industrial period; and before the dawn of the welfare state many health services were provided in voluntary hospitals that worked in partnership with local government.

Pete Alcock pointed out how these forms of the third sector had waxed and waned in response to political and economic change, leading right up to the 1980s Conservative interest in the third sector as alternative providers, the influence of New Public Management, and New Labour’s commitment to ‘partnership’ with the sector, written into a Compact.

In my discussion I suggested that it was useful to look at different levels or ‘strata’ of the third sector in relation to service delivery.

There are the big national charities (for example Barnardo’s, NSPCC, RNIB and the Salvation Army). It’s probably fair to say that the public perceive that these organisations rely on donations and fundraising, but they also hold very significant contracts to deliver services. For example Barnardo’s and Family Action run ‘Sure Start’ Childrens Centres. Action for Blind People, part of the RNIB Group, deliver a number of publically funded services to people with sight loss including schools, supported housing, and tailored health services within the NHS. This of course is only a tiny snapshot of what is by far the most visible part of the sector.

All of the mentioned organisations, and many more of varying sizes, large, medium and tiny, are involved in the Government’s controversial Work Programme, which aims to help benefit recipients into sustained employment. Our recent research drew attention to the difficulties charities were facing in terms of the strictures of the payments system, the lack of resources, and the prevalence of perverse ‘creaming and parking’ behaviour.

The work programme experience shows how public service delivery can be controversial and risky for charities, both financially and reputationally. But the costs are balanced by the opportunities contracts provide for charities to lobby government (where involvement can equal ‘insider status’ and credibility); and many charities argue it is consistent with their mission to bring their expertise to bear to improve services for their own client groups.

In my view there is a ‘missing middle’ as far the third sector and its role in public services is concerned. Missing only in the sense that we know less about it and there is a huge variety of experience so it is difficult to make generalisations about what is happening at this level.

Many organisations are much smaller than the ones mentioned above and tend to operate at the level of a region like the north-west, across a small number of local authorities, or even within a neighbourhood. They might have contracts with a local authority or a PCT (soon to be a CCG), and this part of the sector delivers a bewildering range of services.

We have been studying just these sorts of organisations as part of current research into public sector commissioning of the third sector. I have been struck firstly by the immense variety exhibited by organisations at this level, in terms of the types of services that they provide, their size and scope of operation, and seeming difference in their ethos, culture and degree of professionalism.

Secondly I have been struck by how vulnerable some seem to apparent threats in the current environment, most obviously loss of existing contracts and grants as a result of (mainly local authority) cuts, but also the possibility of competition from other TSOs and private sector organisations, and a wider sense of uncertainty, verging on fear.

Perhaps in some sense this is par for the course for the sector, and no organisation has a special right to exist. But I do wonder if we fully understand and value what might be lost if we start to lose these organisations in any great number, as they undoubtedly play an important role for many communities and individuals.

Finally, TSRC has done a great deal of research on organisations ‘below the radar’. Arguably again little is really known about how grassroots groups might interact with public services, enhance them, or what impact austerity might have on this vast ‘ecosystem’ of organisations. Much the same can be said about the important role of volunteers in public services. At the same time there is growing interest in how small community groups can be part of the co-production of public services.

Back to that first question: what on earth is the third sector? As soon as we start talking about different levels of the third sector, the huge diversity it contains, and the porous boundaries between in this case the grassroots and community sector, it begs the question of why we use the label ‘the third sector’. Are we dealing with a sector at all?

In an esoteric but influential paper in 1997, Perri 6 and Diana Leat argued forcefully that the sector had been ‘invented by committee’, in other words it was a social construction that suited the interests of some key political interests and society might have been better off without this invented sector and an obsession with the ‘politics of organizational form’. Pete Alcock takes a softer line, suggesting that the sector is held together in a ‘strategic unity’ in which tensions and disparities are sometimes played down in order strengthen the sector’s hand in negotiations with the state. These might seem like questions designed to keep academics in jobs, but it is interesting that people in the sector seem to keep asking similar ones as well: what makes our sector distinctive? What are our unique values and ways of working?

The seminar was interesting because even in the short amount of time we had available participants began to pose some really hard questions for academic research. I hope we can return to many of these:

  • What is the ‘right’ role for the state in providing public services?
  • Is the third sector just a foil for ongoing privatisation of the public sector and wider public realm?
  • Is the third sector doomed to be under-resourced, vulnerable and ‘under-professionalised’? Or can innovations like social finance and social impact bonds make a revolutionary difference?

rees-james

James Rees is a Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham. His recent research concentrates on transformations in UK public services including the role of the third sector, but his longer term interests have been in the governance of urban and regional governance, with a particular focus on the politics of city-regionalism; critical perspectives on urban housing market restructuring and housing policy; and more broadly on issues in urban regeneration, neighbourhoods and community. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesrees_tsrc.

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