Magazine article Public Finance

Getting to the Root of the Problem

Magazine article Public Finance

Getting to the Root of the Problem

Article excerpt

The question is, do we really need more evidence about the performance of the third sector ('Cut to the chase', July 25-31)?

Well, yes, we do. I don't think Stephen Bubb, head of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, was quite right to dismiss questions (in the report of the public administration select committee) about the ability of the third sector. On the contrary, much better evidence is needed about what the various types of third sector body are best at, if they are to be helped in practical ways.

I hope they don't get me wrong. Like countless other people, I have benefited from the work of the third sector, and respect and admire those who work in it. Many third sector bodies, big and small, know more about their chosen subjects than anybody else. Most of the rest of us entirely agree that they should be helped to do even more.

Unfortunately, the most enthusiastic exponents of the Compact between the government and the voluntary and community sector speak as if third sector bodies should be given contracts just because this is what they are.

This is not going to happen. Propriety, standing orders, and very often the law, preclude it entirely. Third sector bodies will instead be given whichever contracts they win.

I appreciate that they complain that they would win even more if only public bodies gave them a level playing field - a bad way of putting a good point. The unlevel playing field was a term of abuse during Compulsory Competitive Tendering. The precise charge, in those days, was deliberate obstruction.

Of course tenderers must have level playing fields, and I think most are already. I am not saying that they aren't often hindered by obscure and aggravating points of specification and contract conditions. But these irritants are par for the course, even for the private sector. They often derive from professional advice about how to deal with long-past risks, real or imaginary. They all need fixing, so it is right to complain about them, preferably to the clients in question and not to the world at large.

Far and away the best way to help small third sector bodies to win is to give them smaller contract packages. Needless to say, large third sector bodies (and large contractors) would then complain that their playing fields had just tilted sharply uphill. …

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