Sir Stephen Bubb is Chief Executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO).
The government’s Open Public Services White Paper, published last year, sets out some laudable aspirations for the future of public service delivery.
Rightly observing that a new approach to delivering public services is urgently needed, it calls for the breaking down of barriers, “whether regulatory or financial, so that a diverse range of providers can deliver the public services people want, ensuring a truly level playing field between the public, private and voluntary sectors”.
For those who appreciate the capacity of the voluntary sector to provide responsive, innovative services driven by the needs and concerns of local communities, these are encouraging sentiments. However, as the White Paper acknowledges, there remains a range of significant barriers that prevent voluntary organisations from playing a fuller role in service delivery. The government now needs to match its rhetoric with action ?and address these barriers.
First, the government must remove the structural obstacles preventing the creation of a level playing field for civil society providers. VAT regulations, for example, currently represent a powerful countervailing force to the government’s hopes of reform. Even though the cost to the taxpayer is ultimately the same, the regulations make in-house public sector bids to operate services appear cheaper than those from voluntary organisations. At the same time, the burden of the transfer of undertakings (TUPE) requirements, especially around pensions, deters many voluntary organisations from bidding to run services in the first place.
These barriers reduce the competitiveness and diversity of public service provision and inhibit the government’s progress towards its aim of opening up public services. But it’s not only the regulatory environment that needs to be addressed. The quality of public service commissioning, for example, is often poor and must improve. Commissioners must get better at listening to service users, engaging with providers, and promoting innovation and early intervention through their spending decisions.
Furthermore, the government must recognise that a competitive delivery environment requires a healthy provider marketplace. The disproportionate funding reductions inflicted upon civil society by local authorities are putting many voluntary organisations, which provide vital services, at risk. The government must ensure that councils do not treat the voluntary sector as an easy target for excessive cuts in the 2012-13 Budget.
Decisive action on these issues would revitalise public service reform and demonstrate that the government is ready to follow through on its promises. Without these steps, effective reform will be impossible and the consequences of failure will be felt by thousands of vulnerable service users across the country. There is no time to lose.