As we all know, setting up a committee is a clear signal of commitment and a classic way of showing you mean business. Well, at least that’s the theory.
So, the government has created some excitement by the establishment of the first ever Cabinet sub-committee on the Third Sector. We’ve had a Minister for a while – well several actually - we’re on our fourth (or is it fifth?) since the Office of the Third Sector was established three years ago. But now, we’ve got our own Cabinet sub-committee, with Ministers from eight Departments, including the Treasury, Health, Business, Innovation and Skills, Work and Pensions, Communities and Local Government. Their remit is to remove barriers that prevent third sector organisations winning contracts from public bodies, the NHS, local government and so on. Ministers will be supported by an advisory group of third sector representatives and officials from across government, and chaired by a senior DH official.
Now – as I said committees can create a high level focus on delivery and make sure that promises are delivered. They can also be a good way of kicking issues into the long grass and neutralising external commentators by bringing them into the process. But on this, I really do think Government means it – more public services will be delivered through the third sector in the future.
Part of the excitement is based on this very public commitment to the third sector. Some is also about being seen as being on ‘the inside track’. For those who work within the public services, it’s hard to realise just how much parts of the third sector have wanted to get through that enticing door and influence from the inside.
And it’s this that has got many people really het up. The third sector is used to the delicate arts of lobbying and cajoling, of persuading Minsters to make decisions and of getting back benchers to take up issues. But being the subject of a Cabinet Committee, particularly a committee that may influence the development of the sector, is both welcome and a cause for caution.
It will mean new skills are needed. For those who were once insiders, there’s been a sense that the sector has focused too much on Ministers and politicians and not enough on the process of government – and that this gives a real opportunity to influence in a more effective way. Cabinet Committees do, after all indicate priorities and press for action.
Others, though, are worried about the independence of the sector – will it be incorporated, co-opted and then marginalised? As one correspondent to Third Sector magazine put it ‘Why are people ignoring the obvious conflict of interest here?’ it is vital for charities to be on the side of their beneficiaries – not government. Others have said the focus of the committee is too narrow and the third sector should be worrying not about delivery but about being part of the commissioning process - assessing needs, helping to set priorities and evaluating services. It doesn’t necessarily need to deliver them.
Whatever happens, this Committee is a real sign that government, in England at least, is supporting third sector organisations who want to be part of mainstream service delivery. And those that don’t will still be able to maintain their distance and advocate for users of services – whoever delivers them. Some of us will no doubt continue to sup with the devil and try do both.