Public Services

The voluntary sector and public services—from delivery to demand?

By Guest contributor 23 July 2014

Dr Henry Kippin is director of Collaborate CIC. He has a background in developing innovative public service policy and practice, and has written and consulted widely in UK and international public policy. He is a visiting fellow of the UN Global Centre for Public Service Excellence, and at Queen Mary, University of London.
Follow him on Twitter @h_kippin.


What should be the future role of the voluntary sector in public services? Fiona Sheil’s provocative paper sets out some strident views, which may make uncomfortable reading for those on both sides of the commissioner and provider relationship. But it is right that these views are exposed, whether we agree with them or not.

I’m an academic so it might not surprise you to learn that my view is…we should reject the premise of the question.

Why? Because talking about public services limits us to a discussion about the current institutions, funding flows and contractual relationships—which is too narrow and implies that the role of the voluntary sector is to fit within these. The analysis is also an ill fit with a context that has seen sector boundaries blur in response to shifting social and economic trends.

We should be talking instead about services to the public, not public services. We should be talking about how the sectors can come together to create bespoke interventions that support livelihoods—and how government at different levels can create the conditions for this to happen. Collaborate’s report with Ipsos MORI shows that around 75% of the public see government as having a significant role to play in supporting them to sustain a good career, find a decent place to live, and manage living standards. In these areas where government is one actor in a complex market, we need to think beyond services and refocus on managing the root causes of demand by building new cross sector collaborations.

The role of the voluntary sector in this context is not just to provide services, but to build the relationships and the platforms that enable us to meet local needs and build social capacity in different ways. Who will generate the insight into citizens lives that could really improve commissioning? Who can work with complex needs and broker relationships with the wider world? These are roles that the voluntary sector already plays well, but we need to equip them to do it better. Indications are that current agendas such as payment by results and subcontracting can do the opposite. Collaborate’s research with the Institute for Government found that a huge majority of (mostly voluntary sector) providers of services for complex needs feel that existential worries (finance, risk) are crowding out front-line relationship building.

The voluntary sector must shift from the relative margins of delivery to the engine room of management and accountability. Going beyond delivery means judging services by the extent to which they inspire the public to meet their own collective needs. Our data indicates that our current delivery structures are pretty poor at this. Only 14% of people we surveyed earlier this year said they have an influence on the services they receive. Yet voluntary sector organisations generally feel very confident in their ability to get close to the concerns of individuals and communities. Any shift in the role of the voluntary sector must actively engage with this and ask how we can shift the point of reference from service delivery to understanding citizens and managing demand.

The role of the voluntary sector will continue to evolve in line with the ongoing changes we are seeing. We are hearing ever louder calls—not least from Francis Maude—for a new type of public servant: more outward looking, collaborative, adaptive. Yet shifting culture and practice is a long-term task. The business world is increasingly realising that social and financial goals could be mutually reinforcing—that the bottom line will inevitably depend on the socio-economic viability of communities. Yet evidence suggests this view at the vanguard is still far from mainstream.

The voluntary sector is being asked to become more entrepreneurial, partnership-savvy and impact-aware. This is both good and necessary, as NPC would attest. Yet if these characteristics are solely displayed to win and deliver public contracts, we will have missed a trick. ‘Services to the public’ are about a much broader vision than that, and the voluntary sector must play a fundamental role in shaping this.

What do you think about the future role of the charity sector in improving public services? We welcome all responses so please get in touch via or tweet @NPCthinks using the hashtag #NPCprovokes.