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Published 19 August 2011

The phrase, “release the grip of state control and put power in people’s

hands” might make you think you were listening to fighting talk from a civil rights group. You would be wrong. It was, in fact, a statement made by the Conservative leader, David Cameron.


The Prime Minister uttered these words during the launch of the Open Public Services White Paper on 11 July 2011. During the same speech, he also claimed the impact of the changes "will be felt in every state school, hospital, prison, by every doctor, teacher, patient and citizen."

Based on five principles (choice; decentralisation; diversity; fairness; accountability) the paper contains measures that will fundamentally alter the way public services are delivered. Focusing on individual services, neighbourhood services and commissioned services, it aims to give people more freedom, more choice and more local control. So, for example, if someone isn't happy with their doctor, they can choose to use a different surgery.

Crucially for the voluntary sector, the White Paper also opens up the delivery of almost all public services (with the exception of the military and justice system) to anyone who wants to bid for them, from small community groups to big global corporations and everything else in between.

The laws of probability predict the more chances someone is given to win the more often they do win. So at first glance, it would appear the ability to bid for lots of services is a good thing for the voluntary sector. However, while smaller neighbourhood projects might be in reach, it doesn't look like the tender process for major contracts is going to get much easier.

Many charities will still be unable to afford to bid for large pieces of work. Private companies have been known to spend millions on bidding for contracts they do not win - which charity is in a position to do that, even if they wanted to? And as services are switched over to the intended system of Payment by Results, it will become even harder for voluntary organizations to get involved as few will be able to shoulder the risk of multi-million pound contracts for which they might never get paid. Consortia may negate this to a degree, but even they have had limited bidding success so far.

There is little mention within the paper of how these funding challenges may be met. As always the Big Society Bank (or Big Society Capital as it's now known) is mentioned but it is widely accepted this will not be a panacea to all of the sector's funding woes.

Nor does the paper emphasise the additional benefit charities can offer: that of social value. If commissioning decisions are ever to be informed by the full range of benefits a service can add, commissioners and ministers alike need to take social value seriously and they need to understand it. Much education is required before this will become a reality.

You only have to look at the Department for Work and Pensions to see how government rhetoric does not match with reality: despite loud assurances from ministers that our sector would be in with a chance of winning primary Work Programme contracts, only two charities were successful. The remaining 38 contracts went to just 16 private companies, leaving charities to sweep up the leftovers as sub-contractors.

There is still a lot of work to be done by the government to level this playing field. Unless more action is taken soon, the voluntary sector could be forgiven for thinking ministers are simply paying lip service to the idea of charities' increased involvement in public service delivery.

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