The third sector’s big tent
Regeneration & Renewal
With differing degrees of enthusiasm, the many elements of the voluntary and community sector have been corralled into a dedicated government office. Jamie Carpenter reports on a big tent that's bursting at the seams.
Last month's cabinet reshuffle was described by sections of the press as a "bloodbath". The highlights of the comprehensive rejig, which followed a series of scandals and dismal results for Labour in May's local elections, saw home secretary Charles Clarke sacked and deputy prime minister John Prescott stripped of his department.
But one change that got less media coverage was the creation of an Office of the Third Sector within the Cabinet Office. Responsibility for the voluntary and community sector (VCS) has passed from the Home Office to the new office, which has also taken charge of social enterprise from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). At present, its final set-up is in a state of flux while the machinery of government creaks into action, but it is thought that the Home Office's Active Communities Directorate and the Social Enterprise Unit, part of the DTI's Small Business Service, are also likely to move to the Cabinet Office.
Despite this uncertainty, the office is taking shape. It is being led by rising Labour star Ed Miliband, who was appointed as third sector minister in the reshuffle. The younger brother of David Miliband, who was promoted to environment secretary in the reshuffle, Ed Miliband will report to Hilary Armstrong, the newly appointed cabinet-level minister for social exclusion. In a letter sent to Armstrong last month by Tony Blair, the Prime Minister says the office should "work in partnership with the sector to make progress in the key areas of public service delivery, philanthropy, volunteering, building strong communities and social enterprise" (R&R, 26 May, p2).
Furthermore, it is already clear that, by creating the office in the Cabinet Office, the third sector has been placed at the centre of government.
One of the new office's key roles will be to ensure that the sector's needs and interests are core to all departmental decisions. Speaking to Regeneration & Renewal, Miliband says: "I think that the advantage of the new Office of the Third Sector is that, whether you are a social enterprise or you are a small community group, you are going to have a voice at the heart of government."
But ensuring that the office represents every portion of the third sector will be a far from straightforward task: the sector is a broad church, encompassing a wide range of organisations from business-like social enterprises and national charities with multi-million pound turnovers to small, grant-dependent community groups. Bodies within the sector also have a wide range of roles, from delivering public services to campaigning and advocacy.
Social enterprises, in particular, have been keen to stress to Miliband that, although their goals are the same as those of the VCS, they are most definitely businesses. "The one risk with amalgamating (social enterprise with the VCS) is that the enterprise agenda and the needs of social enterprises get a bit sunk," says Iain Tuckett, director of London social enterprise Coin Street Community Builders. Jonathan Bland, chief executive of the Social Enterprise Coalition, met Miliband in the week after the new minister's appointment and says he made that message clear. "It is all about business," he says.
Miliband has already gone some way towards addressing these concerns.
He has arranged a meeting with Margaret Hodge, the minister for industry and the regions, and the regional development agency (RDA) chairs to discuss the role they can play in providing greater support for the social enterprise sector. Miliband told Regeneration & Renewal that he would work with the DTI and the RDAs to make sure they do not lose focus on the sector. "I see (social enterprise) as a business ... and I am very conscious of that," he says.
Meanwhile, the shift of responsibilities from the Home Office to the Cabinet Office has been welcomed by the VCS. "There was always a feeling that the Home Office's key concerns were around the criminal justice system and immigration," says Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations. "Now we are not at the bottom of the pile, we are at the centre of government."
Bubb believes that Tony Blair's motivation for the change is two-fold: a wish to see more third sector organisations delivering front-line services as part of his public service reform agenda and a desire to boost the role the sector plays in empowering communities. Blair's letter to Armstrong certainly suggests that public service reform is a key reason for the move: it calls for the new office to have achieved a "step change" in the provision of public services by third sector organisations within a year.
But representatives of small, local VCS groups are seeking guarantees that they will not be frozen out by the Government's public service delivery drive. "We want clear evidence that the Government doesn't just want organisations to trade by contracting with government," says Kevin Curley, chief executive of the National Association of Councils for Voluntary Service. "We want to be assured that they believe that it's equally important for neighbourhood groups to run community centres."
Although the creation of the Office of the Third Sector barely hit the headlines, having the Cabinet Office batting for the sector across Whitehall is an exciting development. Bubb says that this new big hitter could result in a "rocket boost" for the VCS. He adds: "I can't remember a time when conditions have been more favourable for the sector."
"Some of you may know that I have a brother who is also in politics," said a deadpan Ed Miliband recently to an audience of social entrepreneurs.
Aged just 36, Ed Miliband looks set to follow in his older sibling David's footsteps. Appointed as minister for the third sector last month, he was elected to Parliament as MP for Doncaster North only a year ago.
Miliband began his political career in 1993 when he became a speech writer and researcher for Harriet Harman, who was then shadow chief secretary to the Treasury. In May 1997, Miliband joined the Treasury as special adviser to chancellor Gordon Brown. Then, on sabbatical at Harvard University from July 2002 to February 2004, he lectured in politics and governance before returning to the Treasury as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
In his new role, Miliband's immediate priorities are to create action plans on social enterprise and public service delivery. It emerged last month that he has delayed publication of the plan to boost the growth of social enterprise so that he can put his own stamp on it (R&R, 26 May, p6). A letter sent by Tony Blair to Miliband's new boss, Hilary Armstrong, says that the Office of the Third Sector should publish in the early autumn a plan to achieve a step change in the provision of public services by third sector bodies.
Delivering on both plans may be a challenge. Richard Gutch, chief executive of Futurebuilders England, a government-backed investment fund set up to help third sector organisations deliver public services, says that public bodies' procurement strategies often discriminate against small organisations.
"They really need to improve the quality of commissioning," he says.
Another priority for Miliband will be to lead a joint Treasury-Cabinet Office review into the future role of the third sector in economic and social regeneration, which was announced in the Budget earlier this year. Blair's letter says that Miliband must "ensure that any recommendations are fully integrated into the 2007 comprehensive spending review process".
The new cabinet-level minister for social exclusion has been put in charge of spearheading a renewed drive to help the most excluded in society. In a letter sent by Tony Blair to Armstrong after her appointment, the Prime Minister instructs her to publish a plan in the autumn setting out how the Government will reach such groups.
Blair says that another focus should be on improving the methods used to identify the most at-risk people and target interventions at them more effectively. He also calls for Armstrong to prioritise work to reduce teenage pregnancy rates and support the work of the Home Office's Respect Unit "to help prevent the problem families of tomorrow".
Armstrong, who was government chief whip before being appointed to the Cabinet Office in the reshuffle, will already be a familiar face to many regeneration practitioners. After Labour's 1997 general election win, she was appointed minister for local government and housing at the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, and had special responsibility for neighbourhood renewal. A background in the voluntary sector - Armstrong has spent time overseas as a volunteer and was a community worker at a neighbourhood project in Sunderland - should help her get to grips with her department's third sector brief.
In her first speech in her new role, delivered last month in Sunderland, Armstrong said the Government needs to "concentrate much more on prevention rather than picking up the pieces of damaged lives. It's the right thing to do and if we don't do it we all end up paying the price."
Armstrong will need to work closely with Ruth Kelly at the Department for Communities and Local Government. Although Armstrong has taken responsibility for social exclusion from the DCLG, the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) remains in Kelly's department. However, Blair has asked Armstrong to take over responsibility for a ten-year review of the long-term trends and drivers of social exclusion, which the SEU has begun work on.
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