England & Wales Communities and society

Viewpoint: Exploring the third sector relationship with councils


The impact of austerity cuts on councils has also hit third sector partners, writes Noreen Khan, Director of Nessie.

The impact of budget cuts and austerity is hitting councils hard, however the ripple effects are shocking the third sector. The increasing emphasis on partnership working and collaboration in the third sector in the UK has become a paramount way of working. In addition to this the challenges of the need of spatial distribution of power to the north of England through devolution, Northern Power House discussions and inclusive growth are becoming ever more pressing. The impacts through evidence work will have an inference with third sector buy in and support think tanks with their reasoning.

The current government has been in many respects radical in the development of its approach to service delivery, with the introduction of ‘Big Society’ involving new and expanded roles for third sector organisations in public service delivery, expanded roles for mutuals and co-ops (particularly in health), the ‘community right to challenge’ and the public-sector staff ‘right to provide’ (through ‘spin-out’ organisations).

Third sector organisations of all shapes and sizes are experiencing rapid challenges and are facing changes in the context in which they are operating. For organisations involved in delivering public services, or with aspirations to do so, the current agenda around ‘open public services’, in a context of public spending constraints and cutbacks, signals the need to negotiate newly emerging rules, roles, and expectations. Although some of the language of ‘commissioning’ and ‘procurement’ remains a continuous thread from the previous government administrations, new understandings of the role of third sector in relation to the state and the private sector, coupled with the public finance austerity programme, suggests some uncharted waters for the third sector.

Partnership working has become an important theme of late driven particularly by policy change and ensuring the third sector are more coherent, efficient and aligned to the delivery of a range of public services. As the Director of Neesie, I see too often the ramifications of the limited support to third sector organisations. Councils being selective and focusing upon quick wins often results in compromising the work of other third sector groups, who have the greatest need. We work with an almost undetected community, ie single mums and women with children who have been hardest hit by the austerity measures and the lack of acknowledgement from the public sector.

It needs to be understood, the third sector can play a vital role in developing high-quality services the public rightly expects. Charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises have strengths, reaching out to the most disaffected people, finding innovative solutions and offering a personal touch. Many third sector organisations achieve great results without government funding. The reality on the ground is tough. The commissioning environment is competitive and not always geared up to value the third sector’s strengths but, working together, we can help break down those barriers.

An immediate challenge is a growing tendency for commissioners to seek immediate returns and operate a ‘know you’ model at the expense of those with greater needs. A solution for marginalised third sector organisations is to develop consortium bidding and subcontracting that has the potential to lead to greater opportunities for third sector organisations. Indeed, efficiency goes together with the effective outcomes that services provided on a personal level can achieve.