FREE EXTRACT: John Mohan on Third sector delivering public services

As part of our Volunteers Week celebrations we thought we’d give you a sneak preview of the forthcoming book Third sector delivering public services edited by James Rees and David Mullins by letting you read the foreword by John Mohan, editor of our new series Third Sector Research. 

John Mohan

John Mohan

For over three decades in the UK, governments have sought to restrain or roll back the frontiers of the state, and to expand the scope for third sector involvement in the provision of welfare services.

Incorporating a broad range of voluntary organisations, legal forms and individual actions, the third sector now occupies a central place in political debate and social policy discussions. Even if the fiscal constraints of the present era were not in place, frustrations with the limits of top-down state intervention on one hand, and the social costs of free markets on the other would have forced a critical appraisal of what can be achieved through voluntary initiative.

‘Loose and baggy monster’

Yet the contours of recent changes in the third sector remain relatively under-explored in the UK. Even delimiting the “loose and baggy monster”, as the sector has been characterised, poses considerable conceptual and measurement challenges: these days the monster is a hybrid, if not a Hydra.

Assessing its potentially distinctive contribution is equally problematic: the sector symbolises many different things to different people – a space of uncoerced private action for public good, a school of democracy and participation, a source of social innovation, and a cost-effective and flexible alternative to statutory service provision.

Finally, whether the third sector can – and should – be enlisted in the service of public policy is also a contested matter, as are the terms under which it may be so enlisted. And does it have a distinctive impact and added value in its own right, or is that the terrain of claims made by disingenuous politicians or by the sector’s self-interested publicists?

New research findings

Major developments in these issues in the last decade or so provide the rationale for a series which will present new research findings that addresses key academic and policy debates in relation to the third sector.

It is a truism widely acknowledged that there are great expectations of this sector. But continuing on the Dickensian theme, the hard times which face the welfare state necessitate not the small-scale, esoteric regional descriptions and heroic anecdotes which characterise much literature in this field. They call for large-scale and systematic work which addresses significant questions.

That was the rationale for the Third Sector Research Centre, from whose first five-year programme of work this volume represents the first book-length output. This series will draw on the work of that centre but it will also welcome proposals for volumes which address its key focus: the organisational base of the third sector and in particular on the roles, resources, responsibilities and relationships of third sector organisations.

“…includes studies of below-radar and grassroots community organisations, shedding new light on the “dark matter” of the voluntary sector…”

The initial volumes to be commissioned will focus on the UK, but there are also major comparative European projects in which British scholars are involved, and comparative work would be welcome.

Currently-commissioned work includes studies of below-radar and grassroots community organisations, shedding new light on the “dark matter” of the voluntary sector, and two studies taking longitudinal perspectives: one a mixed-methods study of the changing character of voluntary action in the UK over several decades, and the other an intensive qualitative longitudinal programme of work on change in individual organisations.

Third sector in public service delivery

We begin with James Rees and David Mullins’ edited collection on the role of the third sector in public service delivery. The authors address this from various perspectives: discussing the limitations of the evidence base, providing longer-term perspectives on shifts in policy, considering the different elements of the voluntary sector (including social enterprises and spinoffs from the public sector) and their relationship to public service provision, analysing the role played by volunteers, and assessing the effects on organisations of changing incentive structures and pressures to demonstrate social returns.

The authors collectively reject unidirectional characterisations of current policy developments as neoliberal pure and simple, and instead demonstrate the tensions and dilemmas posed for the third sector by changing external conditions. They show how TSOs negotiate these pressures and are able, within what is undoubtedly a tough operating environment, to innovate and find some scope for manoeuvre.

Despite the constraints and indeed the possibility of perma-austerity, the authors conclude optimistically that the ability of individuals and communities to organise to meet public needs should not be underestimated. The third sector will continue to be in demand for its potential contribution to the development and reform of public services. The contributions in this book set a benchmark for future studies of this important field.


The third sector delivering public services: Developments, innovations and challenges, edited by James Rees and David Mullins publishes on 26th July and is available to pre-order at ONLY £15.00 as part of our #volunteersweek sale. 

Just enter promotional code PPVOLWEEK2 at the checkout to order your copy for ONLY £15.00.

If you liked this you might also like to check out our other great titles in volunteering that are also on sale as part of #volunteersweek here. Don’t forget the SALE ENDS Sunday 12th June so bag your books now!

The third sector delivering public services is part of our NEW Third Sector Research Series

Don’t forget VSR is FREE to read for the whole 12 days of #VolunteersWeek so why not take a look here? Or if 12 days simply isn’t long enough (and we agree it probably isn’t!) why not click here to arrange a free institutional trial of the journal?

Interested in submitting to the journal? Please do take a look at our ‘instructions for authors’ here and to find out more about the journal just click here

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.


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