5 reasons the future for the third sector in public services doesn’t look bright


James Rees

In their new book, James Rees and David Mullins look at the role of the third sector in different public service fields. Since the shock result of the EU Referendum we have entered a period of post-Brexit uncertainty for public services and the third sector.

Following the result, the authors held a roundtable event for some influential sector thinkers with a particular interest in public services. Here, James Rees outlines the 5 key messages that emerged…
1. This feels like a new era for the third sector and public services

Clearly Theresa May’s government is preoccupied with one very big issue – Brexit – and there seem currently to be no ‘big bang’ flagship programmes for public service reform (although it is important to acknowledge the remains of the children’s social care reforms since May became PM. The legislation is still going through parliament, and it will have significant implications including for the third sector.).

In contrast the Coalition government’s leitmotif was deficit reduction but it still managed to launch the Big Society narrative, the open public services agenda, the work programme, and later the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms to probation services. Many in the sector were suspicious of the intent underlying these programmes, but recognised that, in each case, the sector was rhetorically welcomed with warm words about its potential contribution.

“For the third sector there is a sense of ‘what next’?”

The new policy environment feels qualitatively different: cooler at best, hostile at worst. For the third sector there is a sense of ‘what next’?

2. The sector’s role looks increasingly to be a straightjacketed one

Though a role for the third sector in delivering public services will remain, although it is likely to continue to decline from its peak in 2010 (see the NCVO almanac). Yet where that role remains, it looks set to be a constrained one. The government is now effectively saying to the sector: compete to deliver on our terms, within narrow parameters, don’t campaign (and embarrass us), and do it all for less.
3. The third sector is no longer a valued partner

There was a sense that in the New Labour years government genuinely wanted to bring in the best of what the sector could offer, even if that meant the sometimes (quietly acknowledged) ‘over-generous’ use of resources within capacity building programmes, poorly-specified contracts and in the high transactions costs associated with complex contracting arrangements. New Labour piloted programmes and was cautious and incremental. Conservatives, on the other hand,are essentially agnostic about the sector of ‘independent’ providers, or err towards favouring particularly large providers, especially those in the private sector.

4. The paradox of the evidence hierarchy

A closely related point is that Conservative-led governments have placed greater emphasis on proof of effectiveness from potential providers of services.

The third sector is in danger of being swallowed up by the resulting reliance on the ‘evidence hierarchy’ that dominates ministerial and civil service thinking. The sector has been promised that it will receive funding – that is, gain access to supply chains led primarily by large private contract management companies – if it can just prove its impact and that its services contribute to the achievement of the desired outcomes. It is increasingly looking like many third sector organisations continue to struggle to provide convincing evidence of their added value. Perhaps this will ultimately prove to be an impossible task.

More widely, the approach risks distorting funding towards only what can be evidenced. This remains a huge challenge for public service improvement in the UK.

5. The future of public services is in itself in doubt

Thinking about the third sector’s role inescapably leads us to think about the very nature of contemporary public services. It leads us to ask deeper questions about: what is now the essential nature of many public services, what is their purpose, do the ends justify the means, and what can we afford?

These are highly contested, highly political questions but ones that deserve to be brought to the fore and ones that social policy scholars should be actively engaging with.


The third sector delivering public services: Developments, innovations and challenges” edited by James Rees and David Mullins can be purchased here from the Policy Press website for special 20% discounted price £56.00

Follow the authors on Twitter: @JamesRees_CVSL and @3rdsectorRC

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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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