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< Ideas Bank, < Economic wellbeing
< Regeneration, < New Start editorial index page

Impression is often stronger than information. If Northern Rock didn’t know it before the government and Bank of England’s reassurances failed to stop people queuing all night to get at their money, it certainly knows it now.

So do those working in the voluntary sector who have long felt that no matter how hard they work they’ll always be the ‘third’ sector.

This week the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations launched an inquiry to find out why the government had given the lion’s share of pathways to work contracts to the private sector.

If its findings are consistent with earlier research it’ll probably come to two conclusions: one, that the government has the ‘impression’ that the private sector is more efficient than the voluntary and community sector.

This probably stems from the branch of economics that says profit is a great efficiency motivator, minimising costs, maximising benefits and stimulating innovation in order to maximise benefits and minimise costs.

Service, on the other hand, or being value driven, aren’t afforded the same weight.

The second factor that rears its head time and again is that the voluntary and community sector isn’t particularly good at quantifying its own value and selling itself in the same way as its competitors.

That means commissioners can’t see what they have to offer – they’re not comparing like with like.

This week’s magazine includes a feature on how to measure social impact – or rather how to demonstrate social impact by converting intangibles – including things like a growth in personal confidence – into monetary terms. But it’s time to change the rules of the game.

If the government really wants to create change in society and promote sustainable development, perhaps it isn’t the voluntary sector that should be learning to speak the private sector’s language but vice versa.

Everyone competing for government contracts should be expected to show their added value: how they can serve and support communities in the widest sense.

The ability of individual voluntary sector organisations to do that cannot and should not be taken as read.

They should have to prove themselves. But the private sector, public sector and partnerships should also be made to show that they’re up to the job. Without that common set of values there will never be a level playing field and there will always be a ‘third’ sector.

Susan Downer, assistant editor, New Start Online magazine

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