Rules of engagement

The days when the voluntary sector could operate in isolation
are over. Organisations are now deeply affected by the policies of
national and local government and the private sector as they become
caught up in the “partnership”, “contract” and “commissioning”

As power becomes more centralised in Whitehall, local services
become fragmented. And as the state withdraws from some forms of
service delivery, voluntary organisations are becoming involved in
mainstream policy and service delivery.

But although the voluntary sector is well placed to be involved in
major policy debates, engaging closely with the statutory sector
will have its challenges.

Voluntary agencies must accept that efficiency and effectiveness
will be demanded, and that performance measurements are here to
stay. They will be expected to be reliable, available, consistent
and happy to be held to account. Engagement with statutory sector
partners will put more pressure on board members to have the skills
and experience for corporate responsibilities.

To ensure it is taken seriously and given the credence it deserves,
the sector needs to take the initiative and be focused, strong,
flexible and noticeable. Where it represents users’ views, such
representation must be broad and all encompassing.

Some rules of engagement can be suggested for partners in the two

Statutory sector partners

  • Recognise the unique qualities of the voluntary sector and
    ensure it works within an environment that allows it to
  • Allow it to do what it does best – advocacy and service
    delivery, campaigning on issues of public concern and being the
    voice of the voiceless.
  • Set funding priorities and make them explicit. The voluntary
    sector must have access to alternative sources of funding and be
    able to obtain funding on the right terms.

Voluntary sector partners

  • Work professionally, but do not allow professionalism to
    dominate your agenda.
  • Apply management and organisational development “techniques”
    but do not be burdened with heavy-handed regulations that stifle
    flexibility and innovation.
  • Be willing to be part of the discussions.
  • Be aware of the issues.
  • Talk to other voluntary organisations and involve your clients
    and users.
  • Don’t be dogmatic about your views.
  • Ensure your recommendations are evidence-based and robust.
  • Ensure the issues you raise are relevant.
  • Publicise your involvement but don’t have “dialogue by press
  • Don’t use political platforms to push your agendas.
  • Know where and when to wear different hats; have clarity of
  • Don’t have unrealistic expectations.
  • Act as an equal partner but don’t get too cosy.

We have to reject the view that the voluntary sector must
embrace full incorporation into the machinery of government. But
the voluntary sector cannot and must not divorce itself from policy

A series of fundamental issues is now arising around the roles,
rights and responsibilities of the state, the market, voluntary
bodies and citizens. Whatever the conclusions, it is vital that the
voice of the voluntary sector is heard on issues that affect its
future. I believe it should be right in the middle of debate about
service delivery, scrutiny and policy.

Partnership offers new opportunities for voluntary sector
organisations to make their distinctive contribution to the future
of society. But a successful partnership is one negotiated between

Ade Adeagbo is chief executive, Age Concern Bexley, and
non executive director, Greenwich Teaching Primary Care


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