Room at the Top – The voluntary sector should play more of a role in strategic planning

It’s true that I don’t know the half of it, that I’ve only been in this job five minutes, and that there may be hundreds of good examples of which I’m unaware. But I am concerned, in fact deeply worried, that the commissioning by local authorities of services from the community, voluntary and private sector could be done so much better and in fact seems so limited that it undermines what could be good services. Indeed, what we have so far could actually prevent the development of the quality services for children and young  people that Every Child Matters and Change for Children have promised us all.

Hilton DawsonPerhaps I exaggerate the difficulties. After all, the context is more than hopeful with statutory duties to co-operate in the development of children and young people’s plans under the Children Act 2004. Of course these are early days with many directors of children’s services not yet in post or only just beginning to get to grips with a wide range of responsibilities.

I’m a partnership sort of guy; I actually do believe that public, private, community, voluntary sectors working together can produce so much more than they can do alone. They can bring new insights, valuable skills, different ways of working, and more flexible timescales to produce better services. I’ve been elected three times to a council myself, so I utterly respect the rights of local democracy to set its own course and indeed to decide that some things are so important that it wants to do them itself.

So it worries me when I hear voices at service providers crowing that those of us outside local authorities will soon be running them all, or to hear the prime minister relying excessively on models of privatisation. Surely we’d all agree it’s vital that the schools envisaged by the new white paper serve community objectives well?

I can understand councils being wary. However, if they want to avoid a return to the days of compulsory competitive tendering they ought to move on from models of relationships which owe so much to that era.

If we are pursuing “best value” calculated on the outcomes of services, on the beneficial impact on the lives of users as estimated by users themselves as well as on the bottom line, then councils should be involving other sectors at an earlier stage. If partnership and the statutory duty of planning children’s services means anything we should all be around the table at an early strategic stage. Otherwise those good ideas and innovative approaches will have to be filtered in at a contract tendering stage, risking them being overlooked or dismissed because of specification or tight timetables.

The whole resulting service could be so much richer if we had the confidence to engage with each other at an early stage.

I hope no one will construe any of what I’ve said as opposing healthy competition, avoiding challenge, or giving unfair advantage. In fact what I’d like to see would subject providers to more scrutiny, to working harder on relationships and to welcoming partnership with others.

Indeed I’d be delighted to hear from someone that I’ve got this all wrong. If not I’d be even more pleased to be part of making sure that we get this crucial issue right.

Hilton Dawson is chief executive of children’s charity Shaftesbury Homes & Arethusa and is a former MP

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