The many different organisations that make up the third sector (or civil society, voluntary & community sector, not-for profits depending on your focus, political persuasion and personal preference!) have an increasing role in public sector service delivery, something which is often seen as a two edged sword
This is particularly the case in social care, in which such contracts have led to growth in funding, and with this opportunity for the organisations concerned to increase their reach to greater numbers of beneficiaries. It also enables them to provide more employment opportunities and to make a surplus (in theory at least) that can be reinvested in other activities lined to their mission. Such public sector work also provides additional status and therefore influencing opportunities through the connections it provides with commissioners and provider forums.
On the flip side are the dangers of mission creep through having to focus on the requirements of the commissioner, the vulnerability to loss of income through periodic tendering, and the adoption of more business orientated employment practices in order to achieve financial efficiencies.
These debates are often seen from the perspective of the third sector organisations, whilst clearly there are other views to be considered – notable people who receive the support (is the care of good quality?), people who donate time or money (am I be propping up services that should be paid for by the public sector through taxation?) and commissioners (can these organisations deliver what we ask?). As ever the evidence is equivocal – in some cases there can be a positive outcome for all concerned, whilst in others it can be a fraught experience all round.
This article explores the work of ten third sector organisations in the US that have taken on contracts to deliver services from government purchasers.
Data gathering included interviews, documentary analysis and observations on a retrospective and real-time basis. This would seem to provide a good level of evidence regarding the experience of the case study organisations, and this is supported by a clear theoretical framework and wider empirical work.
Findings and conclusions
Over the life of the five-year programme half of the organisations withdrew or had their contract cancelled due to poor performance and in particular the low recruitment of participants.
Four factors appeared to be connected with the organisations fulfilling their contractual obligations:
- leaders who could separate their responsibilities to deliver a specification from their religious duties;
- sufficient and competent staffing to undertake required performance reporting;
- a recognition that their public sector work could clash with their core mission;
- and previous experience of undertaking contracted work and ensuring that organisational resources were adjusted accordingly.
The authors highlight that the organisations that completed the contract had previously been supported through capacity building initiatives. They do not conclude that this should therefore be seen as a vital ingredient in third sector developing the necessary capacity to take on such work but that it can have an important contribution.
Strengths and limitations
Based on a study from the USA, there are therefore a number of contextual factors which do not automatically translate to a social care delivery in the UK. These include the nature of faith-based organisations in the two countries, the role of federal and state government, and the particular service to be provided (healthy marriage and relationships).
The central question explored does however have resonance and relevance to social care in these shores – what internal capacities are required by small third sector organisations to successfully respond to the demands of public sector delivery?
For third sector organisations themselves the findings are arguably not that surprising:
- before applying to take on public sector contracts carefully consider if the work could affect fulfilling your core mission and be willing to accept any compromise that they may bring;
- identify what internal changes are required to deliver the contract in relation to staffing, technology and policies;
- and take steps to ensure that the necessary processes, skills and capacity are in place to report performance data accurately and on time.
The more striking, and in some ways troubling implications, are those that relate to the interests of a commissioner or indeed someone who may want to access the procured service.
This study could be said to suggest that faith based organisations
- may be diverted from providing the required services by their religious activities,
- they may tender for a service that they cannot then deliver,
- their strong mission and values (often seen as one of the selling points of the third sector) could actually be a detractor rather than an enabler of successful implementation of public policy.
Clearly this is one study in a different context and it isn’t possible to arrive at any strong and definite conclusions about the third sector and in particular faith based organisations. But it does highlight once again the weak evidence base regarding the distinctiveness of the third sector (and indeed the private and public) in delivering public services, and the need for further research in this area. It also underlines the importance of greater study regarding the commissioning process to support more sophisticated market development and procurement. This includes the inclusion of social value, which at present often remains a nice concept, but one that is firmly second to issues of cost and activity.
Ramanath R (2014) Capacity for public service delivery: a cross-case analysis of ten small faith-related non-profit organisations. Voluntary Sector Review 5 1 pp.3-27 [Abstract]