Over the next few months as public spending cuts really start to take effect expect to hear much about services currently being run by the public sector being ‘handed’ over to the voluntary or ‘third’ sector. This idea is also in line with the government’s current rhetoric about the “Big Society” in which people and communities are supposed to be empowered to run and take charge of delivering services instead of being controlled by faceless bureaucrats at local or national level.

Whilst laudable in principle, the notion of ‘people power’ running services in the form of voluntary services is called into question by three major factors.

Firstly, the logic behind out-sourcing and privatisation of statutory services, whether to the voluntary or private sectors is to reduce costs and save money, otherwise there would be no purpose behind it. Consequently, services could be tendered out at rates which would be less than that currently incurred by statutory services and this raises concerns about quality standards and delivering services “on the cheap”. One need only think of the pretty poor standards in cleaning and catering services in hospitals which resulted from wholesale privatisation of these services by health boards, so much so that almost all of them have been brought back in-house. This arose primarily from cost-cutting as the original tenders for these services were pitched too low. While not inevitable, the real danger in hiving off services mainly to save money is you end up with voluntary organisations or private companies delivering poor quality or sub-standard services.

Secondly, the notion that giving services over to the voluntary sector somehow equates to empowering people and communities does not really stand up to much scrutiny. Whilst there are numerous organisations that make up this sector, the reality is, as with the private sector, the field is dominated by a number of large agencies. These are controlled by Boards of Directors with day-to-day operations supervised by professional managers. Now in spite of much talk of service users and community members being appointed to the Board, the reality is the locus of control in such organisations resides with a small coterie of senior managers and office-holders from the Board; this is the real dynamic which controls the organisation.

Furthermore, the concept of a large, healthy independent voluntary sector, running a diverse range of services is belied by the fact that they are often dependent on statutory agencies to fund them. When one factors in the overweening regulatory environment the voluntary sector is subject to, then its independence, particularly around its campaigning role and its ability to scrutinise and criticise government policy can be seen to be severely compromised.

This combination of dependency on state sources for funding allied to extensive regulation and inspection has produced what some commentators have described as the effective nationalisation of the voluntary sector, albeit in the guise of freeing-up the state sector.

Finally, the idea that giving ‘control’ of services to the third sector means a greater variation of choice is often illusory. The overwhelming bulk of services provided by the voluntary sector are aimed at people who are poverty stricken, destitute, vulnerable or suffering from long-term limiting physical or mental health conditions where choice is largely cosmetic. Individuals in need of a service don’t really care too much about who provides what service whether  statutory, private or voluntary, so long as they provide a decent level of care, alleviate suffering and reduce distress. As such attempts to introduce ‘choice’ into such areas, where need predominates only brings about, at best pseudo-choice, disguising the fact that behind the façade of numerous voluntary sector providers the real power and the purse-strings lies elsewhere.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with having services provided by the voluntary sector so long as they are sufficiently resourced to deliver a decent standard of service and care for the people and communities who use and rely on them. But we should also be aware that the reality of centrally managed, tightly controlled and regulated third sector organisations providing services will be a long way from the ‘people power’ envisaged by the Big Society advocates.