A version of this article by Keith Fletcher first appeared in "Community Care" 11-17 November 1999 under the title "Providing best services". It is reproduced here with the agreement of the Editor.

Best Value and the Service Providers

Voluntary and independent social services providers often feel vulnerable and exposed in the Best Value debate. “Is it just another name for cost cutting exercises which will put us out of business?” “No,” says Keith Fletcher, “but it might turn out like that if you don’t play your full part.”

One of the things which has emerged quite frequently during seminars we have run on best value is the different perceptions of public and non-public sector participants. Local authority staff often start with feelings of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale and complexity of the task. Their priority is to break the thing down into manageable components. Voluntary and private sector staff tend to feel maginalised. Decisions are being taken (they feel) which will affect them profoundly over which they have no influence or control.

Many authorities are developing their own version of the Government led “compact” with their own voluntary sector on the one hand and with local business on the  other but they don’t have much connection with best value. They tend to be rather grand statements of principle, with liberal seasonings of  partnership, collaboration and community. Those I have seen say little about how these principled statements will be put into practice and even less about the existing client/provider relationship between the  two sides. All good things must start somewhere of course but such statements seem as yet to have little to do with the practical politics of everyday life.

In joint seminars it has come as a great relief to all three sides to recognise that the process is manageable and all of them have a major rôle to play. It is impossible to build a better service without engaging the major service providers in judgements about standards of quality and continuity of supply.

The public sector has the best hold on the need to balance resources among competing demands and ultimately holds the strings of the biggest purse. The voluntary sector represents a key perception of the needs of particular interests. It should act as an important standard bearer for improving standards for those interests. And the private sector usually has the best grasp of the real cost of providing services and the on-costs of, for example, training, inspection  and new regulations.

The potential of these contributions only emerges through dialogue. It may be impossible to build a better service without them but that doesn’t mean the dialogue will take place. Most local authorities are trying to improve their consultation processes and there is heavy government pressure for them to do so. But they need help and some of them have very little idea how to set the agenda and get the appropriate people round the table. If, on the other side, the voluntary and independent service providers are adopting the rôle of victim the dialogue will be stunted and mutually defensive.

All sides at every level need to do some “joined up thinking” about this. The voluntary sector and business “compacts” are a part of the partnership initiative. For the most part it is treated as a separate issue from the contribution of the voluntary and independent sector service providers to the best value debate. The reality though is that the local authority has to perform the multiple rôles of facilitator to its business and voluntary communities, purchaser of some of their services and promoter and monitor of the excellence of those services. They are separate tasks and it is important to be clear about which task is being performed in which situation. It is equally important for them to inform and enable each other.

Keith Fletcher is a social care consultant and author of Best Value Social Services, SSSP Publications and Negotiation for Health & Social Services Professionals, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

© SSSP Ltd., September 2003