Beyond the third sector


I was great fan of the Eurostar until last Friday. I was among the people stranded in Paris when it was cancelled due to a fire near the line in Wandsworth. Eventually I got home via Calais and Dover but the people I felt sorry for were the young couples - lots of tearful faces - crestfallen at their plans being kyboshed.

The fire wasn't Eurostar's fault and no business is going to fold because a meeting gets cancelled, but maybe for the Friday journeys in particular they should go out of their way to offer an alternative route for those with their hearts set on a romantic weekend away.

I was in Paris as the 'keynote' (flattery will get you everywhere) speaker at the launch of EUCLID the first pan European network dedicated to third sector leaders. I told them there are powerful ideological, organisational and social reasons why the third sector is being so heavily courted by the political establishment in the UK and some other countries.

The ideological opportunity is presented by the emerging consensus formed by a right of centre that no longer thinks markets and individualism is sufficient to solve social and environmental problems, and a thinking left of centre seeing diversity of supply as a good way to bring innovation into public services.

The organisational opportunity comes from a recognition of the problems of communication, motivation and engagement in large bureaucratic organisations. The more devolved, ethically driven, diverse third sector seems to offer a better way to connect with people and provide services.

The social opportunity lies in a growing awareness that many of the most pressing problems we face are not amenable to answers which treat people as objects. Instead citizens must be the active subjects developing their own individual and collective solutions. As third sector organisations are generally created from the citizen up they seem more suited to this new way of thinking.

But with each opportunity comes a set of issues to be confronted. It is great that every political party wants to hug the third sector, but one of the important aspects of its role is advocacy, which sometimes needs to be outspoken and controversial. There is no inherent reason why charities can't combine service delivery with advocacy but they need to think through the dilemmas posed.

Two issues are raised by the idea that third sector organisations are better suited to delivering certain social outcomes.

First, are they? I must admit to having sat through too many dispiriting and failed attempts to demonstrate that there is something about, say, a social enterprise - that makes it more responsive, dependable or innovative.

Second, if third sector organisations do grow they have to make sure they don’t simply become inflexible bureaucracies themselves. All large third sector organisations should have a copy of the last page of Animal Farm on their office wall.

Finally, the sector should see the social argument about needing to engage people more ambitiously and directly as a starting point for a wider debate. To develop what I have called a citizen-centric (rather then Government-centric) model of social change means reform beyond the third sector. It requires a rounded model of citizenship involving entitlements and expectations, a more participative democracy and radically new ways of working for the state.

Avoiding the temptation of self congratulation, the third sector should be at the forefront of this debate showing it is as driven by high ideals as by winning the next contract or spot on the Today programme.

So, there you have it. On the plus side you’ve avoided the fifteen minutes speech and read the argument in two minutes (which as readers of his Observer column know, will be a relief to my newest fan Henry Porter). On the down side you didn't get the nice buffet, the lovely walk through Paris and the evocative pleasure of a windswept, deserted night ferry to Dover.

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