Are big centralised services so bad? The Conservatives seem to beleive so. Policy developments like Foundation Hospitals and Individual Budgets also suggest Labour feel the same so whatever the result of the forthcoming election we can expect the move towards smaller, localy planned and delivered services provided by a rang of providers to continue at either the same pace or an accelerated pace.
I'm uneasy with this development. On one hand I recall a conversation with a person from a Third sector organisation who talked about the ability they had to be able to provide services such as aromatherapy which their service users found valuable, but which would be unlikely to be made available by the authourity. This was clearly a prime example the benefits of the sector: closeness to service users means more responsiveness to their needs coupled with the ability to innovate free of burcratic controls.
The organisation was however, highly dependent on Local Authourity funding to provide itsservices and interestingly bemoaned the cutbacks which had been made within their service area in Local Authourity that had ironically been used to provide a chunk of their funding. The point of stating this is that the Third Sector is not a stand alone sector staffed by volunteers but is a sector dependent on funding which has been diverted from previously centralised services.
The experience of the last few years has been that the more involved Third Sector organisations become with service provision the more they need to dedicate time to funding bids, planning and reporting. This has led some to argue that the Third Sector has lost its distinctive character and now effectively many organisations ape the centralised, buracratic state bodies they are replacing. The opposing view is of course that closer working means more opportunity to influence the system (not disimmilar to the point made by Ben and Jerry's founders in the face of their take-over by Unilever that they hoped Ben and Jerry's distinctive values would influence the multinational rather than erase their own)
This leaves us with the disadvantages. Producer interest has been cited as becoming a problem in the Third Sector, increasing professionalisation means more professionals and more buracracy invariably increases distance from service users. The sectors advocacy function also becomes problematic in the context of closer working with state bodies. Most challenging though is the problem of inequality. The modern Third Sector has since it's emergence in the 1970s been a very middle-class animal, drawing on middle class volunteers and now professionals leading to accusations that it exasperates rather than releives inequality.
Of course many of these accusations can also be levelled at centralised state services. I do however, feel that rather than charging headlong alsong the course plotted for the past decade is dangerous, rather we need a period of soul searching in which we are realistic about the costs and benefits of all forms of welfare provision.