Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 April 2022
Third sector service delivery is only one of several purposes of voluntary action, but it has gained a lot of policy, practice and research attention over the last 15–20 years, to the extent that it can eclipse other dimensions of voluntary action. Nonetheless, it is largely through delivering services that the third sector has grown, primarily through contracts with public bodies. The official rationales for such involvement were well articulated during the New Labour years in the Treasury ‘cross-cutting review’ into the role of the voluntary and community sectors in public service delivery, published in September 2002, and which set in train significant investment in the sector over the next eight years (HM Treasury, 2002; McLaughlin, 2004). Drawing explicitly from the theory of the sector's comparative advantage (Billis and Glennerster, 1998), the cross-cutting review argued that voluntary and community organisations may be best placed to provide services to some groups because they: can bring specialist knowledge and experience to bear; can involve users in the design and delivery of services; are independent of existing structures, and can therefore develop services in new and innovative ways unbound by existing structures and rules; tend to be trusted more than existing public authorities, and can offer less prescriptive, flexible and responsive services (HM Treasury, 2002: 16-17). To this list may be added some broader contextual and ideological reasons for the growing public policy interest in third sector service delivery, namely that the sector is regarded as offering the prospect of providing still effective but lower-cost services beyond the state.
However, talking up the sector's potential role and contribution in this way has long been accompanied by a parallel concern about whether the sector is capable of stepping up to compete for and deliver services effectively (HM Treasury, 2002: 16-17; Office of the Third Sector, 2006). In order to enhance third sector service delivery, it is argued, the sector needs support to develop. Successive governments, charitable funders and the third sector itself have sought to address this issue through investment in a range of capacity building programmes and initiatives. As a result of this, an extensive architecture of support has been built around much service delivery in the third sector.