Local authorities should work more collaboratively with voluntary and community organisations to help them improve the delivery of public services, according to a report out today by the National Audit Office.
The report looked at whether Local Area Agreements (LAAs) are helping to promote better value for money in the way government works with the third sector to deliver public services. It also examined the impact LAAs have had on the role of third sector organisations in the delivery of public services.
LAAs are a new form of contract between central and local government and were designed to devolve greater power over public services to local communities. The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and the nine Government Offices for the Regions (GOs) have worked to introduce LAAs over the past three years and by April 2007 every local authority in England had one. The amount of public expenditure covered by the agreements is expected to reach around £5 billion in the next three years.
Government is keen for third sector organisations (TSOs) – including charities, voluntary and community organisations and social enterprises – to play a greater role in public life, building ‘social capital’, promoting volunteering, representing the community and delivering public services.
The NAO found that government has put in place a range of initiatives to support TSOs and to encourage public bodies to work with them. These particularly focus on changes to public procurement and grant funding which will put TSOs on an equal footing with other suppliers. The Office of the Third Sector (in the Cabinet Office) has responsibility for leading this work and is supported by the Treasury in its work with other government departments.
It is still relatively early days for LAAs, but today’s report shows that LAAs and work to increase the role of the third sector in public services have been developed by different parts of central government with few, weak links between the two. LAAs include only limited references to the third sector and there are as yet no visible changes in local patterns of service provision or in local public bodies’ funding practices towards the third sector.
Where changes have occurred, they are due to other initiatives rather than to LAAs. The opportunities which the introduction of LAAs offered, to help place TSOs on a ‘level playing-field’ with other potential suppliers, have mostly been missed.
Much practical work remains to be done to translate the principles of LAAs into practice. Policy in this area is developing fast; the Local Government White Paper, published in October 2006, proposes changes to the structure of LAAs which are likely to lead to even more local decision-making. Changes to LAAs are to be accompanied by moves to encourage local authorities to move away from a “traditional service perspective” towards a commissioning role.