Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why the third sector lies about outcomes

I'm slowly taking my leave of the third sector village. Not on a jet plane, but more slowly - by hot air balloon.

As it gains height, I can see our little village in better context. What I notice is just how small it is next to the towns and cities of the public and private sectors.

Also visible from a height are its twisting, chaotic streets and its many, varied neighbourhoods. Compared with the Milton Keynes of the public and private sectors, our village looks, from the balloon, a far more interesting kind of place.

But is our sector any more than a small splash of colour on the landscape? Well, we surely now do better than merely talk a good game. Our finest organisations are taken far more seriously than they were 20 years ago. Furthermore, many of us now deliver public services that merit the term. Time and again, our top performers comfortably outdo the private and public sectors.

However, this is mainly the new part of the village - the extension built after the 1990s. The old parts look mostly the same. There, the conversations haven't changed much down the years. The People's Front of Judea still doesn't speak to the Judean People's Front. That nice old dance about whether we can change our grant-funded schemes into commercial services. The last-minute funding reprieves.

Then there's the much darker side of village life: the massaging of activity to make everything look better. The downright pretence, at times, that something is happening when it isn't.

OK, it's not all our fault. Without the dance of deceit on outcomes, the village starves. On one side, the public sector terrorises with piles of paper. On the other, the private sector demands mighty-sounding results for its droplets of CSR money. Everyone wants more than we can deliver. So people make stuff up.

Do people notice this darker side? Mostly not. But sometimes, they glimpse our other side. Last week, I got an agitated call from a colleague from the public sector in another part of the country who had been out to see a charity in his area that had received public money. He was horrified by the casual attitude to reporting, the lack of preparation, the scruffiness of the director and the sheer nothingness behind what was purportedly going on. He thought he was being lied to. He told me that this would never be allowed in the public sector.

Maybe, maybe not. I don't think our sector is unique in having a dark side. The fact that we can still evoke these reactions in people from other sectors worries me a lot. You imagine, on your brighter days, that the worst of all that is over.

But it isn't, of course. Today's third sector village might be charming and characterful and attractively extended but, from my balloon, its dark alleyways and murky ponds are still visible and obvious. We need to address this, big time, if we're going to make things work in an era when results will be scrutinised far more closely than ever before.

1 comment:

John Wade said...

Hi Craig.

I love your honesty in these times when it feels very difficult to say anything against any third sector organisation. It's as if applying the term to an organisation is enough to endow it with unquestionable value and worth.

One question. Was your "taking leave of the third sector village" purely metaphorical?