Let more public bodies join British Waterways in the voluntary sector

Last week, British Waterways said it wanted to leave the embrace of Government, and set up as a charity. Inspired by the National Trust, it said it could stand better on its own two feet.

This started me wondering. How many quangos would be better off if they followed British Waterways’ example, and set up as third sector organisations?

An awful lot, probably. In fact, the more services which can be moved out of a bloated public sector, the better.

Skeptics might say this has been tried before. The Government has often tried to slough off services through privatisation, and has had very mixed success. Why should this be any better? What are the advantages of charitisation? Or social enterprisation?

The third sector’s advantages over the public sector are obvious. It can cut costs, introduce innovations, and respond to change much more quickly. And a charity can attract more publicity, more trust, and more goodwill than any Government organisation.

But it has advantages over the private sector, too. A not-for-profit organisation will remain focused (indeed, often becomes more focused), on the end-user – the beneficiary.

This isn’t always true of the private sector. Sometimes the best way to make money is to hire expert negotiators, run rings round public sector officials at the contracting stage, then sit on your hands while the cash rolls in.

It isn’t just quangos that could benefit from being charitised, either. Other areas would also benefit – the water, electricity, gas and rail monopolies, to name but a few.

The most obvious example is Welsh Water, which aims to bring benefits to the people of Wales – around £21 a year off the water bill of everyone in the principality, the company says, because of its lack of shareholders and its greater efficiency.

NHS trusts and local government departments could also benefit.
It’s an amazing experience hearing people like Jo Pritchard, of Central Surrey Health, talking about the difference that moving out of the NHS and into an independent company has made for health workers.

Instead of sitting and waiting for instruction from the top, she says, CSH’s employees introduce innovation on an almost daily basis, strive to reduce inefficiencies, and enthusiastically spread best practice throughout the organisation.

When the Government first introduced the ìright to requestî initiative, which aimed to move NHS services out of the public sector and into social enterprises, it seemed that it had finally understood this idea.

Sadly, this idea seems to have hit the buffers very quickly – partly thanks to opposition from unions, legitimately worried that this was a Government attempt to do things on the cheap – and the NHS has been named ìpreferred providerî for all health contracts. The right to request concept hasn’t caught on elsewhere in the public sector, either, where examples are sporadic at best.

In my view it’s time for Government to change this. Anywhere there is a quango, a privatised industry, a local authority department, which could stand better on its own two feet, it should be allowed to do so in the third sector.