Who’s offering what, and to whom?

“What is your big offer?” Sir Stephen Bubb, head of charity leaders body Acevo, asked charities minister Nick Hurd at last week’s Gathering of Social Leaders.

The speech that followed did not have any ‘big offer’ to woo the sector. Nor did the subsequent addresses by Lisa Nandy, Hurd’s shadow. Nor that of final speaker Jon Cruddas, the shadow cabinet office minister.

Speaking after the conference, Acevo policy guru Asheem Singh told me that that lack of “big offer” was something of a disappointment, and could leave the sector questioning whether or not politicians ‘get it’.

Having spent a few days mulling over what to make of a day of politicians repeating the jokes and anecdotes we’d already heard, and keeping their cards close to their chests while charities expressed concerns old and new, I’ve decided that this particular focus on a ‘big offer’ misses the point.

To paraphrase that hugely over-used JFK line, charities must be asking not what their charities minister can do for them, but what they have to offer government as a whole.

Jane Harris, managing director of campaigns and engagement at Leonard Cheshire Disability, outlined to me two broad things the sector can offer. Innovation and fresh thinking in public services reform, which was on the agenda of both parties, is one. “So many charities were created by the people, so actually if you’re thinking about open innovation and engaging the people, even if it hasn’t come up with nice academic terms for it, the sector has done that for years,” she said.

She also reminded me of a famous pre-election edition of Question Time in 2005, when Diana Church opened then-PM Tony Blair’s eyes to the administrative horror that is trying to get an appointment with your GP. Being advocates and raising critical issues is the voluntary sector’s role as much as it is David Dimbleby’s. “The fact is that politicians really aren’t connecting with the public any more,” Harris said, “and I think we are really uniquely placed to be a voice for the public. Charities have such a role to say these are the issues affecting the people.”

Nandy had told the Gathering of the need for reformed public services. “People’s experiences of the state are too often top-down, one-size-fits-all,” she said, “making them feel like they are being done to rather than done with.”

Well, elections are a pretty darn important public service – perhaps the most crucial of individuals’ “experiences with the state”. The sector cannot sit back and allow the election to be ‘done to it’ while it waits for a big offer that might never come. Based on the quantity, depth and passion of questions and concerns raised by charities at last week’s event alone, I am certain it will not. After all, the voluntary sector’s offer to society is surely a whole lot bigger than anything likely to ever be approved by a Whitehall pen.