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Durham University

Policy, Professions and Communities Research Group


Publication details for Professor Tony Chapman

Chapman, Tony & Robinson, Fred (2014). Keeping it simple: how to work effectively with the Third Sector: a discussion paper and evidence review for local authorities. Durham Durham University.

Author(s) from Durham


For local authorities, working with the third sector is often complicated and can be challenging economically, politically and even emotionally.

Third Sector Organisations (TSOs) work within the realm of civil society. As such, they are independent organisations which are able to define their own social objectives and determine their approach to practice. More than this, TSOs often want to influence or shape the priorities of local government and can seek to do so through formal consultation processes or by direct lobbying and campaigning.

The third sector rarely speaks with one voice. This is because individual TSOs come in many shapes and sizes and have diverse interests. Inevitably, the eagerness of TSOs to achieve great things for their chosen beneficiaries produces a competitive social marketplace where the demand for resources generally outstrips its supply. There are many sources of income and support available to TSOs locally and nationally. But often, it is the local authority that TSOs look to first for support. In the current climate of considerable economic restraint on local authorities, this can put pressure on the relationships between local authority officers and the leaders of TSOs.

But it is not a one-way relationship. Local authorities increasingly look to the third sector to help them define priorities and subsequently to deliver services to meet local needs. However, as large complex organisations with significant statutory obligations and a political mandate to make decisions about local priorities and strategies to tackle them, local authorities often want to organise things their own way.

This can result in local authority officers devising structures and processes to marshal the energy and resources of the third sector in ways that complement their own activity. More often than not, such interventions result in significant investment in third sector development – which may be welcomed by some TSOs but not others. Indeed, investment in structures and processes almost inevitably produce constraints which may exclude, alienate and annoy some people in the third sector and provoke complaint.

When such problems have been experienced, local authorities often look at mechanisms to avoid or alleviate them in future. Sometimes this means that more information is sought on what the current situation is, and more structures and processes are produced to tackle issues. Often well meaning attempts to make things better produce unintended consequences that make issues more complicated and make relationships more fraught.

It’s never going to be a perfect world. Public sector and third sector interests and priorities will always differ to some extent and so there will always be some areas of tension. Taking a step back to look at the relationships between the public sector and third sector, as we have done over the last few years – we have come to the conclusion that, actually, most relationships are generally quite straightforward and productive. Whilst at the same time, we recognise that, ironically, it is the (much more rare) difficult experiences that get most of the attention and consequently shape the terrain.

Differences in opinion about what ‘constitutes’ the third sector and what it can achieve produce confusion. Often terminology used by one sector is interpreted differently by the other. But, no less important, differences of opinion within the third sector and within the public sector also shape expectations and relationships. We have examined some of the fault lines that produce inter-sector discord and propose some remedies to alleviate problems.

The overarching remedy that we propose is to keep things simple. But that can’t happen until some of the complexity is stripped away. We try to do this by drawing upon research evidence and understanding gained from working with third sector organisations and public sector bodies for many years.

But we are not promising the earth: this is a discussion paper - not our final word. Its publication will be followed by formal events to discuss its findings and proposals. And in practical terms we will be using its findings over the next few months to help develop strategies to improve inter-sector relationships in a range of contexts for a number of local authorities. When all of that work is complete, we’ll refine our findings and recommendations.