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Working with the third sector

This month's Focus On... looks at how PBC can tap into the ‘lean and keen' third sector. Carolyn Heaney, deputy director of the third sector programme at the Department of Health, sets the scene

Third-sector organisations (TSOs) offer commissioners the chance to build health and social care services that are responsive to communities, accessible to the most socially excluded and that really tackle health inequalities.

Third sector organisations – which include charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises – already play vital roles in delivering high-quality, user-focused health and social care in communities and there is huge untapped potential.

It is expected that an estimated 18 million people will have at least one or more long-term conditions by 2025. For this reason alone it is important to consider how we are going to meet the challenge of caring for and supporting people as effectively as possible. The state sector cannot meet this challenge alone.

Leaders and practitioners across the NHS, and in the wider health and social care system, will need to work in partnership with TSOs to design and deliver services that meet individuals' needs safely and efficiently.

TSOs have a long track-record in designing services based on their unique insight into clients' needs, and are often best placed to meet them. Their objectives are primarily social, and so they often achieve additional social value beyond the immediate service, by engaging communities in delivering and designing the services themselves.

TSOs also work across traditional health and social care boundaries, bridging the gaps between public agencies to tailor services to the needs of individuals.

The possibilities and scale of ambition in this sector are enormous. A mapping exercise in 2007 estimated there to be 35,000 TSOs operating in health and/or social care, responsible for some £12bn annually.

This presents exciting opportunities in these times of economic constraint, where public services are challenged to increase quality and productivity, delivering more with less.

TSOs are well placed to meet this challenge, not least as many have been developed from constrained resources, often through necessity. It is this passion, dynamism and innovation that is so often the third sector's unique selling point.

The potential is significant, but to use it requires partnership that is equitable, open and built on mutual trust and understanding. Commissioners and third sector leaders need to work together, acknowledging strengths and weaknesses on both sides, and focusing on the mutual goal of high-quality outcomes.

A compact can help to achieve this; its principles of partnership and inclusion can help build services that reach the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society.

As we move towards increasingly personalised service delivery, the sector's long-established tradition of providing trusted advocacy, advice and information and representing patients' views will become increasingly important. Patients will be able to make informed choices and access high-quality services that meet their needs.

The case for commissioners embracing partnership with the third sector is very compelling.