The third sector delivering public services: an evidence review

Working Paper 20

This paper examines research evidence, argument and policy development on the third sector and public service delivery over the last five to ten years. We review forty-eight separate pieces of research, published between 2004 and 2010 on the themes of public service delivery, commissioning and procurement.

By examining what we know, this review contributes to ongoing discussion of the sector’s role in service delivery, as well as informing our own research.

We examine four themes developed from the literature:

  • emerging commissioning and procurement practices
  • the experiences of third sector organisations in the new service delivery landscape
  • the support needs of third sector organisations
  • and the impact of the new service delivery landscape on third sector organisations.


Much of the research focused on the commissioning process, and problems faced by the sector in engaging with this process.

By contrast, more evidence is needed on the effects of commissioning, and whether new commissioning processes are leading to improved services for users.

Greater attention appears to have been given to the voices and concerns of staff involved in TSOs, rather than other stakeholders such as trustees, volunteers and particularly TSO members and service users.

Other issues highlighted by the review include:

  • High level of concern amongst the voluntary sector that commissioners lacked knowledge about the range of third sector providers and the wider benefits they can provide
  • the perceived need for a ‘cultural shift’ by third sector organisations to adapt to commissioning, which in turn raises concerns about the effects of commissioning on TSOs
  • the need to enhance the resources and skills of third sector organisations to help them compete in the contract market.
  • Factors that limit the sectors ability to compete in the contract market, such as lack of acceptance for full cost recovery.

Research contact

  • Rob Macmillan