How can charities work better with the public sector? That's a question charities often ask - sometimes with an air of frustration as they see the people they care about getting a raw deal from central or local government. It is also a question good local authorities, health chiefs and others are now asking, not least as the money dries up.
Creating good communities that work for all our citizens is about much more than state institutions. It is about our own individual behaviour, activities and friendships, community cohesion and social capital.
NPC recently carried out a major piece of research on this issue for a group of leading health charities. While Untapped Potential focused on health and social care, its lessons go way beyond that. For the voluntary sector, the lessons are threefold:
First, the voluntary sector has to produce evidence it really can deliver the things the public sector needs and can do so for a decent price. Not everything it does will be cost-effective and there is a need for honesty about this.
Second, the voluntary sector needs to come together at national and at local levels to push its ideas and not just compete for attention and funding. This kind of aggregating and simplifying is essential in a system which cannot cope with a multitude of charities bombarding it with their own individual asks and offers.
Third, while the sector would be daft not take advantage of new structures and initiatives - some encouraged by the public spending squeeze - it must be realistic about the pressures on statutory services and decision-makers. Charities have to be careful not to appear to have their hands out for money during austerity; they have to come to the table with something.
For the statutory side, the lessons go a bit further.
To start with, the public sector must not look at charities simply as cheap options - serving-up volunteers and voluntary income - nor just as organisations that deliver a particular service, but as part of helping progressive leaders think through serious changes in the way councils and others go about their business.
The things the voluntary sector does which work should lead to questions about system change, not just incremental improvements.
Officials must also recognise the obstacles the voluntary sector faces in working with the public sector. Health is perhaps the most extreme example. It is a system which finds it difficult to engage even with itself, as GPs spar with hospitals and then both do battle with social care.
The public sector must not inadvertently lock charities out through its processes, commissioning rules, regulation, language and practices.
But the public sector must not ask for ridiculous levels of evidence from the voluntary sector and standards which it does not apply to itself.
It would help if we could open up all the data different parts of government have - including following the lead of the Justice Data Lab which NPC helped to create, allowing administrative longitudinal data to be used to help charities secure evidence cheaply and effectively on the impact of different approaches.
It's a crazy world if charities have insight into things that work and ideas which could be used more widely and yet our public services are not picking them up.
Finally, when the public sector looks at charities, it should not become obsessed about one type over another. Some councils and commissioners look exclusively to small community organisations - especially in the preventative and 'social capital' space. Many are very good, but inevitably, quality varies. Society needs the bigger ones too, not least for economies of scale, knowledge, research capacity and lobbying.
Commissioning and other practices need to value a mixture of charities and not inadvertently squeeze out the little or the big guys.
The public sector must make itself more porous and open to ideas. It must welcome partnership. It's a big cultural change but it needs to happen.
Much of this involves new behaviours and approaches which will seem alien, and to start with time-consuming, in a world where staff cuts are everywhere.
Perhaps the biggest hope for change will come with new devolved areas. Will they bring in new models and ways of thinking and working? Or will they stick to the same old things on a bigger scale? The future awaits.
This article was first published in The MJ
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