THE BLOG

Time To Wake Up The Sleeping Sector?

22/06/2017 13:23 BST | Updated 22/06/2017 13:23 BST

Nearly two weeks on, and the dust has still not settled after this rather extraordinary snap election. The Conservatives juggle negotiations for Brexit with negotiations for forming an actual government, and the terrible disaster at Grenfell Tower brings further challenges.

And yet we will find that much remains the same in the land of public services. However much clever civil servants will have dressed it up, their welcome pack for new ministers will include a variation of 'how do we cope with shrinking budgets and increasing demand?' and 'how do we get services to deliver what people want and what works?'

What you would surely want in a situation like that are a group of actors who bring passion, energy and often, donated time to the party. You would want groups who like to work at the root causes of need not just deal with the consequences. And you would want groups that are good at forming relationships with people, so often the first step to solving tricky problems.

Luckily for many councils, police authorities, sustainability and transformation partnerships and the like there are such groups eager to work with them - the voluntary and community sector. Governments may cook up ideas like Big Society and Shared Society to encourage people into greater civic involvement as the state rolls back. But the fact is, this already exists. It's called civil society. And as the mass voluntary mobilisation at Grenfell Tower has shown, it's active in places where government isn't. People are already organising to meet the needs in their communities where there is need that is not being met by the state.

So why does the link up not happen - at least to any great extent? Why don't public services partner with charities and their volunteers much? That's something we at New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) have been looking at in several areas recently, ranging from prisons and schools to hospitals and children in care. And the more I look at it the more it perplexes me.

The good thing to report is there is no ideological problem. Most people in the public sector think there is a lot to be gained from working with the voluntary sector. Certainly there are doubts about how good it really is, whether you can rely on it, and what happens when things go wrong. But none of these are insurmountable.

They also recognise the fact the sector cannot impose sanctions and does not need to represent the bureaucracy with all its accountability structures. This allows them to have different relationships with patients, inmates, children in care and schools that the statutory sector can never hope to have.

What gets in the way of working together are much more practical things. Lack of time, complex procedures, lack of data sharing and unfriendly commissioning processes are all common problems. The lack of cash at present is in some ways pushing toward councils and CCGs to be more willing to work with new partners - but also means they don't even have the time to think.

Problematic too is the barrier of language, for instance between clinicians and charities trying to help patients navigate through their treatment and recuperation journey. Incentives - be they financial, professional or even reputational - push people in different ways too, not least when we have a public sector looking for fast, cash-saving results and no risk, set against a charity sector that often takes longer and at its best is up for innovation.

Some things that are wrong stem from the charity and community sector itself. It is not always good at proving something about its impact, let alone its cost effectiveness. Some examples really are a bit flaky. The sector is also not good at coming together with an offer to the hard stretched public sector. So, for example, prison governors tell us they just cannot cope with scores of small charities wanting access to their inmates (with prison officers' time taken up in enabling this). At the same time, the health system drowns beneath the cacophony of noise created by the many single issue, mission-driven charities all screaming to be heard.

Certainly some charities, and the philanthropists and charitable trusts that often fund them, feel a bit queasy about stepping in to provide services they feel the state should be providing, and some dislike working too closely with a public sector whose role includes dishing out punishment to prisoners or sending foreign rough sleepers home. Charities, too, feel frustrated when they see contracts that they know are not going to allow them to do what they know works well. But they would love to have a bit of space and time to talk to public sector leaders and commissioners about how to create a different set of services and a different approach to contracting.

So it would be nice to think that at the top of the sheet for new minsters anywhere in and around public services, one of the key tasks was given as: 'How to get the charitable sector more involved in public services.' Somehow I doubt it has made it to even a 'never-to-be-read' annex. But I keep hoping.

A version of this blog was first published in the MJ.