The barriers and how to address them
There are many barriers in current policy thinking and delivery to strong relationships:
- Deep Value points out that "Parts of government have embraced ideas around the value of one-to-one, but a wider and more powerful trend across public services risks taking service delivery ever further from the human relationship that should be at its heart. At the policy level, this trend reflects a legitimate interest in efficiency and value for money. It can appear that the value of relationships is somewhat difficult to measure and that working in this way is somewhat of a luxury and therefore outside the scope of what is strictly necessary.
- Locality in its study, Saving money by doing the right thing: Why ‘local by default’ must replace ‘diseconomies of scale’, found that public services through their contracting processes and management practices tend to standardise services in ways that make it harder to respond to real needs.
- Defining good quality relationships can be difficult and the link to efficiency and effectiveness be poorly understood in a contractual environment which is based on measurable goals.
- Professional training and practices can emphasise detachment rather than engagement though, in areas like medicine, interpersonal skills are increasingly seen as important.
- Performance management of staff can be focused on the delivery of outputs or outcomes and efficiency measures in ways that reduce autonomy for staff.
- "Policing"and "supporting" roles in service provision can be in conflict.
- Public sector reform has tended to focus on structural changes rather than building strong relationships.
Deep Value, after reviewing the evidence in a number of different sectors, found that the conditions for establishing effective relationships are:
Front line autonomy – excessive focus on a set process, and on ‘output’ targets (as opposed to outcomes) restrict the ability of advisors to treat the client as an individual. Advisors who have autonomy over how they carry out their work can build better relationships.
Continuity and time – building an effective relationship requires time, and ensuring that a client sees the same person over the period in which they are interacting with a service helps to provide this time and establish a relationship.
Training and skills – clients will trust providers when they know that they are competent in their role.
Attitudes of the provider – professionals need to have an attitude towards their clients of trust and respect, and to be proactive in pursuing their case.
Separation between "policing" and "supporting" – professionals may both ‘police’ the system and assist clients to access it. Situations in which there is a clear separation of these roles – or these roles are conducted by different people, may help to build the relationship of trust between the client and the professional in the ‘support’ role. Where this is not possible, the relationship with the provider assumes even more importance.
It can therefore be argued that the voluntary sector is better placed to deliver strong relationships than the public sector. Writing about the distinctive qualities of the voluntary sector, Chris Mould, Chair of the Trussell Trust, points to the value of its perceived independence from the state:
"Precisely because Trussell Trust foodbanks are not statutory, foodbanks can achieve an impact other more formal services cannot. Clients tell us again and again, “this is the first place we haven’t felt judged”. They disclose underlying issues to the volunteers they meet in the foodbank, often things they have not told statutory services."
The sector's use of volunteers, especially those who have experienced the same problems as those helped, is arguably a factor too, although many organisations do not do so, as Steve Wyler argues in his Better Way blog. The voluntary sector itself is founded on the principle of love - freely given donations of time and money - as argued by Kathy Evans here:
"We can turn people’s feelings of love, solidarity, reciprocity, even their anger and frustration, into hard assets with which to create jobs, pay taxes, and raise budgets to add to public spending."
Social capital is an important ingredient of community and individual resilience and another study by Community Links, Incidental Connections, identified the factors that encouraged the creation and maintenance of socially supportive relationships. Platforms are needed that allow participants to build a level of understanding and trust, with a catalyst for engagement or the permission to connect, and a commonality of values and/or experience. Regular and sustained engagement allows people to develop relationships, as does collaboration and co-operation. The study found that this was achieved through a mixture of physical and online spaces. The personal characteristics of individuals are also important in the types of relationships created but these characteristics could also be a barrier to relationships. The other two barriers are a lack of resources and a lack of trust, according to this study.