Putting words into practice

Repeatedly, members of our network have identified that lip-service is often paid to the propositions we have set out but that actual practice is often very different.  It is important to understand why this happens - the barriers - and what good practice actually looks like.

Relationships are better than transactions.  Deep value is generated through relationships between people and the commitments people make to each other. We find this first and foremost in families, communities and neighbourhoods.

Many of our discussions have emphasized the importance of relationships in delivering change, both with individuals and communities where change is sought and within and across organisations.

David Robinson, co-founder of Community Links, reflected on this after the murder of MP Jo Cox,  expressing the hope that that events like this could become 'teachable moments' of Jo Cox's murder, and suggesting that ‘it is time for all of us who care about social progress to organise ourselves in new ways, work together better and worry most about getting the job done, least about who gets the credit.’

Policy makers and others have for some time been talking of ‘relational services’ or the ‘relational state’,  ‘personalisation’, ‘co-production’ or ‘person-centred care’ but these terms are often about involving individuals in helping to tailor services better to their needs and are not necessarily the same as puttingthe quality of relationships at their heart.  They also at risk of becoming 'buzz words' rather than real actions.

The current culture and systems of many organisations often prevent the formation of good relationships.  Community Links'  Deep Value report, for example, found that relationships thrive where there is: front line autonomy for staff; continuity in the relationships between client and professionals and time to develop these;  effective training for staff; and, where possible, a separation of the role of the public servant as policing access to the system, and their role in supporting the client to navigate it. 

Prevention is better than cure.  There is a growing body of knowledge about what works to prevent problems from happening but there are many barriers and incentives that push in the opposite direction.  These include short-termism, silo working, risk aversion, lack of evaluation and ‘dual running’, ie a lack of money to invest in early action services at the same time as acute intervention. 

On encouraging a longer-term view, James Perry, one of our members, proposed that companies should be set up to meet the long-term interests of society as a whole, not just the short-term interests of shareholders.  We have been hearing from another of our members working in the private sector that there is a growing movement to pursue a wider social purpose. James' focus is the private sector but the underlying message applies equally to all forms of organisations, public and voluntary sector too, which have arguably become too focused on finances and efficiency and not enough on their wider social mission.

Cell member Peter Holbrook from Social Enterprise UK reminded us that the goal of ‘taking back control’ of our communities requires an understanding that ‘globalisation, catalysed by tech, promoted by marketers, and supported by media moguls has, inadvertently or otherwise, stripped many communities of jobs, hope, renewal and power.’ He argues for greater democratic control, transparency and oversight of global corporations; ‘shared value rather than shareholder value.’

Principles are better than targets. All too often universal targets, standard setting and inspection regimes fail to encourage the best behaviours or prevent the worst. Quality is a continual process, emerging from principles of human dignity, best reinforced by citizen engagement, challenge and accountability.

Over the last 20 years governments across the UK and beyond have sought to improve public service performance by introducing an array of targets, league tables and performance information, a trend sometimes characterised as the rise of ‘New Performance Management’ and often associated with marketization of public services. However, there is growing evidence that targets can lead to ‘gaming’ and perverse outcomes. 

There has been a recognition in our discussions that there is role of regulation in maintaining minimum standards but an acknowledgement that at the same time organizations and the individuals within them often work best when given discretion within a framework of shared values.  The Carnegie UK Trust has suggested that regulatory regimes are good at ‘raising the floor’ and ensuring that acceptable minimum standards of behaviour are applied. But that ‘raising the ceiling’ may be better achieved through other means, such as improved training, than through regulation. 

Organisations, and especially larger organisations, have a tendency to perpetuate command and control behaviours, and fail to include people in decisions where their contribution could add value. This is found in the voluntary sector, where some organisations are failing to model the changes which they themselves advocate, although there are many, usually smaller self-help organisations, which offer positive counter examples.

One response to this has been a rise in outcomes based performance management that more closely aligns measures of public service performance with the experience of users, including well-being frameworks which aim to understand social progress in the round.  These can offer a number of benefits including more joined up approaches to government and citizen engagement but outcomes are not immune to gaming and there are challenges regarding attribution, impact and measurement. Alternatively, a Human Rights based approach to health and social care, which supports people to be independent, active citizens as well as have good health, is claimed to offer a route to high quality social care. 

Collaboration is better than competition. Price-based competitive tendering for public services is harming society and wasting taxpayers' money. Rather than a destructive, value-squeezing contest among a few big corporations in pursuit of shareholder profit, we need a collaborative method that brings together people with a shared interest in a common challenge.

Some have argued that public services are in crisis because they are inherently weak markets, as explained by cell member Kathy Evans from Children England in an article in an essay collection here. Traditional competitive tendering can make it difficult for small scale, specialist providers to compete. This can be problematic for smaller, voluntary sector providers who can offer benefits in terms of flexibility, innovation, partnership working and local accountability. But we should be wary about assuming that third sector provision is necessarily favourable to private sector provision, or that public sector provision should always be the goal.

A range of alternatives have been put forward by different organisations which emphasise collaboration, people and/or place centred approaches, shared outcomes, a shift toward small scale and local services and co-production with service users. They include Place-based Commissioning and Alliance Contracting.

Over the last year, we have been trying to identify not just the barriers to change across all of our propositions but to discover what the ingredients of good change are. 

For example, on co-production, we have started to evolve a litmus test (questions to ask: is people’s time valued; does everyone have the same information; who makes the decisions; does change happen as a result?).  We can also develop distinctions that will help develop better practice, eg between self-efficacy and co-production at a community level to create co-design.

In trying to identify 'what works' and new models for change,  one of our members said the memorable phrase, ‘the future is on the periphery’ - we must be future-focused but must not forget about the inspiring examples in our past and in current practice and in particular the transformative power of community based action and mutual support. We have considered what we might learn from successful campaigns in the recent past, eg the dramatic shift in gay and lesbian legal rights and in public attitudes over the last two decades. Reflecting on this we can see that a combination of elements was needed: a cause celebre (the Clause 28 campaign); campaigning agencies (eg Stonewall); determined and brave leadership figures (eg Peter Tatchell); skills to ‘dance with the system’ and win allies within the establishment and media (Tory MPs, Princess Diana, Ian McKellen, Michael Cashman). It seems that a change of this magnitude happens when people in power feel uncomfortable about standing in the way (even if they don’t necessarily believe wholeheartedly in the cause).

In many of our cells, we have reflected on the fact the voluntary sector and civil society also has a heritage which has evolved in parallel with philanthropy: self-help and mutual aid, stretching back at least to the eighteenth century. This emerged from friendly societies and other forms of working class association, and included union mill societies, corresponding societies, early trades unions, co-operative societies, early building societies and so on.  Perhaps we need to rediscover and celebrate that heritage, and the more radical campaigning spirit which often went with it. 

Over the coming year, we will be exploring how to ensure that lip-service is avoided, seeking to identify the barriers to change and the key ingredients of good practice.