Mainstreaming or specialism? by Andy Gregg

In public services and the voluntary sector there is frequently a discussion about service delivery and whether this is accomplished best by generalist agencies and how much they can effectively meet the requirements of those with special needs.  The advantages and disadvantages of service provision from a generalist agency or a specialist agency can involve cost and reach on the one hand (generalist) but tailored and more appropriate services on the other (specialist). Obviouslythere is a need for generalists like GP's who may need to refer patients on to specialists where necessary and both of these approaches are part of the provision of complex services like those around health. Any complex area of public provision will necessitate an initial diagnosis followed by different degrees of specialist interventions. This is a kind of technological distinction and is commonly understood in the UK’s public services and private industry, and as a “triage and connect” model it is also becoming more established in terms of support for civil society organisations

However in the area of equalities and the provision of services to particular population groups based on their differentcultures, identities or “protected characteristics”  the dividing lines are not so easy to see. Of course specialist provision can have the perverse effect of making some mainstream services less rather than more responsive to the needs of all clients by letting them off the hook with regard to those with special interests or problems and thus allowing them to fail to adapt services to the widest range of needs. On the other hand mainstream services can sometimes be unresponsive or even ineptat providing services to those who have non-standard needs or different ethnic or cultural backgrounds or protected characteristics. The development of self-help groups with the slogan “nothing about us without us” has been a characteristic of the British civil society sector over the last 30 years. When is it more appropriate to signpost to these organisations or to mainstream services?

A few of us had a brief look at this conundrum at a recent Better Way meeting in North London.

Specialist services come into their own when there has been a history of direct or indirect exclusion  and discrimination or where there are specific cultural or historical reasons where sensitivity may be needed. Taking the example of race,  particular communities are in need of and much more likely to accept help from specialist agencies that understand the nuances  and effects of the exclusion and discrimination they face as well as the cultural, historical and linguistic aspects of their situation. But generalist or mainstream agencies must never be let off the hook and need to be constantly pressured by those specialist agencies to improve their service provision for all their clients (including those they have previously excluded).

It was clear that what is needed is a “Both ……. and” approach  rather thanan “Either …… or” one. Yes, equalities work must become mainstreamedbut this is very unlikely to happen without constant pressure from specialist  equality-focussed agencies. In addition to the role of generalist and specialist agencies it was also felt that there was also a vital role for intermediary organisations that could build the capacity of specialist agencies and network them up with mainstream services and generalist agencies. One problem with some specialist community organisations is that they themselves are not always alive to the needs and views of all their community. 

What is needed is specialist agencies that are capable of working with the whole person and committed to the whole of their community and that understand intersectional approaches – individuals are never just reducible to oneidentity or one set of protected characteristics.

There is also a need for generalist or mainstream agencies who can pull in both extra skills and resources, but  also who recognise the need for communities to self-organise from time to time if exclusion and discrimination is to be properly challenged.

Andy Gregg, July 2017

Andy Gregg is  CEO of ROTA (Race on the Agenda) and has had a long commitment to anti-racism as well as promoting equality in all other areas. He is the Chair of the Metropolitan Migration Foundation as well as a trustee of London Voluntary Service Council and Refugee Action.