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Towards a new relationship with the state

As systems guru Russell Ackoff explained, if you are doing the wrong thing, then doing it better makes you wronger, not righter… On the other hand, even if you start off doing the right thing wrong, every small improvement is a step in the right direction.

Simon Caulkin

In our recent State of the Sector research, we found many charities struggling to navigate the changing role and shape of the state. Some leaders even identified the relationship between charities and the State as ‘paternalistic, unequal, and in many cases dysfunctional’. While the research examined the building blocks for a new relationship between charities and the state, we wanted to explore this conversation further at our annual conference, NPC Ignites.

The session heard that in the current status quo for charity-public sector relationships, contracts are king. Service deliverers will deliver, and meeting a specific need is a must for an increasingly stretched public sector. But it does mean that there is less room for creativity, for grasping the range of assets and services out there, and how they can be harnessed to support a community’s strengths.

Kathy Evans, CEO of Children England, challenged charities to start a different conversation with the public sector—one that doesn’t start from rigid contracts but from each other’s strengths and limitations, and who should lead on what.

She asked: What if more charities emphasised how they deliver services, not just what services they deliver? What if they turned down ‘bad’ contracts that distracted them from their mission, and instead sought to influence a local government’s strategic goals in their area of expertise? What if commissioners avoided conflating cost with value, and created more space for innovation—rather than thinking it is possible to commission innovation? And what if both focused on the point that people achieve change, not brands or service specifications?

Part of the reason these existing limitations occur is because both sides lack understanding of the other, and the atmosphere can become adversarial. Fiona Sheil, Lead for Strategic Commissioning and Market Making at the London Borough of Bexley, shared her insider’s tips for charities to engage with local government:

  • Many commissioners have had no training to commission services, so they need charities to support them to be advocates for the areas in which they’re commissioning.
  • Often people in local government feel powerless to make change happen—charities could collaborate with them and build strength in numbers.
  • Those charities that understand—and even produce—evidence in support of their interventions could share this evidence with local government—particularly if it’s underpinned by a cost-benefit analysis. In fact, this is another incentive for charities to make better use of evidence.

Accepting and building on the ‘status quo’ may seem like the lowest risk option, but it may just mean that we are doing wrong wronger. There’s hope that if charities and the public sector both play to their unique strengths, communicate what they have to offer, and think outside the contracting box, we can move towards a more impactful relationship.

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