broken fence

What is changed by collaboration in a place?

By Imogen Walker 3 May 2018


Pick a public service: bins, schools, medical treatment—whether you value it or take it for granted, you know that either a public servant, charity or business is providing it for you. But for how much longer?

In the current financial landscape of government cuts, it is entirely feasible that what was once critical becomes nice-to-have, and nice-to-have becomes something that we used to do.

So, if we want to retain more than the most basic services, whose job is it to provide them?

What might have been a simple answer 10 years ago is becoming less clear as funding is cut and the lines between the public and charitable sectors are blurred.

I’m stepping down after 12 years as a councillor in Lambeth and 4 as deputy leader, making decisions that will affect the lives of thousands of people. I have seen dramatic changes to the pressures on the third sector and my view is that charities can and must work with local and central government to have impact where it’s needed, but there are dangers as well as opportunities ahead.

For services to function, there is a role for every sector—but they are different. We must unite and articulate what those roles should be. We must not let central government off the hook. Politicians in Whitehall have made choices about funding services for vulnerable people, and simply shunting more and more of the financial burden over to charities is not the answer. There is, however, much to be gained from genuine collaboration.

Relationships between public, private and charitable sector organisations can be rewarding because of their relative strengths and weaknesses. The public sector is full of expertise and people who do an incredible job for little reward, but is also entrenched in bureaucracy and risk aversion. The private sector is flexible, results-focused and full of talent—but their philanthropic work is often something quite different to their core business and therefore reliant on the willingness of a few individuals to do good. The voluntary sector has credibility, vision and trust, but charities must always have an eye to their funding.

Every organisation does not have to be exactly aligned, and we should embrace those differences. When the outcome is clear and agreed it can be transformative: Shelter in Kensington and Chelsea after Grenfell and Barnardo’s in Rotherham have brought capacity and expertise when it was desperately needed. Small charities provide services up and down the country. Not everyone wants to deal with what they see as the establishment—and the establishment can be slow to accept that they have got it wrong. Sometimes the distance and perspective that a trusted, independent organisation can provide is exactly what is needed.

Of course, organisations that have fundamentally different missions will always struggle to work together, and it is better to talk about it and accept when there is not enough common ground.

That conversation must be based on clearly defined terms. This is more likely to be done routinely in a bigger organisation than a small one, and that’s why it’s important to make sure everyone is using language in the same way. In Lambeth the snappily-titled VCS Property Principles has set out criteria for where organisations will pay lower rent on council-owned buildings, ensuring we are all on the same page from the start of a project.

The key for anyone wanting to have an impact is to get to know the decision makers and building allies through a shared common purpose. It’s not always easy and there can be numerous gatekeepers in the way, but it’s worth identifying a route through and persevering. Most councillors are very practical when it comes to taking help for their constituents when they can find it, and someone fighting your corner politically can be invaluable.

The collaboration we have discussed is powerful but as funding diminishes and demand increases, we need to be clear about what kind of public sector we want. Are we coming to a time when councils provide adult social care and children’s services and collect the rubbish, and not much else?

If that happens, will the voluntary sector step in to provide youth services, education, housing? And if they do, what happens to their original vision? Does their mission change to incorporate what we currently think of as the public sector, at the expense of advocacy, research, and campaigns?

With less to go around we must not look inward and just protect what we have. Councils are creaking under the strain of funding cuts, and many will find it hard to raise their eyes to see what others are doing that could help.

And worse, we can create problems for each other. When delivery is pushed one step away, funded by the public sector and provided by others, accountability can be unclear—leaving the door open for funding to be cut and service users adrift. For the unscrupulous, it’s a way of cutting services without taking the hit: first get someone else to do it, then get them to cut it.

Sometimes the speed and savagery of budget cuts means the money is simply not there anymore. Either way, the chain that links service to service user can be fragile.

As I step down, I know that the people who succeed me are committed, resourceful and dedicated to delivering the best services they can—and they are taking on an incredibly difficult challenge. It is hard to express what it feels like to have to balance a budget that is simply not big enough.

The relationships between people who are focused on the needs of others must transcend the transactional. Where there is a genuine shared vision and approach, organisations can be greater than the sum of their parts.

Money is the biggest problem in the third sector right now but it’s not the only one: it’s possible to spend a lot of money on poor services, and value and cost are not the same. There are many important things that we don’t have enough money for but these days we should be grateful that talk, after all, is cheap.

Imogen Walker appeared at a recent NPC event on the potential for ‘place’ to foster more collaboration between the third sector and others. For more NPC events on a range of topics see our website and to stay up to date sign up to our newsletter or follow us on Twitter.