By Jess Bowie

14 Nov 2012

Helping charities deliver public services can be challenging work, says one professional at the public-voluntary sector interface.

“I work for an organisation that represents charities to the government – specifically charities which deliver public services. Much of my work is focused around commissioning and procurement, and trying to get the public sector and the voluntary sector to work together. I deal with a number of government departments on a regular basis, including those for health, work & pensions and communities, plus the Cabinet Office.

Working in procurement, I regularly come up against a lack of flexibility within public bodies. A major challenge we face in the voluntary sector is that we’re working with commissioners who have good ideas about how to transform public services, but their own procurement teams will say: ‘You can’t do that, it’s not legal to contract in a way that’s fluid and allows for change.’

There are extensive procurement problems in my sector: contracts are too large for us to compete for; timescales are often too short to enable collaboration; procurement exercises are started and then abandoned – which means hundreds of wasted hours preparing for a bid, and is something charities just can’t afford. I’ve experienced this in all the bodies I’m trying to help.

Problems with procurement don’t seem to change, which is why the public sector needs to be imaginative about what it buys. One of the welfare state’s big problems is that the government keeps purchasing the same old services, and these services don’t tackle the fundamental problems afflicting people’s lives. The government needs to think: ‘How can we change what we’re purchasing?’, and to do that it needs to start talking to the innovators in the field who are doing new things, trying new approaches, and being more adventurous.

Another issue with the management of government procurement is that budgets need to be more focused around individuals. For example – and this is a famous one – while adult social care and healthcare are both funded by the Department of Health, delivery of adult social care is controlled by local authorities while health is controlled by the local primary care trust. What this means is that, for example, mental health users who are eligible for adult social care are batted back and forth between the two institutions, and ultimately the individual gets a less effective service. Often the people who are most vulnerable will be receiving services from up to three departments in the local authority, plus different departments in the NHS – they might also be accessing drug and alcohol services, too – and they get this range of help which has no impact other than keeping them alive in a miserable existence. But if you coordinated the care, providing joint funding for a single key worker, you’d really start to make
a difference.

It does sound like the government is trying to drive cross-departmental budgets. That could be a very good thing if it means spending is centred more on the individual. Currently, the welfare state is set up around enormous institutions in Whitehall that are then split up into other huge local institutions – whereas actually what gives people a good life, and a good sense of health and accountability and skills, is a solid, one-to-one relationship with someone.

One government procurement drive I approve of is payment by results. I agree with the idea because, in theory at least, you’re paying for performance and you’re paying for the outcomes of a service. The problem is that the government is too removed from the frontline to set appropriate outcomes.

Many of the services that get delivered don’t achieve the specified outcomes, but they do achieve things which are part way to those outcomes. The current policy doesn’t seem to recognise, for example, that for a person who has mental health problems and who’s been unemployed for 15 years, getting back into a paid job is an incremental process likely to require a number of interventions on the way. So firms operating under payment by results might not get paid if they achieve half the result, because the systems in place at the moment don’t recognise that level of subtlety. I think this should be addressed.

Something I think would make a huge difference all round is giving civil servants who work in Whitehall more experience of the frontline. More volunteering would help, as would more work-shadowing schemes between people in Whitehall and people in the voluntary sector. In the voluntary sector, we really believe in the power of individuals to create change, and I think starting to treat civil servants like individuals and letting them think for themselves and get out there and make new relationships – well, that’s massively empowering. To bring about system changes, you need to get people feeling inspired and passionate about their jobs.”

Read the most recent articles written by Jess Bowie - Lunch with... civil service skills evangelist Pamela Dow


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