By Civil Service World

05 Dec 2012

The Big Lottery Fund gives away millions of pounds to boost good causes in the UK. Chief executive Peter Wanless tells Tim Fish why he wants to work more closely with Whitehall, and how the fund can help the public sector


“It’s like being a ‘Secret Millionaire’ week after week,” says Peter Wanless, chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund (BLF). In that Channel 4 series, millionaires go undercover and spend a week volunteering with local charities, before revealing their identities and handing out cheques. But Wanless is understating his case; the BLF offers still greater largesse. “As a funder we distribute around £750m a year, so it’s megabucks,” he says.

Of every pound spent on National Lottery tickets, 28 pence goes to good causes. Of this 40 per cent goes to the BLF, with the rest allocated to arts, sports and heritage. The BLF spends its money improving communities and helping those in need, directing its funds through charities and social enterprises.

However, the organisation has too often been seen as a “cash machine”, says Wanless. The aim now is to become an “intelligent funder” – making more of a difference with the money and “influencing wider practice” in the delivery of services.

Wanless also believes that the BLF can use its experiences to demonstrate to government a different way of running services. The fund can show how to deliver services in a “preventative and more joined-up” way, he says, involving charities and ensuring “that our money is not here today and gone tomorrow but is making a durable impact across the country.”

The BLF funds charities in two ways: by offering a series of small grants of up to £10,000 for open programmes, under which people can make improvements to the quality of life in their neighbourhoods; and through larger, targeted programmes designed to tackle wider social problems.

“We work really hard to put charities in the driving seat, demonstrating completely different ways of delivering public services for public benefit,” Wanless says. “We sit on a wealth of examples of extraordinary people and organisations doing remarkable things for many of the most vulnerable people in our society.”

Unlike the civil service, the Big Lottery Fund can “start from the context of people’s lives”, he argues. To illustrate his point, Wanless recalls his time in the civil service as an education official visiting an after-school club where black and ethnic minority boys were being taught public speaking skills. Although the benefits of the programme were clear – the children were learning to express themselves clearly and confidently – “I was unable as an education department official to do anything to fund that because it wasn’t directly related to literacy or numeracy [targets]”.

The BLF, on the other hand, is “not constrained by those annuality rules where you have to spend money within a particular year; we are not constrained by Comprehensive Spending Review periods; we are not constrained by the need to demonstrate to a minister pretty rapidly that something has happened as a consequence of the money,” he says.

Wanless adds that the government does need to have mechanisms for rationing its scarce resources, but the political need to demonstrate results can lead to a short-term outlook in Whitehall.

However, he says the BLF “can work to longer time-frames [and] we are not constrained by departmentalism, which can be a challenge as well”. The fund’s long-standing partnerships with voluntary and community sector groups also give it “connectivity to that world,” says Wanless, “which I think is very difficult to get your head around when you are in a national department working to deliver and roll out national schemes.”

In particular, the BLF runs the Big Local Trust programme, which over ten years will give at least £1m to each of 150 neighbourhoods across England that have failed to access lottery funding in the past. The money is used to help local people work together to improve their quality of life. Wanless says this programme was approved because pilots had demonstrated that long-term funding directed into local communities produced good results some years down the road.

“If I had been in Whitehall and I’d gone to a minister and said: ‘I’ve got this idea for a programme and in three or four years you are going to be able to show that local people are talking to one another,’ they would have kicked me out of the room and said: ‘Go back and get me something that will show some demonstrable impact in six months’,” Wanless says.

He also believes that the fund can spend more on evaluation and learning than government departments, arguing that “there is a tendency, I think, if you are in a government department, to desire activity over understanding.”

Further, while Wanless says that civil servants do want to learn about what works, he believes that their decisions are subject to other pressures that can make it “incredibly difficult” to spend money in the best possible ways. For example, he says, officials may have statutory obligations which require services to be delivered in specific time frames and budgets, with results required in a matter of months. “That is a hard thing to step right back from,” he says.

Wanless believes that the government could learn a lot about effective service delivery from the BLF – but first, the fund will have to develop stronger relationships with Whitehall departments: to date, he explains, it has operated “very much at arm’s-length” from government. In part, this is because the BLF has felt a need to prove to its partners in the voluntary and charity sector that it is not a “pushover” that’s “dancing to whatever tune a minister wants to be pushing.” And in part, it’s because fund managers have felt that the government tends “to see the lottery as a big bag of money”, with ministers trying to “raid” the BLF for cash for their own programmes; rebuffed, he says, ministers “have not shown interest” in other ways of engaging with the fund.

This attitude “sets the conversation off on completely the wrong footing, because we are immediately suspicious and will resist any sense of being leant on,” says Wanless. However, he believes that a closer relationship would benefit both sides: the government could learn a lot about effective commissioning of public services, and the BLF could help develop its social mission by getting involved in the government’s work to create a market in social investments. The BLF has already been a co-commissioner in the Ministry of Justice social investment pilot designed to cut reoffending among those leaving Peterborough prison, he says: “Getting alongside the commissioners helps get a flow of these deals off the ground, which can then be explored and tested for their quality and relevance across public services.” Social investments which prove effective could produce a new income stream for some of the BLF’s third sector partners, Wanless adds.

To help government learn some of the lessons of the BLF’s experiences, early next year the fund and the Institute for Government will hold a series of events for public officials. The intention, says Wanless, is to provide civil servants and council officers with “ready access” to people who work on the ground trying out different ways of delivering public services.

In this way, Wanless hopes that together they can design new delivery methods that “are more preventative, less expensive, more cost-effective”. In other words, public service delivery will become less of a lottery, and more of a jackpot.

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