What can charities bring to public services?

This blog post was originally published on The Guardian’s Public Leaders Network on Wednesday 24 October, 2012.

During his speech at the Conservative party conference, the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to reforming public services, saying that unreformed public services are a key hallmark of countries “on the slide”.

The government’s programme for reform intends to make public services more creative and innovative. As the voluntary sector has decades of experience in identifying, addressing and preventing inequalities, I see voluntary organisations as well-placed to improve both the design and delivery of many public services. And this involvement is vital for the voluntary sector. In many cases, it is the best way for organisations to achieve their mission, as it means they can provide direct support to beneficiaries.

To enable this, I believe that lessons should be learned from real experiences. Take the Baca project in Leicestershire, which designs and delivers services targeting the needs of 15 to 19-year-olds trafficked in the UK or seeking asylum. They have found it difficult fully to capture the benefits of their unique services in the box of a contract tender document. Or West Mercia Probation Trust which is successfully working in partnership with youth charity YSS to jointly explore new potential services to help reduce reoffending.

Yet to enable charities to provide these innovative services, there are a number of steps that could be taken by central government. Firstly, by continuing to offer grant funding could support pilots of experimental ideas and enable new entrants into the public service market. Secondly, data on service users’ needs, motivations and choices should be made widely available, in accessible formats, to allow providers to propose services that are responsive to people’s needs.

At a local level, commissioners should engage at an early stage with prospective service providers, as well as with social investors. Commissioners should also be proactive in developing partnerships and subcontracting relationships among providers to enable new collaborations and innovation. It is important for potential providers, including social investors, to have adequate time to prepare for contract bids.

Of course, charities also have a role to play in enabling the successful innovation of services. They should proactively make contact with commissioners at an early stage, so as to avoid risk-averse and cautious procurement practice, which too often hampers innovation. They should also be prepared to invest time and staff resources into preparing for public service delivery, such as ensuring that governance structures have the operational and strategic skills to manage contracts and deliver services.

Here at NCVO we have co-ordinated a collaborative report entitled ‘Open Public Services: Experiences from the Voluntary Sector’ to share the experiences and expertise of the voluntary sector. The report has been created in partnership by 14 organisations, specialising in areas including health and social care, criminal justice and social investment.

The government’s open public services agenda could transform services to be more responsive to the needs of users and local communities. Our report shares some possible barriers to innovation and experts discuss the need to manage risks for providers, the potential of social investment and the need for central government to ensure minimum standards are upheld.

Government needs to listen to and learn from the experience and expertise of charities so that the voluntary sector’s potential for providing innovative solutions to improve our public services can be fulfilled.

We welcome your views on our Public Services work. You can feed in your thoughts via our “Tell NCVO” comment box, or contact James.Allen@ncvo-vol.org.uk.

NCVO Policy Team’s blog

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Charlotte Ravenscroft was NCVO’s head of policy and public services. Charlotte’s wrote about funding, public service delivery, and strengthening the evidence base for voluntary action. She has also worked at The National Lottery Community Fund and the Department for Education.

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