Guest Blog: the importance of the voluntary sector in public service reform

tom_hamilton-shawTom Hamilton-Shaw is a Public Policy Advisor at the British Red Cross and one of the contributors of the report ‘Open Public Services: Experiences from the Voluntary Sector’, a collaborative report by NCVO and other voluntary sector partners.
Here he presents the case for timely reform of our public services and the need to learn from the voluntary sector’s experiences in public services design and delivery.

The context of public service reform

What is the biggest challenge facing our public services: financial cuts or an ageing population? My conclusion is:  it’s quite simply both. A conclusion also drawn by Matthew Fell at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and Nick Pearce of IPPR in their publication’The Long View‘, earlier this year.

To add some context; the voluntary sector is estimated to lose about £3.3 billion over the current comprehensive spending review period. And a look at services where financial data is available (by no means all of them), 70% of the health and care budget in the NHS is spent on patients with long term chronic conditions. This figure will grow with an ageing population.

Innovating a solution

So a cold look at the supply and demand numbers shows there are very few options left but to innovate to get more impact from less money. Thus there is a real and pressing risk that, without innovation and the essential contribution of the voluntary sector, people will suffer serious deprivation in terms of meeting their basic needs.

In this context it’s unsurprising that while the contours of public service reform are still debated by the main political parties, the need for reform is not.

‘Open Public Services: Experiences from the Voluntary Sector’ gives the voluntary sector’s first answers to the challenge. Detailed evidence and recommendations from each voluntary organisation are at the end of each section but it’s useful to draw some overall conclusions from the report.

The British Red Cross’s consortia model

The British Red Cross has already seen the fantastic results that can flow from a successful collaboration (whether through partnership or consortia models, with big or small organisations, within or across sectors). For example, whilst leading a consortium in Conwy, the British Red Cross were able to bring the hospital readmission rate amongst a group of vulnerable clients down to 10%; a significant drop in the pre-intervention admission rate.

We must, as a sector, get better at working in these ways. Not being closed-minded ourselves is the first step to convincing government that we can innovate to save and get better outcomes for the groups we are working with.

The value of volunteers in public services

Many voluntary organisations know that their volunteers are their greatest asset. However, volunteers aren’t free. Yes, they can save commissioners money but they represent a huge ‘hidden’ benefit through developing productive relationships, connections and social capital that make communities and individuals more resilient.

The need for investment

But this requires the right kind of investment by commissioners, government and investors so that far greater savings can accrue later on. In this light “Where is the money going to come from?” should be an overriding, urgent priority in government. Furthermore, so is “Where should the money go to?”. The most innovative charities that can credibly evidence their impact seem like a good bet.

However, a telling example is that, despite Big Society Capital launching, the Peterborough social impact bond is the only social impact bond with government backing launched thus far. Why has this not yet been replicated by other ministries, even in pilot form, on a wider scale?

The time for reform is now

Following on, a final point is crucial: the time for reform is now. The need for change is pressing and the pace must not slow. From the sector’s side, we need to show Ministers and Civil Servants quite how capable we are in areas like prevention and integration, as well as looking to our own efficiencies and modus operandi.

None of these issues are insurmountable but in the context of the twin pressures highlighted above will be hugely challenging. The voluntary sector shows in this report that answering need in new and innovative ways is not only necessary, it’s more importantly, already possible.

Indeed hurdles are already being leaped and barriers torn down. My hope is that people will see this report as a bright staging post on the way to a truly open public service future.

Tom Hamilton-Shaw

NCVO Policy Team’s blog

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