The Civil Society Strategy: getting from aspiration to implementation
“The future we want is one of collaboration and co-creation.” — Ministerial foreword to the Civil Society Strategy
The government’s Civil Society Strategy, “Building a future that works for everyone”, published just before the summer recess, has been broadly well received by the people most interested in its contents – namely voluntary organisations and social enterprises, which are referred to as “the social sector” in the strategy.
Actually we – the Public Service Transformation Academy – are pretty interested in it too, because it is very much the space we work in: helping public services work closer together to bring about better outcomes for (and with) the people and places they serve. We couldn’t agree more with the words quoted above from the Ministerial Foreword; we practice, and we preach, collaboration and co-production (although of course our style is far from literal “preaching”).
Who are we? These are the PSTA partner organisations:
Almost universally, people responding to the strategy for the social sector express two connected responses: they welcome the intentions and ambitions expressed in the text, and they want now to see them implemented in practice. Some examples:
“We’re encouraged… but there’s much work to be done.”
“A welcome first step… need to transform ideas into action.”
“Direction of travel feels encouraging… need to work closely with our sector to understand how to put these ideas into practice.”
We broadly share those views, and this short piece is about how we think we can help to get from strategy to real change on the ground. Disconnects between strategy and implementation are not unknown, and the best intentions can be deflected by conflicting or emerging priorities (“Brexit”?), by ministerial changes, by election results, or just by the “dark matter” of institutional bureaucracy.
We particularly welcome:
- the importance given to what people can best do for and by themselves, using their own assets, knowledge and talent. We advocate “asset-based commissioning” in our programmes as a positive alternative to the perception that people amount simply to the sum of their presenting needs and demands;
- the importance of working for and leading “the place” through collaborative commissioning, as opposed to operating within limited and limiting organisational and professional boundaries;
- the Innovation in Democracy programme which will, according to the strategy, “pilot participatory democracy approaches”. We really hope this opportunity is seized with enthusiasm and courage because the calls that are frequently made for ‘a new social contract’ to rewrite the relationship between citizens and state often seem to amount more to an ultimatum than a fundamental renegotiation;
- the recognition of the need for strong support systems for social sector organisations and leadership support for chief executives of hard-pressed voluntary organisations. This sort of capacity building is central to what we do.
The PSTA is already in a great place to take forward the ideas in the strategy:
- we design and run the Commissioning Academy, established by the Cabinet Office and now operated by PSTA, which is all about bringing commissioning practitioners together with input from expert contributors to find ways of collaborating better for better outcomes; Academies are run at national level, for regions and localities, or based on particular themes. The Academy is twice cited in the Civil Society Strategy;
- our local Academy programmes have become well-respected spaces to explore and develop the asset-based commissioning approach central to the Civil Society Strategy. Based around “place”, they bring together a broad spectrum of public service partners – both public sector and independent sector partners. We have already run local academies in Greater Manchester, Cornwall, Somerset, Wirral, Sefton, the East of England and have more planned in the North West. Local academies are always tailored to the requirements of individual areas and local priorities, and always provide a place where the best and most innovative practice can be shared and tested out, adding real value to service transformation locally.
- we have the NVCO amongst our members, and we partner with bodies like ACEVO, the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, to offer conference speakers and masterclasses for civil society leaders on working with commissioners;
- our programmes are really good at getting people together from different sectors and backgrounds, giving them the time and space to share issues and insight and to build capacity and support networks themselves;
- the strategy calls, as we noted above, for more “collaborative commissioning” so that “all the resources of a community, including public funding, will be deployed to tackle the community’s challenges.” This matches exactly what we’ve been saying in academies and elsewhere for some time:
(Actually, it’s the other way around! Outcomes -> resources -> methods.)
The picture above expresses our concept of agreeing outcomes and deploying all available resources in all sectors — including the private sector as providers or investors, and including the assets and talent existing in family networks and communities — to achieving them.
But, of course, doing “collaborative commissioning” well is not as straightforward as joining two boxes with an arrow. It’s challenging and difficult and often frustrating, because many people and organisations with different agendas and priorities are involved; the challenging bit is to bring together as far as possible those agendas and priorities (and skills, insight and resources). We have experts in the approaches and skills necessary to get to collaborative commissioning practitioners:
- understanding and working on systems;
- working with outcomes, not “services”;
- doing co-production with people and communities;
- generating and appraising alternatives to the status quo where that is not sustainable or not working;
- designing and putting in place alternative models of delivery;
- building support networks and capacity to make it all happen.
The Civil Society Strategy contains some really good initiatives, and it would be a pity for them not to come to fruition. The PSTA is already working hard in these areas, and we’re enthusiastic about continuing to help wherever we can.
- Terry Rich — Chair, PSTA [firstname.lastname@example.org]
- Peter Johnson — PSTA and RedQuadrant consultant [email@example.com]