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A vision for reforming public services

Date: 01.12.15 |Categories: Featured, Markets

Chris Wright, CEO of Catch22

Chris Wright, CEO of Catch 22, shares his vision for reforming public services…

It’s fair to say that we are now existing in a new financial orthodoxy – not austerity but the new economics. That is, tighter budgets are not going away and we will not return to a world of plenty in the foreseeable future. We can either wring our hands or try and use this new environment to fundamentally rethink how public services are organised and delivered.

I am a timed-served public servant and have spent a large part of my career in social work, probation and youth justice before moving across to the social sector. I now run a relatively large charity, Catch22. We refer to ourselves as a ‘social business’, as we exist by selling our services to a range of commissioners across government, local government and government agencies. We also benefit from corporate investments which in the main allow us to test out new thinking.

Today, we have a turnover approaching £60million and organise our delivery into the following categories: Children’s social care, Justice, Employability, and Education. Perhaps counter-intuitively given the financial climate we have grown our operations by about 23% over the last 4 years.

I’ve become a strong believer in the power of socially driven organisations to play an even stronger role in the delivery of public services – but more importantly I believe that much of our people-facing public service delivery needs fundamental reform. We must move away from what have become increasingly transactional, bureaucratic and risk adverse services that tend to be remote from those they are there to support. Too often public services create the impression of doing to people rather than engaging with them. In saying this, I do not want to denigrate the many brilliant people working in such services. Rather, I am interested in finding a way of unlocking this capability and designing services that are more relational and impactful.

The recent spending review provides a further driver for reform. We’ve already witnessed significant cuts in departmental budgets and the subsequent flow down of these cuts to local government and the full panoply of public authorities. Salami slicing our way through these cuts will never create the solution. In the face of such significant financial challenges, to protect vital services and really improve outcomes for the people and communities we serve, we must radically rethink how the state delivers a range of its statutory responsibilities and who delivers them.

To this end we have identified three principles around which reform needs to emerge:

  • Being more human;
  • Unlocking capacity; and
  • Local accountability through different government models

I borrow the term ‘more human’ from the influential author Steve Hilton and his book published earlier this year, in which he argues that systems and structures have driven out the basic requirement to treat each other as human beings who we can relate to. In my own world I’m staggered how over the last 20 years or so, social care professionals have ended up being brokers, case managers and offender managers, responsible for ensuring their “clients” are processed through an ever complicated set of transactions at the expense of doing the most important thing – building a trusting relationship that can assist people with challenges to navigate their way out of their difficulties. In building these systems we have hard-wired in duplication and cost. So for example in a world in which I’m very familiar, youth justice, a young person entering the youth justice system may be subject to input from multiple agencies: they’ll have a supervising officer, they may be already in the care system and therefore have a looked after social worker, their family might be receiving support from the local troubled families team, they may have a substance misuse issue and receiving input from the local substance misuse team and they may be suffering from a mental health issue and also be receiving support from CAHMS. Surely this system can be rationalised. I believe that front line workers can be equipped and have been historically, to be able to address a multitude of presenting challenges and when in need of specialist intervention seek assistance. This idea is often understood as the ‘team around the worker’. In thinking differently about the prevailing delivery orthodoxies, we can both be relational and rational.

Secondly, when I talk about unlocking capacity, I mean simply that there is far more capacity out there than we currently access. For example, the Met police deploy 16000 special constables; our magistracy is largely delivered through lay magistrates; there are numerous examples of people doing things in their spare time that makes a fundamental difference to the communities in which they live. In Japan, there are 40,000 volunteer probation officers. I am not arguing that volunteers are the answer to all our challenges but I am suggesting that some of the orthodoxies that we’ve established over the years prevent us from thinking differently about how things can be done.

The statutory framework governing children’s social care is a pertinent example of how orthodoxy can act as a constraint to thinking differently. Catch22 managed to persuade the DfE to allow us to make a relatively modest change to this framework as part of a pilot service we are running with a local authority in the North West. The service is for Children in Need, who under the current framework would have been allocated to a social worker. In reality, if this happened, they would only ever receive a notional service resulting in up to 46% of these children re-entering the system within 12 months and often with a higher level of need. Our model is to allocate these children to non-social work qualified staff and/or volunteers. Often the work required is very practical and simple support and challenge. We need to think much more imaginatively about who does what and this will allow us to utilise a huge reservoir of capacity.

The third principle is that of accountability and different types of governance. I am increasingly concerned by how the system tends to do things to people and in doing so, ultimately denies individuals agency. Decision making takes place too far from the impact of the decisions and consequently leads to breakdown in trust and ownership. As devolution deals are discussed, we need to explore what double and triple devolution could look like and how we might be able to use different governance models to oversee the delivery of public services. Could we use the Free School methodology for example to oversee children’s social care? How about local prisons being “governed” by local people to create a sense of ownership and responsibility for what happens to those who end up incarcerated? These ideas might seem fanciful but we only need to look back in history to see how in the past communities took responsibility for dealing with social challenges.

The next important consideration is what this could look like on the ground. Catch22 has just won a competition launched by Big Society Capital – The Business Impact Challenge aimed to try and influence fresh thinking around corporate social responsibility. We linked up with Interserve, a FTSE 250 BPO business, and have developed a concept called the Public Services Lab. We aim to establish this in 2016 with a significant investment from BSC and Interserve. The purpose of the Lab which will comprise of three elements, a back office capability, an incubator and an accelerator, is to work collaboratively with commissioners and VCS organisations to re-imagine and remake how public services could be delivered outside of the normal arrangements. By providing PLC standard back office capability along with a social credit rating backed by insurance we are anticipating that we can help build the capacity of the VCS to do more at scale as well as locally. This will run as a commercial venture but with a clear social mission.

So, these are just some thoughts. I recognise that when tested some of the thinking will need to be firmed up and become more robust but this is the time to be bold. If we enter into the challenge with optimism with a sense of adventure, the future of public service delivery need not be bleak.