Caroline Slocock: Public services and charities must stop being a 'problem industry'

02 Dec 2019 Voices

Better Way Network

It’s good to see politicians promising to invest more in public services – many are struggling to cope and services need more funds.  And of course that’s true of many voluntary sector bodies too.  But they don’t just need more money.  

Too many are addressing the symptoms not the causes that lead people to seek their help and risk falling into the trap of becoming a ‘problem industry’.  We need to challenge politicians, and also ourselves, about what makes a good service.
Over the last three years, I and my co-convenor Steve Wyler have been talking with leaders in the voluntary, public and private sectors about how to achieve what we call ‘a better way’ to improve services and strengthen communities. Our Better Way network has grown and now stands at nearly 500 leaders, and it’s still growing.  

We are resolutely positive and hopeful about the future but we are also clear about what’s not working now.
Too many people and communities are left out and behind.  Too often, policies and systems divide and disempower, and politicians and organisations hoard rather than share power. Practitioners – not just in public services but also the charity sector - can lack real ambition for those they serve, treating them like problems rather than the solution, and de-personalising services. Some agencies end up pursuing organisational interest and survival and lose sight of their real mission.  And, finally, our systems and leadership styles force organisations to compete against each other rather than collaborating to achieve the changes people need.
Our network has been focusing on what we can do to challenge ‘business as usual’ and we set out practical steps in our Call to Action for a Better Way. We’re calling for action to unlock the power of connection and community, by:

  • Sharing power with people and communities.
  • Changing practices to help people thrive, not just cope.
  • Changing organisations to focus on communities and solutions.
  • Creating collaborative leadership to achieve systemic change.

Our call is to everyone - public bodies, charities, private sector providers, politicians and indeed ourselves. One of our founding principles is that – while we must challenge others including politicians to do more - changing ourselves is better than demanding change from others.  
It’s easy even for leaders - let alone those who feel alienated and excluded - to feel powerless. Power lies in too few hands, it’s true, and the inertia in our current systems is considerable.  But it is also true that there are things we can do. We know they are possible because our members are already doing them, as the many contributors to our Call to Action can testify. Polly Neate in Shelter, for example, is applying the Better Way principles to their work. In Surrey, leaders are working collaboratively to improve services for children and young people and their families. And there are many more.
We can create platforms and capacity for more people to take more power.  Practitioners can focus on strengths not weaknesses, acting with humanity and kindness, and put an end to the ‘problem industry’. Organisations can put people first and build communities not just services. And we can work together, rather than competing, to tackle the causes of social ills, not just the symptoms.
The prize is the power that is unlocked when:

  • Everyone is heard and believed in, given a fair opportunity to thrive, and the ability to influence the things that matter to them.
  • Every community comes together, looks out for each other, respects difference, and enables everyone to belong.
  • Society as a whole values and invests in everyone and in every community.

So let’s welcome more investment in our services but also challenge politicians to change how our services work, not just how much they spend, and to look to communities, including the voluntary sector, to be part of the solution.  

Let’s also do what we can as leaders to make things better.
Caroline Slocock is the Director of Civil Exchange and co-convenor, with Steve Wyler, of A Better Way.  A Call to Action for a Better Way was published on 29 November.

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