Thinking Beyond the Fragments

Following a conference at which I spoke in summer, Enfield Council launched its pamphlet Thinking Beyond the Fragments, today. My article is below or click the link to read it in context.


Some of the best local services delivered within communities are generated by voluntary or community organisations. ‘Best’ means cost effective, personalised, outcome-orientated and sustainable. Many local authority and other public sector providers also do an excellent job but there is a growing feeling that more could be done by organising such services differently. Such concerns are thrown into sharp focus both by the cuts environment and by questions of community resilience raised by recent troubles on Britain’s streets.

Over half a generation, a body of good practice has grown up in the commissioning of services from charities, the outsourcing of services in other ways and the empowering of employees to take local decisions to best meet local demands. Where recipients of such services are informed, funding is secure and relationships work between service users, commissioners and the commissioned the system serves its purpose.

Yet many people, especially in more deprived communities, where money has been thrown at social exclusion for decades, still do not receive the support, encouragement, opportunity and even benefits that they need.

The record of hard work not delivering what the socially excluded need to become included is embarrassing. The Citizens Advice Bureau confirms that too many people do not claim payments they are due such as disability benefits or tax credits and the same will be true of home helps. Figures suggest that charities working alone are no better: the nation’s largest charity for people with hearing impairments readily admits that it reaches only a fraction of its potential target audience and every community group imposes necessary geographical limits to its work, inevitably creating service lacunae.

Many have come to feel – cuts aside – that there is a limit to what centrally delivered services can achieve; that Town Hall, let alone Whitehall, does not necessarily know best and that the era of ‘one size fits all’ is ending.

If Big Government is over, can Big Society take over? No, not wholesale.

Localism is a fine concept. Communities should determine what goes on at a community level where that is the appropriate level for such decisions to be made. The siting of a lamp post or the route of a community support officer’s beat are of no interest to the next community down the road nor to the leader of the council or the minister responsible for reducing crime. Councils should respond positively to local concerns about speed limits where it makes sense within a wider community framework; not every hospital can be expected to provide access to every kind of specialist service.

But if people are to expect a say in how services are run then they should be granted two further rights: that any service provided will be subject to minimum quality standards and that it should be universally accessible to those who need it. Certain hospitals may provide only certain services but every service should be capable of being accessed within reasonable limits of cost and convenience. What is not acceptable is that within this community housebound people will receive an acceptable level of personalised service but within that one they will get no equivalent support.

Free market trends in the provision of services – such as we have seen with care homes – can lead to a race to the bottom, ‘what can we get away with?’ rather than ‘what do our customers need?’ Charities, which exist simply to care, decry the profit motive for this very reason yet there is evidence, such as in Circle Partnership’s approach to health, that high standards and a return for investors can be brought together in a socially responsible way. The best charities providing commissioned services today have adopted a business-like approach without yielding to profit-hungry mission drift.

Charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises can and do provide a very high quality of reliable and effective services but they should not be doing so alone: neither should private sector businesses, often populated by people who formerly worked in the public or third sectors.

Only an active and engaged local authority can ensure that coordination of such services happens, that the market is locally regulated, service standards are guaranteed, the voice of the community is represented and gaps in the market are addressed.

Public Service Agreements, Service Level Agreements and commissioning, even outsourcing to employee mutuals, are meat and drink to many local authorities. After some hesitant starts, the evolution of local Compacts since 1998 has led to better engagement of communities, more personalised services and even cost savings. The tragedy of the current round of local government cuts, where some providers of commissioned services no longer know the name of their commissioning officer, is that values and relationships are lost in the ensuing chaos. At greatest risk are councils’ discretionary rather than statutory services, topically including those for young people. The newly refocused Compact is in danger of being sidelined.

The Big Society contains threats as well as opportunities. To maximise the latter and minimise the former requires structures, lines of communication, guarantees of service quality and universal access. Local authorities, many of whom already pursue a positive long term devolutionary agenda (in contrast to slashing services in response to the cuts) are in the ideal position to provide the necessary infrastructure. In deprived areas where social capital is at a premium the local authority alone can discharge this role.

The real danger is that expectations of community and voluntary service providers are being raised while the capacity of the system as a whole falls, unless local authorities have greater ability to coordinate, promote and regulate the Big Society with a light but essential touch.

If this does not happen, if councils become enfeebled or irrelevant and service delivery fragmented and rudderless then, amongst other consequences, many of the most deprived will continue to miss out and the risk of August 2011 happening again on our streets will be significantly raised.


Tom Levitt is the author of ‘Partners for Good: Business, Public and Third Sectors’ to be published by Gower early in 2012.