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Lessons for local government from the third sector

Source: Public Sector Executive Sept/Oct 2012

At the end of last year Michael O’Connor retired from his job as Director of Children’s Services at Westminster City Council and at around the same time became a trustee at CLIC Sargent, the UK’s leading cancer charity for children and young people. He argues that there are lessons that local government and the voluntary sector still have to learn from each other.

Last autumn, when I was offered a position as trustee of CLIC Sargent, I knew that my experience in children’s services in local government was a key factor in the decision. And I expected I would have a lot to offer in helping the charity to achieve its strategy and its plans to grow its services, particularly to young people and survivors of cancer.

Nine months in, that has certainly been the case, but the experience has also reinforced my view that local government still has a lot of best practice to learn from the voluntary sector and there is still untapped potential for partnership working.

I certainly know there is no way we would have been able to achieve what we did in children’s services during my time at Westminster without working in partnership with the voluntary sector, both through contracts with the larger charities and with local charities to reach people in every part of the community.

From 2008-2011 we took £13m of cost out of children’s services whilst improving performance; Westminster was judged to be excellent in 2011. The voluntary sector played a key role in ensuring the resources we invested in made a real difference to families in the borough.

The pressure to make efficiencies in the public sector has been around for a long time now, and the impact of the recession and the subsequent public spending squeeze has made it even more vital that local authorities find new ways to do more or at least add as much value to their communities for less.

Some of that pressure has been transferred to our voluntary sector partners, but equally charities are also feeling the pinch of reduced donation levels and a more circumspect public demanding that every pound they donate makes more of a difference.

It’s a fact that it costs money to fundraise, and that sometimes comes as a shock to donors. So it’s vital that charities can demonstrate they are efficient organisations, where investment generates an even greater payback for beneficiaries, helping to deliver the changes it is the charity’s mission to achieve.

There are solutions both sectors might share. Certainly removing costs and waste in processes and back office functions, familiar to local government, are a key focus at CLIC Sargent in the next few years. It will mean we can demonstrate that we are making the best use of every pound supporters donate, and create the space for growth and investment in new services.

Our watchword at Westminster was that everything was up for challenge, no area was exempt from rigorous scrutiny and we had a complete focus on our frontline services, and I see that same drive at CLIC Sargent.

But what can local government learn from the voluntary sector? Local Government can do much more in encouraging the involvement of volunteers. CLIC Sargent has a central volunteering team of two people, supporting managers across the UK who work with over 2,500 volunteers involved in fundraising and in offices, with some also supporting services to children and young people with cancer, and their families. Last year volunteers gave 530,000 hours of their time to support the charity. That’s a lot of added value for a relatively small investment. And of course I’m a volunteer myself, as are all CLIC Sargent’s trustees.

CLIC Sargent employs a network of health and social care professionals including social workers, nurses and others to provide their core support to children and young people and their families, but it’s clear that the charity wouldn’t be able to raise the funds it needs or have the impact it does without the contribution of volunteers.

There is undoubtedly untapped potential to involve volunteers in supporting the delivery of local services throughout the UK. We should not forget the additional benefits of the social capital that you create by involving people in building and supporting their community. Partnership work with your local voluntary sector has surely got to be a significant route to accessing this potential.

CLIC Sargent has been partnering with NHS trusts for years in a very specialist clinical area, adding tremendously to the support and experience children and young people and their families have as they deal with their cancer diagnosis, their treatment and the lasting effects of cancer. Increasingly the charity is looking to work alongside, and coordinate communications between, other local agencies to ensure the best possible support is available for children and young people with cancer in their community: for example with GPs, local authorities, schools, universities and employers.

I think the work CLIC Sargent does is a demonstration that there are no areas where we should assume there can’t be a role for the voluntary sector. There are no simple fixes. The resources you have available will always provide limitations and barriers. But one of the other things that guided our work at Westminster was the need to be innovative and creative, and you can only do that by taking well considered risks, and seeing how new ideas work for your community. It’s clear to me that the voluntary sector has got to be part of those new solutions to move through the challenging environment we all face and achieve our ambitions for our communities.

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