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Social Business Review 2018: Looking ahead

Pamela Dow, our Chief Reform Officer, looks to the year ahead and sets out what needs to happen to make sure everyone has a good place to live, good people around them and a purpose in life.

04 January 2019


With Whitehall focused on the mechanics and implications of Brexit, the opportunity for local people to ‘take back control’ is huge.

From Police and Crime Commissioners to Headteachers, from GPs to Magistrates, local leaders have the knowledge and networks needed to do the right thing.

This makes sense financially: the costs, both direct and indirect, of rigid national bureaucracy is indefensible when public finances are constrained.

It makes sense technologically: we should not fear areas being left behind in a postcode lottery now that it is so easy for people to scrutinise and publicise the service they receive. We can automate standard performance measures for easy comparison.

It also makes sense based on theory and evidence: the single most important factor in helping people overcome their circumstances or bad choices is the quality of the human relationships in their lives, and these are formed and sustained best with as minimal prescription from a faceless centre as possible.

Devolution deals (for example in Manchester and London) could hold the key to reforming criminal justice by handing over budget responsibility to City Mayors. We’re already seeing that much can be done using local convening power,  and the courage of conviction. Durham PCC Ron Hogg is leading the way with a criminal justice strategy linking social work, health, education, CPS, police, prisons and probation. The expansion of his “Operation Checkpoint” has made sentences for some crimes both meaningful and effective, while reducing demand on straining prisons.

We want to see even greater devolution, from City Hall to individual school, court and even high street. Students in Catch22 schools can only flourish if their teachers and families can draw easily on other sources of support, for example clinical or mental health, sports or creative arts, work experience, or additional tuition. The only way these partnerships are possible is by building them at local level.

We also urge policymakers, politicians and media commentators to get out of London. Calling for others to ‘share best practice’ or creating expensive online repositories of said good practice doesn’t work.

What does work is understanding and talking about what is happening in Wisbech and Wigan, Norfolk, Hull and Crewe. This illustrates the art of the possible and specifics of change. Ministers should focus less on publishing new grand strategies and instead talk about what they have seen and how the people they meet are disrupting the status quo.


We all agree that relationships matter most – between social workers and children in care, teachers and their students, police officers and the people on the streets they patrol, prison officers and the men or women on their wings

Given this consensus, our national policy emphasis on structures and systems is outdated.

Focusing all efforts on frontline staff training, recruitment, reward, retention, culture, management and leadership will make the biggest difference. ‘WHAT’ works is increasingly recognised as limited; ‘HOW’ something works is the challenge, and it is necessary to understand in the context of scaling successful services.

We would like national and local commissioners to recognise that staffing costs are not an overhead to be driven down but the quality “product” they are buying. High staff retention should be a measurable and rewarded aspect of any contract.

New graduate schemes, or professional development, like Frontline, Unlocked and The Difference, are to be celebrated, not least because they challenge practice which is as damaging in the public and charitable sectors as it is in private. All initiatives that encourage staff engagement, learning and reflection, and a culture of transparency and enquiry within frontline teams, should be similarly celebrated.

The potential for using the Apprenticeship Levy to change organisational behaviour in the public and social sectors, not just private, has not yet been fully realised.

We would like to see all Local Authorities and public services invest in their entry level and training roles in pursuit of higher quality outcomes overall.


We need public services that share the goal of helping everyone to be the authors of their own life stories, where necessary overcoming limiting circumstances or bad choices. While everyone’s needs are different, the same principles of successful support apply in job centres, prisons, schools and social work.

Ultimately we would like political and policy leaders to remove as many barriers to common sense collaboration between these professional silos as possible. The arbitrary distinctions between remits and associated budgets have created perverse incentives to do the compliant thing, not the right thing.

By 2020, could the verb ‘commission’ be restored to its simple definition in common speech? Its current overuse as a label for an overbearing, rigid, industry of paper and process is corrosive.

Public money needs to be spent on good public services. Sometimes that means procuring a service, sometimes forming a partnership, sometimes buying a product, sometimes devolving responsibility for delivering an outcome in the most efficient and effective way possible.

Very rarely is a national contract superior to a local one, and very rarely is the public service need of a magnitude requiring the most risk-averse interpretation of ‘State Aid’.

There is an immediate opportunity to use the next 12 months to restore good sense, good judgement, and confidence to public service procurement.