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Delivering public impact: why the third sector should not be overlooked

A woman stands in the foreground wearing an orange Catch22 tshirt with a Catch22-branded fabric tote bag. In the background, people are taking part in a workshop. Overlaid is text that reads "Reform Agenda".

Catch22 is relentless in its pursuit of more effective public service delivery for those who are most marginalised, and fully committed that public services can be delivered most effectively through a combination of the public, private and third sectors.

In this blog, Catch22’s Assistant Director of Business Development, Rosie Spiegelhalter, lays out the third sector’s key role in delivering public impact, where the barriers to its success and how they are surmountable if the sector and commissioners are bought into it.

The not-for-profit sector is an anchor to public services, yet fewer than 5% of outsourced public contracts are given to charities.

Catch22 is a proud part of that 5%, delivering over £40m of publicly contracted activity in the last financial year. From this we know that, while many services are best kept in the hands of the authorities themselves for reasons of accountability and value for public cash, there are many reasons to bring in an expert organisation to drive results.

From our experience, and from what we see every day from the many charity partners that we engage with, this is most true for the services that focus on directly working with people to address challenges and improve their lives, and which must address complex social issues as part of their day-to-day working.

Take our dedicated work to prevent child exploitation and incidents of young people going missing; some local authorities have contracted us to manage these service, while many local authorities will instead elect to lead them themselves.

“By having these services run by an independent organisation, we are able to give a sole focus to the young person’s needs, to better manage trusting relationships with people and families that may have negative perceptions of their council, and to offer partner agencies (including the police and children’s social care staff) a trusted professional advocating autonomously for the young person on their case.”

– Emma Norman, Director of Young People and Families at Catch22

Within the bigger picture, the status as a third sector provider means that organisations are more likely to have a trusted local role embedded within the community, to remain responsive to the ever-changing needs of those that they are there to support, and focus on the long term prevention and root cause of the issues that they are established to address.

Plus, let’s not forget that any surplus cash goes straight back into reinvestment to our cause and not into any shareholders’ pockets!

The act of awarding a contract is both a legal process and an act of trust.

Many commissioners may view not-for-profits as a higher risk than delivering services themselves in terms of outcomes being met. The vast majority are small organsiations, often lacking the infrastructure to deliver against contract constraints, mobilise larger services or to make rapid changes in an ever-changing environment. Additionally, charities may have a strong specialist or regional offering but will struggle to meet the needs of a generalist service or one over a wider geography.

But what can achieved when it is done well can expand the impact of the service further. Let’s take our Offender Management Unit (OMU) at HMP Thameside: the only one of its kind managed by a third sector provider, and doubtless seen as a great risk by both the Ministry of Justice and the private prison contractor:

While our staff deliver assessment and case management to those incarcerated just like any of the private and public sector teams running the same service at other prisons, as a charity organisation we attract staff that focus on long-term impact and addressing the root causes of offending. Because of this, our service was able to identify a clear need around convicted men associated with gangs, and develop a targeted service backed with working knowledge of the environments they have come from as well as the issues they may face within prison. The programme, absent from any other OMU, resulted in a 12% reduction in pro-criminal attitudes amongst participants.

So how can we make sure that we see more of this work?

Some key ideas came from Catch22’s The role of the third sector in the Criminal Justice System conference, where we gathered a panel of experts representing both third sector organisations and commissioners to discuss the key role played in that sector specifically.

The panel made the case that third sector providers are valued for enabling innovative ways of working, where they do not have the barriers or narrow perspective that can impact statutory services. Many potential ways were put forward to address this, including:

  • engaging with the communities that they intend to reach and the organisations working closest with them as they plan,
  • focusing their contracts on outcomes rather than outputs and KPIs, allowing third sector providers to better use their expertise and weave their added value into their delivery,
  • making space for alliances and sub-contracting to bring effective smaller providers into larger contracts, and
  • giving longer-term notice and engagement in advance of bids to allow organisations with smaller teams to prepare and partnerships to be meaningfully formed.

It’s in the hands of commissioners to make that change, and achieve the best impact for those they are here to support.

– Rosie Spiegelhalter, Assistant Director of Business Development