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Optimism and action: striving for better outcomes for service users

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".

What a year it’s been. On one hand the world is barely recognisable; a new administration both here and in the States, with the UK standing on the brink of exiting the European Union. On the other, looking at the public services landscape, we could be forgiven for thinking we’ve hardly moved at all.

Public services are stuck

They say that the definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. And yet when it comes to public services we carry on, doing the same thing, expecting outcomes to improve. But the fact is that the world is not the same as when the 1948 Children’s Act came into place. It isn’t the same as 200 years ago, when our colleagues put our first apprentices into work. It isn’t the same as 1907, when our idea for the probation service passed into law. The pace of change hurtles ever faster, and the complex systems to which we entrust our most vulnerable simply haven’t kept up. Every time we’ve faced a problem, we haven’t questioned the system and whether it’s fit for purpose for today’s world. Instead, we’ve wrapped the statutory guidelines even tighter in red tape. We’re left in a world where public services have never been further away from the people they exist to serve. Labyrinthine, bureaucratic, transactional contracts that leave people without agency or hope. When failure is so normalised it becomes white noise. It loses its impetus for revolution. Take, for instance, children’s services. 75% of children’s services departments in this country are branded inadequate or requiring improvement by Ofsted. So either children’s services departments are struggling to deal with today’s challenges, or Ofsted is measuring the wrong things. Either way, it’s the children and families who face the long term impact.

The need for change

Because Catch22 works across the social welfare cycle, we see the patterns across all public services. Our justice colleagues, for instance, look across the parapet to see the issues they face are repeated; across social care, education, health and employability. Austerity isn’t a temporary state. We won’t be able to salami slice our way out of this one. We owe it to public service users to sit down with a pen draw a circle with them in the middle, or even better, with them in the room, and start again. We’ll soon find that by throwing out the bureaucracy, we also throw out a lot of the unnecessary cost.

Action and optimism

Once we accept that the new economics is permanent we are left with two courses of action. Complaints and stasis; or action and optimism. At Catch22, we choose action and optimism. To us, action means building services that work for people today, and that lay the groundwork for tomorrow. It doesn’t mean flashy ideas for their own sake, but rather just trying things and doing what we know works. Action means also recognising when it doesn’t work, picking yourself up and doing something different. It means recognising what you have to add to society – money, time, expertise, and actively making your contribution. The only way to unlock the capacity that exists in society is by taking action – as an individual, but also as a business, a local authority, a Police and Crime Commissioner. It’s the Scout Pack leader. It’s the lawyer teaching football on the weekends. It’s the business that makes responsible commercial decisions, putting its sustainability agenda at the heart of the business and spending its apprenticeship levy with a charity, not a profit maker. But action can also be painful. Doing something different is messy; it takes bravery to separate from the status quo. To break free from “this is how it’s always been done,” to redesign services around today’s needs. Of course it’s hard. And yes, it brings risk. Risk! A word misused every day. The real risk is that we continue on, doing what we’re doing, pouring money into a creaking system, only to be surprised when outcomes for many continue getting worse.


And that brings me to optimism. What the new world has brought in uncomfortable truths, it also brings in opportunity. Delivering across the social welfare cycle also means that we can see what’s working. And there are lots of bright spots. We’ve long recognised the value of empowering the leadership of free schools and academies, experienced through our own education provision. Why couldn’t prison governors take the same approach, we wondered? Today they can – and the life chances of the men in the care of the reform prisons have already improved. There are bright spots across children’s services, with some compelling results coming out from the Department for Education’s Innovation funded projects. We must highlight these bright spots, seize them, and build on them with optimism.

“With”, not “to”

I’ve found that when I say ‘public service reform,’ people expect shiny new systems. In fact, our ideas are decidedly familiar. Build trusted relationships. Be more human. Deliver local accountability; help the community feel that they have ownership over the services they fund. There’s a fantastic South African 1980s protest phrase, “nothing about us, without us, is for us.” I keep this in mind when thinking about the design of public services. For an individual or a community to truly feel that they have ownership over public services, they must be front and centre at the design stage. It’s for this reason I’m so proud of Catch22’s work. In London, we’ve launched Restore:London, a Pan London restorative justice service designed by, measured by, and overseen by victims. This progress is reflected in children’s services. Funded by the Department for Education, we are working in partnership with Southwark Council and care leavers in the borough to test new approaches to improving outcomes. By involving care leavers from the beginning, we’re returning the power that statutory services so often take from service users.

The role of charities in public services

For many, the very fact that we will be delivering this work in Southwark will raise an eyebrow. Aren’t statutory services the responsibility and preserve of the state? It’s a fast moving debate. A colleague came back from maternity leave recently. In that nine months the public conversation had moved on, she said, from whether charities should deliver public services, to the role of charities in delivering public services. This is a huge leap forward, but charities are viewed with benign scepticism in some areas of government, a ‘nice to have’ rather than the potential beating heart of public service delivery. The state still sees itself as the owner and producer of statutory services, when it could take a far more useful role as a covenor. If we’re really serious about taking action, we must rip up the current orthodoxy surrounding public service delivery. Instead of sticking with the status quo, we must work out who the best person to deliver that action is – and then support them to deliver it. Last October, we ran one of the most life affirming projects I’ve ever been involved in. At short notice, the Home Office asked us to launch a refugee centre for children coming over from the Calais ‘jungle’. What we were able to create in 48 hours was testament to a glorious feat of collaboration. We needed 60 colleagues on site, within hours. We needed to source language teachers, translators, health support staff and more. There was nothing for it but to hit the phones. The support was immediate, from a retired doctor offering to restore his licence just to help the boys, local homeless men working together to pack bags and a private company laying on personnel to manage site security. Day to day, we persist in placing the state, charities and businesses in artificial siloes. But when you’re standing there in the same hoodies at 3am, all hoping to do the same good thing for the children, organisational labels mean nothing. We must find a way to unearth that joint sense of purpose when it comes to delivering public services, at scale.

Ever nearer

Kevin Rowland, formally of Dexys Midnight Runners and now Dexys, often walks past our office here in Old Street. I have to stop myself going after him and telling him how brilliant I think he is. Instead, I’m going to conclude this by quoting one of his hits as a tribute to my colleagues: “We’re striving over here/ (Ever nearer?) I think so.” We’re striving over here, striving for our service users and society. It’s hard, but we’re doing important work. We’re ever nearer. With optimism and action, with a little bit of a revolution, we’ll get there.

– Chris Wright, CEO of Catch22