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To correct systemic failure, we need systemic change

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".

I’ve worked in public services for 30 years, cradle to career: in probation, children’s services and education. While I’m a natural optimist, every day I see the impact of an underperforming system.

Our acute – very expensive – services are under pressure because the ways we support people with chronic problems, or prevent problems in the first place, aren’t working as well as they could be. Some of our hospitals and schools are the best in the world, but many are among the most ineffective, or least good value for money.

Rather than working flexibly and according to needs, our public service silos are rigid and each silo struggles to pick up the failure of others. Prisons strain to provide mental health treatment, schools allocate precious funds to family welfare.

The whole social welfare system is less than the sum of its considerable parts: the compassionate and committed people working within it. At worst it is creaking from ‘failure demand’, with the wrong resources in the wrong places. As the people who need those services, and who work in and with them, we’re being let down.

We share the same issues

At Catch22 we’re in a unique position. We work ‘cradle to career’ across all of these sectors and see the whole picture. We see that Police and Crime Commissioners, Multi Academy Trust Heads, and Clinical Commissioning Groups struggle with exactly the same problems: recruitment and retention of effective frontline staff; measuring performance; budgets, legislation and changing demographics.

And we also see that ‘failure demand’ means that we’re all working with the same person. A person who, if they were supported properly in the first place, would become self-sufficient. A child who didn’t get the support they needed in school or in care, was kicked out of mainstream education, left with no qualifications, didn’t feel part of society, got into crime and drugs, wasn’t rehabilitated and began the cycle again with their children.

But what’s the answer?

If I have learned anything in those 30 years it’s that there is no magic bullet; no one person or organisation with the welfare vaccine. That means that there can be no one person or organisation responsible for the design and delivery of public policy affecting our schools, hospitals, and prisons.

For Whitehall doesn’t have the monopoly on integrity, charities don’t have the monopoly on compassion, and businesses don’t have the monopoly on efficiency. And yet we struggle within these artificial siloes, delineating ‘appropriate’ responsibilities and accountabilities. Civil servants maintaining that charities can’t manage statutory risk, or charities branding businesses as profiteers.

But in reality the state can’t do it alone. The sheer scale, cost, and complexity of modern public services mean that their design and management cannot be the sole responsibility of Whitehall and City Hall. Its cumbersome machinery struggles to be responsive, agile or transparent.

Businesses can’t do it alone. No shareholders should be getting rich from the state’s duty to administer justice, security, health and education.

Charities can’t do it alone. Vital public services must be resourced and mandated by democracy, not philanthropy.

Of course public services must be accountable to their users: voters and taxpayers. But we can move beyond the meaningless distinction between ‘public’, ‘private’ and ‘charity’. We must focus on what works. The delivery of a public service can and should take any form suitable to make that service the best it can be.

The answer is variety

The magic formula for a successful and resilient society is variety. A thriving high street has a mix of independent and national retailers. It’s why I am proud that Catch22 colleagues are such a diverse bunch; we know variety is the secret to a healthy organisation: of background, of outlook, of experience and expertise.

This is equally the case for good public service reform.

To correct systemic failure we need systemic change.

1. We must diversify our models to unlock capacity.

Britain prides itself as a nation of small businesses, with SMEs making up 99% of all private sector businesses. Success in business is driven by innovation. Culinary trends cooked up in food carts today land on Tesco’s aisles tomorrow. We need to harness this energy and agency to design and deliver our public services.

We need insurgents to take on the incumbents: small teams representing all sectors who behave like start-ups, liberated from bureaucratic mind-sets. Why shouldn’t a Trust governed by a board of local people take on a Community Rehabilitation Company?

In many cases we don’t need legislation or even new policies to do this, we just need the courage and confidence to battle the constraints of an inflexible system and risk-aversion.

2. We must diversify our commissioning to drive local accountability

A system whereby the current providers are Big Business or Big Charity, in hock to Big Government, is neither innovative nor transparent.

If our starting point became “who will deliver the best social outcome”, rather than “who is the least risky partner, on paper”, we’d have less risk in a mixed economy of delivery partners, and partnerships.

The legislation to enable this already exists. The Social Value Act was passed in 2013, requiring commissioners to think about how they will secure greater social, economic and environmental benefit. Where it has been used it’s had a positive local effect, mandating quality and best value through innovation and a more responsive way to deliver public services.

But the Social Value Act hasn’t nudged new behaviour overall. Some procurement processes score against social value, some not, with no clear pattern of who and why.

Effective local commissioning holds the key to solving the current tension between localism and quality.

3. We must diversify our delivery, prizing people over process

It doesn’t really matter what the form or structure looks like: partnership, CIC, social enterprise, Mutual. What matters is whether the structure allows the human relationships to work in the right ways.

People are complicated. Some of the people that we work with at Catch22 have lived extremely complex lives. At the point when they’ve hit rock bottom – in need of a room over their head, a hug, a handshake – they are presented with a list of forms to fill in.

People need flexible services; services that adapt, grow and change to account for complexity and personalisation, and the conditions must be created to allow this.

But the commissioning that underpins vital public services is burdensome, clunky and complex. It prioritises form filling over what people actually need.

What kind of system awards a case worker for filling in a form, but has no flexibility to recognise the value of really listening and consoling? Our colleague Matt Randle has a great saying; we’re “hitting the target, but missing the point.”

Start with what works

There are examples of exceptional results all over the country. We need to understand and to learn from them.

What is going well in the 25% of children’s services that aren’t rated inadequate? Which are the ‘outlier’ prisons that don’t have the same problems with violence or staff retention as others like them? How can GP practices, schools, and community groups be encouraged to pool budgets and achieve more?

Then we need to share this knowledge, creating transparent and accountable public services which equip people to be confident and entrepreneurial.

This is the moment

Given how much we know about what works, why can’t we design a self-improving system which supports existing and new provider ‘entrants’ to drive social outcomes?

We’re doing our best to support this at Catch22, with the launch of our incubation programme, small organisations changing the world of children’s social care, prisons, mental health. We are grateful to the Big Lottery Fund for investing in our ambition, but need others to join our movement.

If the public policy response to Carillion – and indeed the Grenfell Tower tragedy – is to place even more contracts for maintenance or catering or specialist services in the hands of generalist civil servants, would our experience as carers, patients or passengers, improve? It’s unlikely.

In the same way that the financial crash was the opportunity for entrepreneurs to take on rentier capitalists, this is the moment for social sector organisations to recapture their confidence and radicalism.

This is the moment for purpose-led organisations to reassert their right to be a disruptive, not a reactionary, force in the world.

– Chris Wright, CEO of Catch22