As we travelled the country researching Our Place, from Knowsley on Merseyside, via Bradford, and Leicester, down to Torquay in Devon, a familiar picture emerged. A certain type of community-led organisation was using this Government funded programme as a catalyst for developing innovative, user-focused ways to meet the needs of their communities especially around health, skills, and employment. Typically these were organisations with just a dozen or so staff, a sphere of influence no more than a few miles wide, strong and impatient leadership, and a clear focus on goals and actions. There were similarities in the language they used and their savviness about tying actions to funders’ published outcomes. In fact despite being at different ends of the country, even their offices had a certain look, with hand-me-down desks, and a constant coming and going of staff, volunteers, and local residents who were impossible to tell apart unless we asked. These were organisations who changed their own light bulbs…
When we interviewed staff they would swiftly rehearse the local script about socioeconomic needs, but were far more passionate when telling their stories of impact. It might be about a local resident helped into work, or helped out of the house into a volunteering role which took them one giant step closer to work. Often it was about “social prescribing” to help vulnerable individuals with issues (often related to mental health or physical frailty) which fall down the gap between illness, social care, and jobseeker support. Most of the people we spoke to were able to back up anecdote and intuition with hard evidence showing these really are ‘better for less’ – using cost-benefit-analyses, a requirement of the Our Place programme which many community organisations initially struggled with but ended up valuing.
Yet, almost all these small, inventive, and frugal community organisations, still found themselves operating in parallel with services run by much bigger, less inventive, and better-resourced incumbent service providers.
So for us the key message from this research, is that Our Place has created massive opportunities for local authorities and other agencies to commission community organisations like those featured in our case studies, as a route to tackling two of the most significant challenges faced by public services:
- the need to design more user-focused service models in health, skills, and employment – community organisations like those involved in Our Place have already done the hard work of designing and new models, putting them into operation, and validating them through cost-benefit-analysis
- the need to ratchet-down local public service delivery costs per unit of output – community organisations like those involved in Our Place, are by their very nature, lower in every aspect of their cost-base from their office costs to their use of volunteers
As our research also shows, there are of course issues to be worked through around ensuring quality of services and of governance, and the mechanics and politics of de-commissioning legacy services in order to commission new alternatives. But if a growing band of ambitious, impact-focused, community-led organisations are finally starting to deliver real examples of ‘better for less’ then what statutory agency can afford to let that opportunity pass?