Chris Wright is Chief Executive of Catch22.
There’s no doubt that stark budget cuts came as a shock to many in 2010. But it’s not 2010 now and, six years down the line, the same arguments are still on loop. This narrative has become boring and counterproductive, while the energy and resource spent on anti-austerity campaigns could and should be channelled into building something far better.
This starts with recognising that current public services are not quite fit for purpose, and that cuts afford us an opportunity – to fundamentally challenge the orthodoxies surrounding justice, education, health, employment and social care; and to rebuild those services that focus on bureaucracy rather than people. Over the 30 or so years since I started out in social work, I’ve become conscious of how decent delivery is stymied by the increasingly transactional nature of service delivery.
Central Government turning off the cash tap gives us a reason to reimagine a new vision of public services; and instead of ‘business as usual’, to focus on what really works – to become, in the words of Steve Hilton, ‘more human’. Our evidence from working with over 30,000 disadvantaged people every year proves that it isn’t form-filling that will change lives. It is building real relationships, supporting real families, sitting and talking face to face. Catch22’s innovation funded work Project Crewe, supported by the Department for Education, sees us supporting families in Crewe by reimagining and simplifying the current model of social worker case loads. Rather than building a team around an individual, we build a team around the worker. The vulnerable family builds one strong relationship with one person, and that person is supported by experts. A trusting relationship with one expert worker is proving far more effective than a parade of changing experts turning up every week. It’s simple, it’s human, and it works.
Effective devolution will play an important part in this brave new world. While social problems come from the breakdown of communities, so too will social answers come from empowered and self-sustaining communities. Tight budgets also mean that we must be better at creatively sharing best practice. We are very excited, for instance, about the potential for the Academy methodology to be used within youth justice. We have long advocated that local prisons be “governed” by a governor supported by an entire local community, creating a sense of ownership and responsibility for what happens to those who end up incarcerated. These ideas seem fresh and modern, but we need only to look back to history to see how communities naturally took responsibility for dealing with social challenges.
This sense of ownership stands true for businesses. The money and the resource needed to deliver great public services still exists, but we need to look in a different direction to access it. Businesses complaining about high taxes should cut the need for them by actively investing in improving public services. We must unlock financial and social capital – partnering with private sector companies in a meaningful way to access funds and expertise, or by working closely with a community to unlock volunteering potential. The green shoots of this are showing; we’re working with Interserve to launch the Public Services Lab in Liverpool, a new social business that will enable community organisations, charities and social enterprises to deliver public service contracts at scale. By co-funding with public, private and grant money, we will triple the impact of our work and unlock potential for an entire city’s voluntary sector.
Austerity is the driver we need to bring about this change. If we accept that austerity is not a temporary state – not a phase that will blow over but rather the ‘new economics’ – then our challenge is not how we can do more with less, but how we can do things differently and more creatively to respond to the emerging challenges of a changing landscape.