Thursday, 2 October 2008

Working with the Civil Service

Last week we held a Strategic Away Day with top civil servants; thinking about the role of the sector, the day had been co- organised by acevo and the Cabinet Secretary, Gus O'Donnell (who attends for the whole day, despite having just flown back from Afghanistan). There are eight Permanent Secretaries and other senior civil servants and 15 drawn from acevo's CEOs. The day starts when we pick up the Perm Secs in a bus in Whitehall. This is organised by Hackney Community Transport; we are off to Coin Street - a fantastic social enterprise in Waterloo. Ian Tuckett , the CEO there starts the day off by talking about how he has built up Coin Street into a powerful social and economic force.

My presentation sets the theme for the day "The power of the Third Sector ". I am unapologetic about our role, our strength and our future. I tell them they often underestimate how big we are- 1.5ml staff and a £42billion turnover. We are an economic and social force. So what stops Departments making more use of this force? And what problems do Government Departments find in dealing with the sector?

Clare Tickell from Action for Children and Tony Hawkhead from Groundwork UK produce superb presentations on their work. The discussions that follow are what I later describe as "high octane, high content".

There are a number of discussions; on the need for more mergers partnerships and alliances, how to promote interchange between civil servants and the sector, how to encourage civil servants to become trustees and how we ensure our input into policy development continues as well as our delivery role.

There is debate about potential changes in government but the civil servants are models of propriety here! We merely point out it is our job, difficult though that can be, to work with government, whilst helping the opposition to develop their policies. There is also interest in our global leadership role as a sector. I point out the growing links acevo has built up with other governments and our role in developing leadership in civil society in the Balkans and in Africa. It's an area I say we can be proud of and a little flag waving for the UK third sector is definitely in order. There will be further such days and indeed I am now pursuing other such Departmental initiatives. This is very much about the practicalities of leader to leader peer learning.

Campbell Robb, from The Office of the Third Sector, and I are drawing together then themes and actions to make sure the day translates into practical progress. But already I know various of the participants have made links and intend to follow up contacts. Rob Owen, the dynamic ex Investment Banker, (bet he is glad he got out) who runs the St Giles Trust gets the prize though, he has asked the Cabinet Secretary to visit the Trust. Gus will be following a long line of Ministers and Shadows who have beaten a path to the door of this great organisation finding work and support for young kids at risk of criminal activity or having been in prison. Rob makes a rather simple point; his project can demonstrate stunning outcomes. If he was in the private sector people would he throwing money at him to replicate and to up scale. But as it is he struggles for every penny and whilst he could expand the capital and the contracts limit his ambition. This cannot be sensible.

We have an interesting discussion on whether you can up scale innovation. What is it about great local projects that can be up scaled, or do yes the unique passion and commitment when you do that. It's an interesting point and I'd welcome feedback from blog readers.

Getting back to work yesterday from an intellectually charged lunch with the egregious Nick Wilkie (who runs London Youth; we discuss the benefits of National Service!) . I discover a very flattering review of my blog "this ever popular blog". See link.


Damian said...


Not sure that you can 'up-scale' innovation as a business process but much better that you embrace the passion and uniqueness of the Third Sector and encourage innovation to evolve.

This evolution is an organic process that finds a catalyst much easier amongst people driven by ethics, belief and passion - and that is clearly three commodities that we are most certainly not lacking in this sector ;-)

As an ex-Civil Servant of over twenty years I fully understand how slow those cogs turn at times. I quit to 'give something back' and have been working with community and voluntary groups on a 'pro bono' basis.

Next Friday (10th October) I will be meeting with the Rt Hon Hazel Blears to put forward a community plan for an eco-centre in Manchester to replace the failed super-casino, something that wouldn't have been possible without the Governments commitment to the Third Sector approach.

I am now taking the next step and setting up as a freelance consultant in the Third Sector as I wouldn't want to work anywhere else.

Thanks for pushing the agenda - the benefits to society are worth all the effort.

Take care,

Chair of Communities for Stability

Janet F said...

Not sure we're talking about how you can up-scale the process of innovating, more how can we ensure that worthwhile innovations can be put into practice for as many of our citizens as quickly as possible. The 'small is beautiful' argument doesn't need to be argued for or against, as if the innovation can be demonstrated to work best in a small/local way, then we need to replicate this in as many communities as possible. On the other hand if the innovation can be demonstrated to need scale to work long-term (e.g. if there's a need to be able to stand comparison against private sector options for service delivery) then we need to upscale that innovation quickly. There mustn't be one solution but different solutions to best deliver each innovation (but this requires some intelligent approaches from the third sector rather than dogmatic stances).

Again, in terms of actually having the ability to do all of this, the solutions may well be different - for the former (smaller/local) then the third sector needs to be better at sharing and disseminating (and accepting!) best practice, while for the latter we do need positive intervention from Government to support this, in the form of financial support, positive action on contracts (if only for a period until there's more of a level playing field) and support in areas that will help these third sector organisations grow succesfully (organisational/business/financial processes etc) as although the Third Sector, as you say Stephen, has loads of 'passion and commitment' it does lack in many (although certainly not all) organisations, at least in my opinion/experience, the skills required to run high-performing organisations - with these skills honed you've got a winning combination for the sector (which is maybe why such support isn't readily forthcoming - which government would want such a strong player around?).

Stick with it Stephen, we need to change Government hearts and minds!