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Total place and the third sector

25 March 2010

The budget statement, announced yesterday, supports the momentum that is building behind the Governments Total Place agenda and the Third Sectors role in this will be pivotal going forward. What are the key issues facing local government and Third Sector organisations as Total Place activity increases and how might things be improved?

Third Sector organisations have been working in a Total Place way with their statutory partners for many years but they have not always worked in the most efficient and cost effective manner. No one in the public or voluntary sector is under any illusion that this will be easy but Total Place now offers the opportunity for a review and improvement in the way both sectors work with each other allowing serious economic and social issues to be addressed whilst delivering more efficient services to people.

At a recent Third Sector conference, Sir Michael Bichard - who has been instrumental in developing Total Place - was at pains to highlight that both central and local government needed to up their game in their dealings with the Third Sector. The current fragmented, badly co-ordinated and wasteful system, combined with the lack of innovation, means that services are not being delivered sensibly and existing partnerships with the Third Sector are not working as well as they should. More often than not, the Third Sector is involved too late, policy is made and implemented and no real consideration has been given to actually designing services around people and consulting those best placed to know. The Third Sector (and others) is left trying to work around policies that do not necessarily fit the issues they are trying to resolve and that makes it difficult to actually deliver the service effectively and efficiently.

Sir Michael Bichards key message was to encourage local authorities to work with the Third Sector more closely and benefit from the Third Sectors knowledge, flexibility and ability to change and prevent behaviour to deliver a better service.

Brian Carr, Chief Executive of Birmingham Voluntary Service Council, worked on the Birmingham Total Place pilot and said that engaging the Third Sector was going to be a big challenge. He pointed out that not only is genuine collaboration from the start essential but setting up engagement mechanisms to help achieve this is equally important.

What type of engagement mechanisms are we talking about? One such mechanism, used in the Birmingham Total Place Pilot, could be setting up a Third Sector Assembly that meets to discuss specific issues and delivers clear recommendations that are acted upon. Others could include using existing or creating new Community Network Groups or Neighbourhood Forums, sharing and maintaining information through active websites, or working collaboratively with Local Infrastructure Organisations "Mapping" projects to better understand what is involved, what is being offered and allow intelligent commissioning.

Whatever form these mechanisms take, having specific and regular links between the two sectors to exchange information and address and work around issues must be the starting point.

Too often local authorities deal with the Third Sector on an adhoc basis and there is lack of information and communication on both sides which hinders productive and innovative ways of working.

Ben Cairns, Director of the Institute for Voluntary Action Research has been looking at the benefits of cross sector working. The National Partnership Improvement Findings have made it clear that there needs to be a better understanding between the Third Sector and local authorities. Both sides need to stop looking back and look forwards at ways of improving their communication. This will build trust, improve knowledge, create innovation, increase resources and produce better services and outcomes which would enable some tangible changes in local communities to take place.

The engagement mechanisms mentioned above are one way in which this can be done but local authorities should also be encouraged to find out more and maintain information about who can provide the services they want. This will help to ensure that time is not wasted and the right organisations are used. Equally the Third Sector needs to improve the way in which it presents itself. It needs to be clearer about the services it provides, consider in more detail the impact its services have on other service areas and be better at highlighting the added value that it provides.

Helen Bailey, Director of Public Services at H.M.Treasury, recently hinted whilst speaking at the conference, that the Treasury was willing to investment up front in exchange for savings down the line but, Third Sector organisations had to be innovative and much clearer in identifying the benefits they bring to the table.

To actively encourage and start the re-engagement process between local government and Third Sector organisations, £65 million is being given to the Regional Improvement and Efficiency Partnerships (RIEPs) around the country with specific instructions to engage with the Third Sector and think of better ways of working. Irene Lucas, Director General of the Local Government Regeneration Communities and Local Government Agency, actively encouraged Third Sector organisations to start knocking on the doors and engaging with their local RIEPs when she announced this at the Third Sector conference. Finally, with a proposed second stream of formal pilots in the pipeline and the pressures of the new budget looming, local areas will need to think hard about how to make the most of their Third Sector partners and the pressure will be on to put into practice what was learnt from the first wave of pilots.

Rob Whiteman, Chief Executive of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, simply concluded at the recent conference that, whilst there is much to do, if both sides "spend more time together - changes can be made!"

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