News and Comment

Can cross-sector working help to resolve our most persistent social problems?

Monday 28 January 2013

Next year it will be a century since the philanthropist, reformer and founder of his eponymous charity, Joseph Rowntree, compiled a list of “social evils”, the “great scourges of humanity”, which he perceived as afflicting the nation. Rowntree’s list is characterised by some distinctly Edwardian moralising. But nevertheless it’s striking to note the similarity in the nature of the problems we then deemed to be “evil” and more recently describe as ‘wicked issues’. Addiction and poverty for instance, still feature prominently as issues to be resolved. And it’s impossible not to see modern resonance in Rowntree’s warning that ‘Perhaps the greatest danger of our national life arises from the power of selfish and unscrupulous wealth which influences public opinion largely through the press’.

But the persistence of these problems casts doubt on Rowntree’s belief that: “enormous volumes of the philanthropy…would, in the course of a few years, change the face of England.”

Today we see ‘wicked issues’ as problems so entrenched, that money alone isn’t sufficient to tackle them. Instead, the popular view is these problems will only be solved by holistic, cross-sector working, which transcends the divisions between traditional public sector agencies, and indeed between different sectors themselves. Commenting on the launch of Collaborate, a new organisation designed to promote cross-sector working, John Tizard referred to the ‘increasingly complex’ societal issues which “cannot be addressed by a single agency, often not by a single sector.”

Take public health for example. Responsibility for this area in England is this year being transferred back to local government from the NHS – a situation last seen in 1974. One of the reasons for this decision is that local government is felt to be ideally positioned to facilitate closer working between a number of partners, not least the NHS and third sector organisations. This is seen as a crucial step in creating a fully-integrated public health function, which more effectively promotes the health and wellbeing of local populations. At the same time, there has been a continuing drive to better and more comprehensively integrate adult health and social care, narrowing in the words of the Health Secretary – the “divide between the NHS and local authorities”.

The danger is that the very same pressures that make cross-sector working so vital also make it impossible to achieve in practice. There is a real risk that in hard times, organisations become inward looking and look to ‘baton-down-the-hatches’.

As we’ve seen through our own recent work with the LGA Whole Place Community Budgets pilots, breaking down the walls between professions is integral to cross-sector working, and is also hugely beneficial in terms of shared practice and creative-thinking to the public sector as a whole. This kind of collaborative, multi-agency, holistic approach to public sector working has the potential to produce results much greater than the sum of its parts.

But the community budget pilots also demonstrate that this fundamental shift in the way different agencies and sectors work with each other won’t just happen by chance. This is hard work, and requires equal attention to cultural and structural issues: establishing a coherent, joint-sense of purpose which all parties buy into; whilst also getting governance and performance management right, ensuring a clear delineation of responsibility for specific tasks and outcomes.

The convergence of organisations from right across the public sector, not to mention the growing public role of other sectors, may be one long-lasting positive to arise out of today’s more depressing pressures. The Whole Place Community Budget pilots show that that cross-agency, cross-sector working can happen, even during the toughest of times, but it is far from easy. But as the evidence from the last century demonstrates, our greatest problems are nothing if not persistent, so let’s not kid ourselves into thinking solving them will be easy.