A public agency commissioned a programme to help the long term unemployed back into employment. The programme is at risk of not delivering. I was made aware of the issues recently and it made me return to some audio material we had on our Open University B822 course on approaches to development work using less traditional management styles and more participatory methods.
The audio programme interviewed a number of people engaged in development work in developing countries. It particularly focused on the work of Action Aid and juxtaposed this with the work of the World Bank.
The programme made the point that the often overly bureaucratic and hierarchical approaches of institutions such as the World Bank were as much to blame for the failure of programmes to bring about change as the perceived weaknesses of providers and staff on the ground.
As if to suggest an alternative, the audio programme made much of the participatory action approach (for example the work of Robert Chambers at Sussex University) that is increasingly being used by agencies such as Action Aid. The point was that using such an approach helped unlock local capabilities. It appeared a longer and more drawn out process but the results appeared far more satisfying.
The audio programme went on to reveal the results of a survey at the World Bank which showed that the culture was more often attuned to focusing on larger projects with quicker turn around and that this was seen as key to promotion within the organisation.
Does this story hint at what maybe wrong with what has been happening closer to home. It strikes me that public bodies can seek quick wins as opposed to doing the necessary development work. One likely result of this approach is that local areas can miss out.
Problems without simple solutions
Maybe it is better commissioning that is needed? Is the argument that it is the providers fault, a false argument?
A Trust folds or a commissioned service does not deliver to expectations so a public body can take a decision not to go down this route again. Is that right?
Surely some form of ‘competition’ between providers is needed particularly on problems without any simple solutions, for example working with young people outside of school. Traditionally a role covered by the youth service is it fair to leave this to just one agency?
Recently it’s been interesting to read about what appears a mushrooming of initiatives trying to provide new solutions to public service challenges. For example Croydon and Brighton councils commissioned Participle to develop a youth programme called Loops. Loops aims to engage young people beyond their usual peer groups getting them to experience their wider community in new ways, for example from being shown how a large hotel works, to helping to organise a music festival to meeting a novelist.
Maybe we need to appreciate that unless we let the market mature in terms of providers (and commissioners) we are not really allowing real public sector reform to take place. Do we need to braver?
Maybe in many service areas we need to prepare in house services to deliver as external services and then when appropriate ask them to be ready to compete in an open market? At the same time maybe we need more commissioners to emerge and not rely on the few large public body commissioners?
Maybe all this is part of a wider shift in focus that is needed, a shift from aid to self sufficiency. Maybe there are lessons from international aid and development, for example the work that has been done on developing micro finance through programmes such as those pioneered by the Grameen bank?
It has been suggested that micro finance schemes have been a better way to make development happen as opposed to traditional ‘hand outs’. As we now tackle our own challenging finances approaches from elsewhere may be far more appropriate and acceptable here in the UK than before?