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Solace blog

5th August 2016

“With a little help from your friends…”

As the August lull takes over, it seems a good time to take stock of where we’re at as a sector and to think about the continued challenges we can anticipate, and those that seem more uncertain. With the new Government finding their feet over the coming weeks, here in the policy team we wait with some trepidation to see what existing government policy will come out unscathed of the other side of the summer recess and what, if any, fresh proposals (those more pessimistic amongst you may wish to supplant ‘proposals’ for the words ‘new hell’) will emerge.

Already GDS and the digitisation of government services seems to have been demoted in priority, and the new funding formula for schools has been put on hold. But this pause, this sense of the unknown, perhaps gives us a chance to think about what we want as a sector. What do we want the government to do?

Putting aside fair funding for social care, building new houses, and giving you all the most generous Devo deals you could dream of; when I have this conversation with Solace members and other partners across the sector, one of the key themes that seem to continually emerge is a sense that we must do more to pull together as a sector.

In some areas, this is about making our demands with a clear and united voice. That ability to speak with one voice, when successful, has delivered some gains. It is arguable that it was that clarity of message that delivered us the 2% social care precept, or delayed Phase 2 of the Care Act because the whole sector simply said: “we cannot afford this anymore”. (Though it is still not clear just how far that message has to sink in before real, swift and definitive action is

Though with so many organisations in the public sector, so many roles and responsibilities within it, and so many organisations representing each interest, it is not surprising that a unified voice is not always possible. For instance, in the work we’re doing around Digital Leadership, it is clear that voices in that space are still disparate and there isn’t a clear and unified ‘ask’ or ‘demand’ or even ‘vision’, which may be holding things back (though it’s something we’re working on).

However, in other areas working together across the sector means sharing the vast amount of skills, experience and learning our respective organisations and people all hold. How we go about harnessing further this power and resource is something I’ve become increasingly interested in.

Many are thinking the same. A recent report from the Institute for Government titled ‘Failing Well’ explores examples of public sector bodies who have recovered, or who are on a trajectory to recover, from serious failings. Amongst other examples, including a school and an NHS foundation trust, were two local government cases: Doncaster Council and West Sussex’s Children’s Services. The use of clear case studies in the report proved an excellent means of demonstrating some clear and tangible takeaway lessons for the sector, and the use of different institutions across the public sector showed that these lessons can be mutually applicable.

The report highlighted the fact that organisations that fail are often insular in their viewpoint. It advocated “establishing a greater role for peer-led, non-statutory intervention”. Though peer support is available at present, there is no formal mechanism for triggering it, and often those organisations most in need of it are those least likely to seek it. It suggests that instead, more effective peer networks could help intervene before problems become so great that statutory intervention is triggered.

It’s not a new idea. Indeed the excellent but less excitingly titled LGA-commissioned paper on ‘Improvement and support in local children’s services’ advocated much the same as the IfG, emphasising “the power of peer-led models of improvement”. It also explored the potential benefits of a more centralised hub for holding information on ‘what works’ in Children’s Services, which tallies with what the IfG report says about failing organisations losing a sense of “what good looks like”.

Though of course peer networks and peer support programme do exist, there is still untapped potential and there is definite food for thought here. It is something we will be mindful of as we respond to Ofsted’s current consultation on the future of social care inspection, as well as entering broader discussions with government about the relationship between local government and children’s services.

Anecdotally, the informal ‘buddying’ system I orchestrate between Chief Executives facing Ofsted SIF inspection and those who have already been through it with the same lead inspector, always seems to be highly valued. But in other areas too, there is much to be gained from enhanced peer support.

We are currently exploring the idea of peer review or support around finance, increasingly timely as more and more councils struggling to deliver a balanced budget. We have also engaged in conversations with the dynamic team at LocalGovDigital who are offering to facilitate shared learning between councils around digital innovation and will be making a direct offer to Solace members very soon.

Clearly, one of the great benefits of Solace as an organisation is being able to bring members together to share advice, experiences, to network and to help to raise each other’s game. However, applying this more directly to some of the key policy pressure areas could, I think, bring increased benefits.

If you have any thoughts about what more Solace could be doing in this space, or how peer support and learning could be applied to some of the key policy challenges facing our sector, please do get in touch.

By Helen Reeves, Senior Policy Officer, Solace