Published: 14th Feb 2017

As public services decline let’s re-think the social security system by Charlie Fisher

At Development Trusts Northern Ireland (DTNI) our interest is in changing both the commissioning process and the end product as well as creating new market opportunity for our members to lead in the delivery of services.

Our members cover the gamut of human needs from education, training and employment, to sport and leisure, arts and culture, housing, health and social care and everything in between.

Traditionally, our members and the broader voluntary and community sector have been heavily engaged in commissioning but locked out of provision. We believe that our sector is better placed to provide social value and meet local service needs but our specific competencies are often not measured when assessing tenders.

Procurement continues to favour those market providers from the private sector and tenders that are deemed most economically advantageous (to the public purse). Procurement bypasses the knowledge and skills of local providers in favour of larger providers with the capacity to work to scale. Notwithstanding various counter-arguments including the noted diseconomies of scale this method prevails.

The question is how do we level the playing field to make services available – as the UK Social Value Act notes – to:

  • Meet the needs of those that require them
  • Engage the local provider market or community in design of services
  • Provide value for money from those charged with providing public services

For DTNI commissioning and procurement processes needs to be both better integrated within and between anchor public bodies. Procuring from a single organisation perspective fails to take account of all relevant factors.

Can inter-generational unemployment really be separated from the lived experience of poverty, educational attainment and educational exclusion, homelessness, individual and familial wellbeing?

Procuring for single services is both a waste of public money and a failure of ‘systems thinking’ to take account of shared strategic objectives or outcomes-based accountability, as the as-yet-unpublished NI Programme for Government states.

In Northern Ireland, our failure to provide better public services is complicated by the fact that we have a myriad of public bodies with single service responsibilities. Community Planning led by local government is one potential way to address this, a means perhaps to align housing need and homelessness, crime and safety, health and social care and education and training for example.

The Belfast Agenda is an opportunity to reflect on how all partners in the community plan relate to one another and how the services they have single responsibility for can be reconsidered from a collective perspective.

In thinking of social value outcomes I’m minded to ask, ‘Do we have a common understanding? Is there a standard definition? Is my neighbour’s definition of social value complementary or at odds with mine? How does my notion of what constitutes a valuable service compare with the public anchor organisations charged with providing them?’

Though we may agree that services meet social need, our definitions of quality and the value returned are determined by contrasting factors and often at variance. The commissioner and the procurer are motivated to demonstrate value for money (rightly) while simultaneously meeting the public good, whereas for the user or community anchor organisation the motivation is to vastly improve the social standing of the population in general and those individuals in particular whose social and economic standing is dependent on quality support services.

It’s a given that the state no longer plays the role envisaged of it. The state has indeed ‘rolled back’ and the market is now picking up the slack across many service areas.

In Northern Ireland we’re seeing diminishing quality and supply of service as demand increases and encounter growing numbers of individuals, families and communities dispossessed from the most basic supports.

As public bodies continue to work in isolation, services will ultimately fail to address the inequity of access and copper-fasten the status quo around social and economic inequalities.

Is our reaction to public need now a race to the bottom, with each new policy and service response having the appearance of a crisis intervention: to address homelessness, increased incidence of suicide, educational underachievement?

As commissioners procure and outsource provision with dwindling budgets and the profit principle for the private sector providers is squeezed tighter, the breadth and quality of the service provided is negatively impacted. The net consequence is poorer provision and a diminution of social value for the end user.

People without the means to meet their needs privately remain wholly or partially dependent upon the safety net of social security, though the concept of social security is increasingly redundant and the common narrative is now one of welfare dependency.

We have witnessed a reduction in all sorts of provisions necessary to build social good. Consequently we have devalued the potential of human capital and undermined the potential of the individual to deliver the social capital needed to build a good society and redress social and economic injustice.

We have still failed to grasp the challenge of providing services that will prevent further decline, that build personal confidence, community capacity and add value to society.

How should these services operate? How should the end user be involved in the design of the support that s/he needs? How can local community anchor organisations be engaged to deliver?

That is the challenge for DTNI, to work with the support of Belfast Council and other public anchor organisations. That is the challenge that a social value procurement framework needs to confront.

  • Charlie Fisher is programme manager of the Development Trusts Association Northern Ireland
  • Read more about ‘good’ local economics in Northern Ireland here.