Running to catch up? How the public and charity sectors are more similar than you think

Written by Dan Corry on 25 May 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

Dan Corry, former special adviser and head of the charity think tank NPC, argues that the public and charity sectors must learn from each other as they face joint challenges of capacity, governance and transformation

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The public sector is always running to catch up – or so it seems to both those who use its services and those who work in it. Change is always in the air. New technology comes fast down the path allowing new efficiencies and changing the way citizens want to consume services. Governance fads come and go and so restructuring is all around us. It can be very hard.

The same is true for the charity sector and while there are many differences between the sectors, there are lessons that can be learned. So our new study about the state of the charity sector should be of interest to public sector managers as well.

First, charities appear to be lacking focus, trying to do more of everything. Of charities surveyed, 74% expect  to do more things in three years’ time, and only 4% expect to do fewer.  Given the current funding environment this is clearly pretty weird behaviour and the chances of it maximising the good the sector can do seems minimal. The public sector too tends to scrabble around doing more and more — not least because politicians are much worse at ending things than starting them. Maybe the next government will prove different.

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Second, looking at governance, which has been at the core of several recent high profile cases of charities going under, we find a troubling trend in that the business case for diversity on boards – in terms of ethnicity, gender, age, backgrounds – is not well understood. While board diversity is accepted as generally a ‘good thing’ only a quarter of charities said diversity at board level brings better decision making and less than a fifth (17%) felt it would leave their organisation better equipped to serve beneficiaries. The public sector has similar issues. It is very happy mouthing the platitudes of diversity in senior positions but if it does not really believe deep down that they make a difference then it will never really happen.

Third, the charity sector appears to be over-optimistic about its ability to use digital to deliver greater impact.  Just one in five (22%) of smaller charities said they were ‘very confident’ that they are making the best use of digital technology in their organisation, a percentage surprisingly higher that the 19% for large charities and 7% for major organisations. But given 48% of small and medium charities say they don’t have a digital strategy at all and only just over half of those surveyed had digital strategy sitting at board or senior management level, there seems to be a lot of optimism bias around. Look around in the public sector. Feel familiar?

Fourth, the charity sector is trying to turn itself away from being top down, focused on needs, to being more about building on the assets of individuals, families and communities — what they can do, not what they can’t. This means trying to get user voice into the picture much more and focusing on user journeys through life and through the system. Just over three quarters of charities reported making some change to strategy or operations as a result of beneficiary or service user involvement, including 34% saying they had made a major change. Yet exactly the same issue faces the public sector in many areas. How do you go beyond just the occasional user satisfaction survey or focus groups or consultative body to really take public services in new directions?

So many of the areas that charities need to do better in are the same for the public sector. Of course there are bright sparks of great practice everywhere and we can always try to blame the external environment for our problems. Better is to keep plugging away at these things and learn across our sectors.

About the author

Dan Corry is chief executive of the think tank and consultancy New Philanthropy Capital. He has also been head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, a senior economic adviser to prime minister Gordon Brown, and has been a special adviser in the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Communities and Local Government

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