What can charities teach civil servants?

A new report out from Pro Bono Economics, as part of their current Law Family Commission, points to the gaps that exist between the world of charity and the world of policy and decision-making in the UK. Of the groups that the research looks at, civil servants were the least likely to have contact with charities. While one in three has volunteered their time over the last twelve months and one in ten has been a trustee, positive figures, close to half of civil servants (45%) have had no active engagement with charities. So what gets missed out if our public sector is not engaging with the public in this way?

The key gap is better government. In terms of crossing boundaries, the two most important contributions of charities, as seen by civil servants, MPs and councillors, are ‘raising awareness about important issues affecting citizens’ and ‘bringing together communities to work on issues that affect them’. In short, where decisions are made with input from charities, they are more likely to reflect social needs and more likely to lead to social improvement.

An example of a gap in understanding, the authors argue, is the field of skills and training. Charities provide as much training as local authorities, but only a minority of civil servants (44%) see an important role for the voluntary sector in supporting the workforce. At the same time, the report also argues that charities do not tend to have a good understanding of policy and government, so bridging the gap will take work on both sides.

In terms of recommendations, the authors would like to see a civil society liaison post at a senior level in every department. One of the ironic elements of the research was that it suggested that civil servants tended to think that their own department was significantly better at this than other departments – and yet of course they could not all be right.

Our work is primarily with individuals and businesses from the private and voluntary sector, but we have good experience of running programmes with civil servants as a form of leadership development for them, as well of course as a benefit to the frontline charities that we partner. Broadly, the benefits are in learning skills, such as ones of influence, curating stakeholders, achieving impact, that the charity sector excels at.

The authors also point to the work of Pilotlight, among others, as one of the “excellent examples which already exist across the civil service…to match their skills with charities which need them.” The role of the Whitehall Industry Group on secondments is also highlighted.

We are working with the Glasgow Health and Social Care Partnership for example. One Pilotlighter involved has commented that:

What Pilotlight offers is an amazing opportunity for learning and developing alongside sharing your own skills and knowledge. The complexity of the NHS and Health and Social Care Partnerships can be mystifying to those of us who work in it at times, so being able to unpick that for others to some degree, and help them see where we can work better together, feels incredibly important at this point in time. I had a wonderful experience, and would happily recommend it to anyone.”

The charities we are working with are themselves sources of inspiration in terms of bringing lived experience to bear in the world of policy. Few do this better than the Pollok based charity The Village Story Telling Centre, one of our partner charities involved, which believes that “everyone has a story worth hearing, yet nobody’s is written in stone.”

From previous work with the Ministry for Justice, we have been told that “the Pilotlight model offers a very very rich learning environment for our leaders.” But there is one intriguing difference we saw with this, compared to our work with partner businesses.

Whereas HR Directors in business tell us that they are motivated in part by a desire to build authenticity in their leaders, those in the public sector feel that civil servants “already have that authenticity working through them.’  For them, it is about engaging with these issues at a more frontline level where they can learn how to make a difference in practice.

The difference in impact felt working with a Pilotlight charity compared to their day jobs is perhaps usefully illustrated in a triangle of charitable activity used by Caroline Fiennes in her book, ‘It ain’t what you give it’s the way that you give it’.  In their day jobs, civil servants were working lower down the triangle where work is more distant from the beneficiary; through Pilotlight, they were typically working with service delivery/frontline charities towards the top of the triangle whose work was closer to the beneficiary and where impact could be more immediately and tangibly felt.

A world in which there is better learning across sectors, more skills sharing and more of an impact in terms of a focus on the voice and needs of people in communities affected by the decisions of decision-makers has to be one worth exploring.

We will all learn faster and better if we do.

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