The future for a Strategic Partners Programme

Jeremy Taylor, National Voices (originally posted February 2015)

Should the Department of Health (DH), with its arm-length’s bodies, continue to fund a “Health and Care Voluntary Sector Strategic Partner Programme“?

Strategic Partner Programme

This question falls under the current Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) Review. £4 million goes annually to a group of national voluntary organisations and consortia in this programme. It supports dialogue between DH and its agencies on the one hand and a diverse constituency of charities – and their networks – on the other. It provides national decision makers with insight about the needs and characteristics of people who might otherwise be overlooked or misunderstood in the health and care systems. It creates a platform for engagement in which voluntary organisations, on behalf of their beneficiaries, can help shape policy and its implementation. It funds a variety of projects.

Is it effective?

There are reasons to be sceptical about the value of such a national programme. Does it make sense for government to spend taxpayers’ money to enable a small group of organisations to lobby it? Are small, local voluntary organisations not more pressing candidates for public funding? Does grant funding not compromise the independence of the recipients?

As a member of the VCSE review advisory group and CEO of National Voices, one of the partner organisations, I declare an interest, though I write this in a purely personal capacity. These objections have some force and can be countered only by a clear demonstration of the value that such a national platform brings. An excellent example is the engagement process that supported what is now the Care Act 2014. At a meeting with charities in the week that the bill passed into law, Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt declared the Act “a thousand times better for the involvement of the voluntary sector” – a remarkable acknowledgement, even allowing for flattery.

In that instance, many ingredients for productive partnership working were in place: a common purpose; a cohesive alliance of voluntary organisations; and a team at DH – ministerial and official – that genuinely believed in co-production. What is more, this was difficult policy terrain. The Department did not claim to have all the answers and was prepared to display humility. The history of the other landmark DH legislation of this Parliament – the Health and Social Care Act 2012 – provides a stark contrast.

Partnership growth

The voluntary sector strategic partnership began in 2008 under the aegis of DH, with 12 organisations or consortia. At its heart was the belief in the importance of embedding equality, diversity and health inclusion into the policy making process. This has remained an important strand, helping to ensure a greater focus on the health and care needs of, for example, people from black and minority ethnic communities, transgender people, people with learning disabilities and many others.

More recently, the partnership has grown. There are now 22 consortia containing more than 70 organisations, working not only with DH but also NHS England and Public Health England (and with some other arm’s length bodies like CQC). This growth, though the product of governmental confidence in the partnership, is not without a downside. A relatively small slice of DH’s voluntary sector grant funding is spread very thinly. Maintaining focus and clarity of purpose is a challenge. There is the risk of ending up neither strategic, nor a partnership, nor a programme. And for every Care Act, there is a corresponding episode in which national decision makers do not involve our sector, or involve us too late to make a difference. Think for example of last year’s debacle.


My conflicts aside, I believe it is important for a national strategic partnership with the voluntary sector to continue. Despite localism, national still matters. DH does not always get it right, but I see a positive association between the quality of the engagement and the quality of the policy-making. (And conversely it is possible to think of government departments that do badly on both fronts). A national strategic partnership should do what it says on the tin, drawing on learning from successful engagement, such as that which shaped the Care Act. A strong sense of common purpose is vital and more, early strategic involvement in policy-making and system design. The Department and its bodies need to up their game when it comes to co-production – across all their domains, not only the issues that they assume are of particular interest to our sector.

The voluntary sector partners should have confidence in their expertise and legitimacy, and be able to demonstrate it, based on evidence and the quality and reach of their relationships. There is no shame in being paid to provide expert advice, and money should not be divided up by multiple micro-projects. The partnership needs to be a good size: diverse but not too big.

What do you think?

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