Charting the path ahead for Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise

In the week that we launch the Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) review action plan, Emma Easton, has been reflecting on the importance of this work, where it came from and what needs to happen next.

Following all the health reforms implemented back in 2013 our investment programmes for the VCSE sector needed updating. To help think this through, we (the Department of Health, Public Health England and NHS England) convened an oversight group, incorporating members from across the VCSE sector, other large funders, and government departments.

But, at the very first meeting, the VCSE sector did one of the things it does best. It worked with us as critical friends, told us we’d got it completely wrong – but said they wanted to work in partnership to get it right! So, instead of a narrow review based only on one central funding mechanism that is only relevant to a small section of the VCSE sector, we set about reviewing investments and partnerships with the sector across health and care. This had the potential for far more impact, and, of course, was completely the right decision. The recommendations from the published Joint Review 2016 have already been having a significant impact.

The increased focus on delivery through Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships (STPs) and Integrated Care Systems (ICS) within health and care, provides an opportunity for the VCSE sector to be effectively integrated as a critical component of the health and care system, working in new and innovative ways. Yet all too often I hear people say that they “need to sort out relationships between the statutory partners before considering the VCSE sector.” If we’re truly to work in new ways, the VCSE needs to be part of the solution from the outset and the launch of this action plan is a timely reminder of the importance of this.

Having worked both in the VCSE sector and now at NHS England I’ve seen first-hand the benefits that are possible when the VCSE is a true partner and not just viewed as a critic, lobbying agent, or as a provider of services.  Where we get this right we see amazing examples of the sector supporting us to hear from seldom heard voices, to influence our decision-making and reduce health inequalities. The Health and Wellbeing Alliance is entering its second year and is proving to be a valuable asset in this regard at a national level. And to support engagement with the sector across STPs, NHS England has partnered with the Big Lottery Fund to support the Building Health Partnerships programme will directly support 18 STPs to work in partnership with the VCSE sector to deliver joint action, develop leadership and share learning across the system.

This will lead to transformational change that will help secure sustainable innovative solutions to challenging issues, ensure services are better integrated and more accessible and  meet the needs of local and diverse populations.

Voluntary and community organisations often emerge in response to an unmet need.  In addition to their role working in partnership with health and care organisations, we need to recognise the wider role the sector plays in supporting and strengthening communities, either within a local area, across communities of interest, or for those with long-term conditions.  Within the health and care system we need to get better at supporting and linking to the sector in this essential role and it is therefore welcomed that the VCSE review recommendations includes such a strong emphasis on social prescribing and sustainable funding models.

Within NHS England, the VCSE review action plan provides us with the opportunity to take stock of how we can implement the recommendations, both through our role supporting the wider NHS and within our own work.  We need to more consistently take a more whole person approach, to ensure that we better meet the needs of people and focusing on reducing health inequalities. The VCSE sector is a critical mechanism to support us in this and we therefore need to embed co-production with a range of organisations including both condition specific organisations and those who work with different communities. We will also be developing mechanisms to encourage greater use of the Social Value Act and better mechanisms to demonstrate the impact of our work with the VCSE sector.

Going back to that first meeting as we embarked upon the VCSE review, I wanted to finish by saying a massive thank you to those who encouraged us to widen its scope and be more ambitious.  Implementing its recommendations has the potential not only to lead to a more conducive environment for partnership working but also better conditions for the VCSE sector to flourish, supporting improved outcomes for patients, carers and service users, and reducing health inequalities.

Emma Easton

Emma Easton is NHS England’s Head of Voluntary Partnerships. She leads on developing more inclusive partnerships with the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector, including through a close working relationship with the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England to support the VCSE Health and Wellbeing Programme.

Emma’s team also develop and lead the approach to increasing high impact volunteering opportunities in health and care.

Prior to joining NHS England in 2014, Emma worked for Regional Voices, a network of regional VCSE organisations, supporting the VCSE sector to be more involved in health and care policy development, for example in supporting the sector’s response to the Marmot review, the transition from LINks to Local Healthwatch, and involvement in the Health and Social Care Act, 2012.

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