STP and the voluntary sector: Our time to dance together?

Over my 20 odd years working in the voluntary sector I’ve lost count of the number of transformation projects I’ve witnessed and worked on.

All started with good intentions, all talking about prevention, and front loaded investment based on expected savings further down the line.

But a combination of factors – such as short-term thinking, silo’d working, capability gaps and  institutional self-interest – mean I cannot think of one that comprehensively succeeded on its original terms.

Those working in the NHS, public sector or health care will no doubt have come across the new sustainability and transformation partnerships (new jargon 1 – STPs) and their introduction in 2016 caught many of us off guard. Given the huge challenges facing the NHS and wider health care sector is another round of transformation what we need right now?

Having attended planning meetings of the Humber Coast and Vale STP (New jargon 2 – HCVSTP) mental health group I can unequivocally say it is!

This may be surprising given my natural cynicism. There are limited extra funds, staff and external support available to carry out transformation and incredibly tight deadlines.

And this is exactly why I’m excited. For once we have been able to pretty much set our own agenda. Sitting around a table with people from across the area, it’s obvious how much frustration there is at the status quo and how much energy there is for doing thing differently.

What draws me to this plan is that, if properly coordinated, it has the potential to unshackle us from historic agreements and relationships that have been the barriers to change in the past. It opens the door to new ways of doing things. For the voluntary sector in particular, it offers a huge opportunity to spread our wings and work as equal partners at a scale never before available to us.

This won’t be easy. Not everything within the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector is rosy and we need to be able to demonstrate clearly both the outcome and cost efficiency of our work. We need to do this in a language the public sector commissioners understand, and must not be afraid to challenge some of the preconceptions about what we can and cannot deliver.

We need to coordinate our offer on a scale never done before and take the initiative in pitching solutions that meet external quality standards and are scalable, responsive, good value and effective.

This opportunity won’t be here forever. The pace of change envisaged is fast. Very fast. If we don’t respond others will and in many ways we’ll only have ourselves to blame.

HCV STP set themselves an ambitious target with some of the initial plans being further refined since the local area first met to discuss its priorities. Engagement with the public and other stakeholders was limited at first, but has begun to step up considerably during recent months and will continue to do so.

Within the mental health work stream we are focussing on how people can get speedy access to care close to home, preventative services, employment, housing and better meeting the needs of children and young people.

All of these are key areas in which the VCSE sector is already working. And all areas that it can help to develop further.

Last year, the transformation dance began in earnest. While many were learning the moves, others were deciding who to dance with and others spoke volumes by their absence.

But the music is getting louder and in 2017, even many of the latecomers are beginning to find their groove. It is clear that we need change to succeed. To do this, let’s make sure that this time the VCSE sector is not only part of the dance but is leading the way.

David Smith

Following an early career in finance David entered the voluntary sector in 1995 working in housing and advice before later specialising in mental health services. Developing a strong vision for good mental healthcare has allowed David to lead service redesign and develop lasting relationships with public sector partners that clearly demonstrates the positive impact partnership working can have.

Holding a Master’s in Charities Resource Management David regularly engages in public debate on issues such as mental health, charities and leadership.


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  1. Hilda Yarker says:

    Hi David, I couldn’t agree with you more, excellent blog. Having held a CEO role in the VCSE in Cheshire some 12 years ago and being encouraged into the NHS to lead on third sector commissioning, I have experience from both sides of the fence. I worked with partners from the VCSE in Cheshire to develop a social prescribing model back in 2010 when we successfully developed a web platform called Partners in Practice, the link below links to a hard copy of the directory, I think the web platform has long since expired. At the time the GPs in Cheshire would not use it for a number of reasons, mostly risk aversion (fear of litigation) and information governance.

    Change is needed on a scale which is unprecedented and there is much work to do both internally within primary care and externally within the VSCE sector. This is no easy task but not unachievable. Work with the willing first.

  2. Debbie Crohn says: