Social care isn’t working. But who is failing who?

It is time to ask some testing questions of charities

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The latest government report on social care makes for unhappy reading. The data released today, based on information from nearly 75,000 people in the UK receiving care, lays bare the emotional strain under which so many are living.

One in five are lonely, living with limited social contact. One in four feel that they have too little control over decisions which determine their own day-to-day lives, and one in three feel that they are not leading their lives to the full.  The human cost, of people cooped-up and hidden away, is substantial. This is no anomaly: today’s figures are hardly changed from last year. For all the promises of successive governments about greater choice and personalised care, something is clearly going badly wrong.

Everyone involved in delivering care services will need to digest this. And while ministers and big private providers should face scrutiny, and quite rightly so, it is time to ask some testing questions of charities as well.

Later this week NPC kicks-off a new series of provocations designed to encourage the charity sector to think hard about what it is doing and how it might want to change. We start with the paper Failing the public? by Fiona Sheil, formerly with us at NPC and at NCVO, who focuses on the role of charities in delivering and shaping social care and other public services. It doesn’t claim to have all the answers—but it asks some very hard questions which charities can’t afford to ignore.

UK charities turned over more than £60bn last year, equivalent to the government’s total annual spend on transport and defence. It is an extraordinary sector, with expertise, creativity and social capital that some other sections of society can only dream about.

It also delivers millions of pounds worth of public service contracts every year, from running children’s homes and community centres to keeping libraries open. This has been an area of vast growth in the last ten years, to the point where government funding now makes up a third of all charity income. Given the public goodwill entrusted in charities, and the specialist skills they enjoy, this is a logical progression.

But our paper worries that this focus on service delivery has come at a cost. Confronted with today’s data, charities should be the perfect organisations to represent the voice of both users and citizens, often those without much power, and to identify and then advocate for service design and policy reform that can help . But they risk sleep-walking into a position where they lose that sort of long-term influence.

There is a danger that resources which might have gone into research and advocacy work—gearing charities to really represent their user groups and push for change across a whole area of government—have been crowded out by the rush to bid for, win and then maintain services. There is nothing wrong with charities delivering contracts; but if system-wide problems are neglected, then it’s difficult to see how this distinguishes charities from, say, G4S or the embattled  Serco, securing public contracts but without a long-term vision for how services might be improved.

The government’s new favourite idea—a successor to choice and personalisation—is ‘co-production’, with its promise to involve the people who use services in designing the services of the future. This is precisely the sort of thing that charities have the passion and expertise to lead, moulding new services to match the needs of those who suffer if they don’t work.

Dan Corry is the Chief Executive of the think tank New Philanthropy Capital (NPC), and previously worked as a senior adviser at the Treasury and to Gordon Brown at No 10