- Peter Wanless, Chief Executive, Big Lotter Fund
- Dharmendra Kanani, Director, BIG England
- Gary Bishop, Managing Director, Justlife
- Gareth Davies, Executive Director at the Cabinet Office
- Lucy de Groot, Chief Executive, Community Service Volunteers
- Peter Thomas, Director of Civil Service Reform, Institute for Government
Opening the event, Peter Thomas emphasised how the joint programme with the Big Lottery Fund contributes to the Institute’s mission of making government more effective, by engaging senior policy makers in a practical and influential way with real projects, real places and real services.
This was followed by a video showing how the Big Lottery Fund’s support makes a real difference to the lives of people and communities:
Peter Wanless explained that the Big Lottery Fund invests £750 million a year across the country, making 12,000 individual awards and at any one time processing around 24,000 bids. While BIG is known for making small, one-off grants to good causes, it increasingly has a crucial role to play in developing the voluntary and community sector to tackle areas of public policy. He talked about his hope that BIG can make better use of the “intelligence”’ it has from the projects it funds, putting it at the disposal of those who make policy and commission services. Wanless referred to his own experience of the “power of anecdote” in government, warning that the challenge of the partnership with the IfG will be to get people from different sectors talking to each other, so that those anecdotes can actually influence policies and services.
Dharmendra Kanani addressed BIG’s decision to move the way it funds from just “random acts of kindness” towards adding value to the organisations and the issues it works with. Kanani outlined BIG’s overall vision of enriching places that support successful communities in which people live fulfilling lives. Underpinning that vision is a belief in “people powered change”, an asset-based approach which sees people and communities as part of the solution, not the problem. BIG is crafting a new way of working, based around co-production; cross-sector partnership; with learning at the heart. BIG is able to “buck the political cycles” of elections and spending reviews, a position that allows them to learn and to influence so that we can stop doing the same things over and over again, hoping for different results.
Gary Bishop began with the inspiring story that had led him and his wife to set up Justlife. In the last year, Justlife has helped 317 people on 4,500 separate occasions, and works with over 50 other organisations: “multiple and complex needs require multiple and complex solutions”. Bishop stressed how their volunteers working with vulnerable adults are “searching through the rubble of life in order to put it back together”. He spoke about the critical but distinct competencies of the private, public and voluntary sectors, which are well-placed to mobilise resources, accountability and community knowledge, respectively, but warned of the distrust between sectors. Bishop said he was committed to supporting partnership between the sectors, and ended with a quote, sometimes attributed to Gandhi, that “there’s only so long you can go on dragging bodies out of the river before you go up stream to find out who keeps throwing them in”.
Gareth Davies admitted that Gary Bishop’s story demonstrates that “the best of the Civil Service, the best of the public sector, the best of local government can’t solve these issues”. That is why government needs a “deal” with the voluntary sector to work towards common aims. Davies said he was concerned that while the partnership between BIG and IfG will be valuable, opening up policy making to the ‘real world’ at scale remains a problem in a Civil Service that has 14,000 policy makers, who are mostly young, decently paid and London-centred. He discussed the need for the Civil Service to recast its role as influencing, brokering and facilitating the uptake of the best ideas, which will require a much greater openness to moving between sectors.
Lucy de Groot commended the ‘people powered change’ ethos of BIG’s funding, which also underlies the approach of Community Service Volunteers, helping everyone build skills through social action. She praised the Big Lottery Fund’s commitment to being a “thoughtful funder”, with a long-term commitment that is difficult for the public sector in the current context. The partnership bringing together civil servants and the voluntary sector has great potential, but de Groot warned that “we all need to learn how to learn”. BIG and the IfG should look at similar approaches tried in government, to take away what worked and why it stopped. She hoped that government could learn from the VCS experience of fostering ongoing relationships, rather than just transactions.
Questions and answers
Questions from the audience covered the challenges of breaking down silos in central government, the role of the ‘expert citizen’ in informing change to policy making and how to shift the power balance in the policy process towards the frontline. Peter Wanless restated BIG’s commitment to act as a broker for those with experience to shape the design of their initiatives, something that Gary Bishop recognised as a huge shift from where we are now in government. Lucy de Groot addressed the perennial problem of a lack of joined-up government, proposing that policy makers needed to look more carefully at the interdependencies of the interventions they design; Gareth Davies was more sceptical, doubting whether government will ever join up in the way people want. Better instead, Davies claimed, to shift the focus to how communities can drive it from below.