25 April 2016

Approximately 400 professional bodies in the UK represent 13 million people across private, public and voluntary sectors. In the public sector, professional bodies can play a crucial role in supporting frontline staff, from paramedics to social workers, but often slip under the radar in discussions about public service reform. Sophie Wilson explains.

photo 8-edited Public service reform is geared towards greater collaboration between services and better meeting citizens’ needs through a joined up, person-centred approach. The pressure on services to do this is growing, with the Government announcing plans for integration in areas such as health and social care by 2020. But while the importance of frontline practitioners in making this a reality is widely recognised, professional bodies tend to focus on just one group of practitioners, so it is not always clear whether they might reinforce silos or how they can help bring services together.

To find out more, the Institute for Government partnered with Solace’s evidence-based policy network to ask a group of professional bodies, what is their role in supporting change? We drew three main conclusions:

  1. Although professional bodies support members to perform specific jobs, often in specific sectors, they are well aware of the need for collaboration and their own role in bringing practitioners together. For example, the Royal College of Midwives connects midwives with local leisure centres in Doncaster to improve patient knowledge of exercise during pregnancy. Demonstrating leadership and creating opportunities for frontline practitioners to meet and connect with others in the system is essential in breaking down boundaries and building a common language and culture. Professional bodies are well placed to do this through shared events, as well as training and networking for all levels, from students to senior leaders.
  2. Of course, capacity is tight in public services and the resource pressures on professionals can make it harder to participate in learning opportunities. Local leaders can be reluctant to allow staff the time to engage in continuing professional development (CPD) or informal learning opportunities such as peer support or networking. Professional bodies can help by encouraging leaders to recognise the value of learning opportunities, sending messages to managers about the importance of sharing insights and lessons on the frontline, to improve services on the ground.
  3. Recognising the commonalities between professional bodies creates an opportunity for ‘smart advocacy’, such as working together to encourage leaders to invest in staff training, influencing government on issues of shared value, or commissioning joint research. For example, the Royal College of General Practitioners is involved in piloting an IT system that enables GPs to refer patients who may be at risk of fuel poverty to local fire and rescue services and the council. There is a clear demand for more collaborative working between professional bodies; as one participant highlighted: ‘We all work with the same families.’

photo 14-edited This is not just about supporting their members to share and learn, but about professional bodies sharing and learning from one another too. The proliferation of information at the click of a button is challenging the traditional role of professional bodies as ‘guardians of knowledge’. Professionals can now access vast swathes of information and connect with one another online, potentially removing the need for organisations to facilitate access for their members. Adapting to this changing context is essential if professional bodies are to keep up and remain relevant by developing new methods of support that meet modern challenges. For example, the Royal College of Anaesthetists has developed a voluntary accreditation scheme, recognised by the health regulator the Care Quality Commission, which uses a peer review process to assess services, highlight areas for improvement, and reward excellence. In this way, professional bodies have an essential role in supporting their 13 million members to adapt to new ways of working, and provide opportunities for learning across, as well as within, sectors.

But to do this, professional bodies need to join up too, learn from one another, and help embed collaborative working across public services.

Further information

Figures on the number of professional bodies and people represented are taken from the Professional Associations Research Network (accessed 18 April 2016)



The Institute for Government is currently exploring how local areas can be better supported to share and learn from one another, to improve outcomes for citizens. We will be publishing a short note and set of case studies in Summer 2016.



The roundtable was attended by representatives from: British Association of Social Workers, Chartered Institute of Housing, Royal Town Planning Institute, Royal College of General Practitioners, Chartered Management Institute, Local Area Research and Intelligence Association, Association of Electoral Administrators, Royal College of Midwives, Royal College of Surgeons, Royal College of Anaesthetists, College of Paramedics, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, Cabinet Office, and Solace.