What it takes to build productive partnerships between LAs and the local VCFS

Posted 30th March 2023

Unless local Family Hubs’ networks of people, places and services involve the local voluntary sector, achieving effectiveness and sustainability will be an impossible challenge. In fact, for many local authority employees, the task to explore this is a welcome opportunity as well as a necessity. We spoke to LJ Woodward, Head of Service, Early Years and Neighbourhoods at Stockport Council, who is working with the local voluntary sector to identify what mutually beneficial partnership working should look like. 

LJ and her colleagues at Stockport Council are genuinely committed to developing a stronger partnership with the voluntary sector and faith organisations. However, as they begin this journey they realise it may be a longer road than they first anticipated. As consultation progressed, they realised that existing relationships are not as strong as they had thought. So they went back to the drawing board to consider the baseline question – what does it take to develop an authentic, meaningful relationship with the voluntary sector?  

Through a series of engagement workshops, the Stockport team shared their Family Hubs vision with representatives of the voluntary sector, but emphasised they were ready to listen and determined to keep the voluntary sector at the heart of the conversation. They also stressed that they recognised the voluntary sector’s value to statutory services, but reassured them that this new partnership was not an effort to push demand onto the voluntary sector by stealth. 

In time, commissioning and referral pathways may well be reviewed, however the first priority is to understand how the voluntary sector wants to be involved with Family Hubs, considering: 

  • the range of advice and support needed to work in partnership, 
  • the benefits of and barriers to achieving these closer relationships. 

Motivating factors for the local voluntary, community and faith sector (VCFS) 

For the voluntary sector in Stockport, when they heard about the Family Hub concept, there were five things they were particularly excited about. These include being able to deliver some of their services and activities in Family Hubs, benefitting from network-wide promotion, and therefore being able to reach different groups in the community. They hope that through working more closely with the local authority, the wider public sector and other charities, they will form connections and work more productively to find solutions for local problems, as well as meeting the needs of individual families more effectively. 

Challenges anticipated by the local VCFS 

There are challenges though, too. A familiar frustration is the short-term funding cycle, making it difficult to spend efficiently or plan ahead.  

Equally important is the relationship between supplier and funder. Whilst they want funding, organisations also value the concept of working in equal partnership, without funding complicating that dynamic. Some local authorities with mature Family Hubs models succeed in this by not funding the voluntary sector directly, but proactively helping organisations make bids for funding.  

Another concern is the risk that partnership working may lead to a blurring of responsibilities and an increased demand on VCFS organisations, especially when the objective is to help families get the right help more quickly. They need reassurance about how the partnership will manage the demand. 

For some, there’s a fear that the Family Hub might dominate, overshadowing other community venues; an outcome that can be avoided if the Family Hub is well connected with other delivery sites. 

And they’re worried about bureaucracy, that great ideas will be swiftly followed by increased paperwork, which can slow the pace and hinder the work. Many local VCFS organisations are small yet nimble, and fear they will lose that advantage if they work more closely with the LA. Will this lead to a culture clash of different values and working styles, they wonder? LAs with mature Family Hubs, such as Westminster, have overcome these challenges by delivering shared workforce training which builds relationships and understanding, and provides regular opportunities for both sectors to learn from the other, so they work together better. 

VCFS expectations of partnership 

So what do VCFS organisations believe partnership could and should look like? They prize mutual respect and trust as foundations of genuine partnership. The ease with which an LA can achieve this may depend in part on the quality of existing relationships between VCFS and LA. Some LAs are new to the Family Hub approach, but have excellent relationships with the VCFS which is an advantage. 

The VCFS is interested in knowledge sharing and training – understanding how LAs systems work, such as referral pathways, so they can see their place in the bigger picture, as well as workforce training so that the VCFS staff can develop their skills and career prospects. 

Some in the VCFS are keen to participate in assessment and evaluation. When they have trusted relationships with families, they want to be able to use their insight and experience to contribute to assessment to help families’ needs be met. Equally, when a family’s outcomes are being evaluated, they’re keen to evidence their impact. 

Data sharing is another opportunity. The VCFS does not expect to have access to all data, but they do feel that there needs to be more flexibility so that they can be more effective in what they do.  

They want partnership to be long term, not just for the duration of a pot of funding. So, they want the local authority to have a vision for how this will be continued.  

They’re keen to be involved in joint problem-solving – coming together cross-sector to make things better in their communities. In Nottinghamshire, when the LA held a workshop to discuss Family Hubs, the VCFS was simply pleased to be brought together to work collaboratively, because this in itself would enable them to work together better. 

VCFS capacity post pandemic 

Turning to the pandemic and its impact upon the voluntary sector, interestingly, what we at FHN hear is quite polarised. Some VCFS organisations are still suffering from fatigue, disillusionment, with fewer volunteers and many facing closure. Others, however, were empowered during the pandemic and can see new possibilities as a result.  

Potential of faith organisations 

This has particularly emerged amongst some faith organisations. We have heard from many churches who played a vital role supporting their communities during the pandemic, making new connections, and thriving on the can-do attitude and reduced red tape. 

Our conversations with other faith organisations focused more specifically on their importance as bridges to their specific neighbourhoods. Embedded in their local communities, they are trusted by families and are keen to help them get the help they need – but trust between LAs and faith organisations is important too. Some local authority staff express concerns about faith organisations’ motivations – whether they might be simply ‘in it for money’, or driven to get ‘bums on seats’, and some faith organisations feel their traditions are not respected. However, at a local community level, through building relationships, step by step, there is genuine potential to safely build capacity and reach, through working together. 

We can learn from local authorities who have engaged with faith organisations through the Churchworks Commission and Violence Reduction Units. And specifically, if you want to see for yourself the potential energy and commitment of a local faith organisation, talk to Yeovil Community Church in Somerset, where they deliver elements of the Supporting Families programme as well as provide a range of services for all families. Of course, not all churches will have this ambition or capacity, but there is a lot of potential out there. 

The local voluntary, community and faith sector implementation recommendations 

So what does this tell us about how LAs should involve the local VCFS in Family Hub implementation? The recommendations below are a place to start:

  • Begin consultation as soon as possible and involve the VCFS by reaching out widely and letting others spread the word 
  • Think carefully about how you communicate your plan – if you have a theory of change, this can be a useful way to share your vision  
  • Go for transparency. In Lancashire, they use Slack, a digital platform enabling everyone involved in implementing Family Hubs to access information and stay up to date, they call it ‘working in the open’ and it creates a real sense that ‘we’re in this together’ 
  • In your Family Hub staffing plans, include a voluntary sector engagement worker or enabler or connector 
  • Think about digital innovation and how this can help you work effectively with a wider local network
  • And, approach this work with a mindset of continuous improvement. If that’s your culture, it means you don’t need to get it right first time. Involve people from the first, agree what you’re working towards, and make it clear that you’re going to persevere. 

If you have insights to share from a local authority or VCFS perspective on this topic, please don’t hesitate get in touch: info@familyhubsnetwork.com

Image by Hanna Busing courtesy of Unsplash

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