Local authorities and housing associations ought to be natural partners. There is so much crossover between the people that they work with, the challenges that these individuals face and the services delivered to meet their needs. In this context, collaboration makes perfect sense.
This case for collaboration is becoming increasingly urgent as pressures being faced by all sectors are starting to have a substantial impact. Councils and health partners are in the middle of monumental cuts to services, which are set to continue well into the next parliament.
Coupled with rising demand across a wide range of areas, transformation offers a way to deliver better services for less. In dealing with this, integration, prevention and early intervention all present a way to drive change, remove duplication from the system, manage demand for costly, acute services and deliver better services for users.
Housing associations too are grappling with the challenges posed by significant welfare reforms which are creating ever growing difficulties for some residents in avoiding arrears and potential evictions.
Supporting residents to gain sustainable employment has become a much greater priority; which means tackling the multiple issues associated with unemployment such as health, wellbeing and poverty. For many individuals who require support, their complex needs are not tightly sealed to one agency or one issue. They are interdependent and often mutually reinforcing, so to tackle them effectively, they require a holistic approach.
By integrating services and embedding the collaboration that is already happening between sectors on a much larger scale, we argue that there are big opportunities to deliver better outcomes and save money. Evidence is starting to emerge from programmes such as Troubled Families that collaboration and integrated services can do exactly this.
While there are some good examples of partnership working between sectors, our research found that these can often be one-off or temporary transactions, rather than being indicative of a broader culture of long-term collaboration. There are often cultural tensions and different financial incentives between sectors, which, although understandable, create a sense of a lack of alignment, which can make collaboration challenging.
It was clear through our research that many local authorities often do not appreciate housing associations as independent social businesses – each with their own priorities, missions and values. Councils tend to view the role of housing associations as landlords and developers only, rather than recognising the broader social offer core to many of these organisations. Equally, many housing associations are grappling with balancing their role as landlords, developers and estate managers with the sometimes conflicting priorities of their social purpose, which can make prioritising integrated services challenging.
The overriding point is that these perceptions of cultural differences need to be understood and challenged. In order to grasp the huge opportunities posed by deepening and embedding transformative collaboration partners need to be able to work through some of the real and perceived barriers that can get in the way of collaboration.
In our report Design For Life, we outline a series of practical tools and a series of recommendations that can help partners to overcome some of the issues that can make collaboration difficult. But in order to use these tools effectively and drive forward transformative cross-sector collaboration, this must happen at all levels.
Sector leaders need to encourage innovation from the bottom and middle-up as well as the top down and create the sort of culture where innovation and creative thinking flourish. Crucially, individuals themselves have to grasp the opportunities that are open to them to think collectively, challenge how things are done and create relationships across boundaries that will help bring sectors together.
Laura Wilkes is is head of policy and research at the New Local Government Network