International Debate

Deep value

December 1, 2010 977

‘Public service reform’ was a key theme of New Labour, and with widespread cuts to public services from the Coalition’s spending review announced in October, the shape and nature of public services looks set to be a continued focus of political and policy debate. It’s within this context that Community Links, an East London charity, is beginning a new research project to investigate the importance of personal relationships in public services, and how we place a value on the human element of interactions between citizens and the state.

Community Links is an innovative charity running community-based projects in east London. We help over 30,000 vulnerable children, young people and adults every year, with most of our 60 projects delivered in Newham, one of the poorest boroughs in Europe. We pioneer new ideas and new ways of working locally and share the learning nationally with other practitioners, policymakers and the press.

This project, ‘Deep Value’, arose from work carried out by the Council on Social Action, established by Gordon Brown, which set out to examine the importance of one to one relationships. Work that grew out of that on the importance of ‘one to one’ in the field of legal advice (published as Time Well Spent: The importance of the on-to-one relationship between advice workers and their clients) showed clearly that effective relationships between legal advice workers and their clients are instrumental to achieving quality outcomes at value for money. However the value of such relationships can be difficult to demonstrate to policy makers. What we may feel we instinctively ‘know’ about the difference investing in interactions can make, can be hard to quantify in a context where efficiency and value for money are of legitimate concern.

This project therefore seeks to specify and attempt to quantify the value of such relationships, using a multi-disciplinary approach. Community Links is carrying out a review of the evidence of effective practice in this area, drawing on research across public service provision, including health and education. This will be supplemented by a specific focus on two areas where we feel that the case for investment in relationships has yet to be made: employment services, and specialist legal welfare advice. We have commissioned a psychologist to develop a methodology to describe the psychological benefits that arise from this type of relationship, and are tendering for an economist to investigate how such benefits can be quantified (please contact kate.bell@community-links.org if interested in this work).

The project will draw lessons that are highly relevant for current policy debates, but also seeks to address questions of long term relevance both academically and politically in terms of the relationship between service providers and users, and the possibility of specifying and measuring the benefits that arise from human interactions. Ultimately we aim to improve service delivery – both within Community Links’ own services for the people of East London, and hopefully more widely. We believe that relationships have the power to transform lives – this project sets out to demonstrate that.

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