Options appraisal of the best model for sustained collaboration between Brent council and its VCS partners

The Backdrop

Brent Council knew they could not alone achieve their ambitious plans to create conditions for borough residents to be secure, healthy and successful. The contribution of many different actors, especially the voluntary and community sector (VCS), would be vital. 

In our work across the country, Collaborate has consistently found the strength and maturity of relationships between the VCS and the council to be a key determinant of success. The VCS has a unique relationship with and reach into communities, but active support from the council is needed for the sector to thrive and play their role in policy making. 

Collaborate was commissioned to support Brent Council to develop this infrastructure support, undertaking an options appraisal of four potential models of support that were identified as part of a prior review of sector needs. Our challenge was to assess the models, consider viable alternatives and chart a way forward.

What we did

Understanding the specific context of Brent and what made the VCS unique was essential to choosing the right model. We undertook extensive diagnostic work, interviewing over 50 staff and volunteers in VCSOs, officers and councillors and running a workshop with 40+ participants, then used these insights to generate specific and innovative solutions.

Throughout the process, we collected evidence and insight to demonstrate the unique contributions of the VCS sector to Brent. This bolstered the argument that deeper partnership approaches were needed, not just transactional support.

Based on what we heard about the sector’s and Council’s priorities and preferences for the future alongside our theoretical analysis of the models proposed, we developed a set of criteria to judge the proposed models against. The fact that these criteria came from the sector themselves meant that there was greater ownership and trust in the judgments we made. 

Our approach and ideas evolved as we reacted to what we were hearing from participants, so we met regularly with the core Council team to test our emerging findings, before producing a final report and recommendations for the future model of support to the VCS.

Impact and Learning

After long engagement with representatives from the VCS, Council officers and local politicians, we concluded that none of the four models of infrastructure support originally proposed were right for Brent. It needed something different.

Based on the insight we gathered, we proposed a new model for supporting the VCS, focused on three elements:

  • Creating a supportive environment: Strategic clarity from the Council on the role of community organisations, a new engagement approach to enable two-way conversation with the sector, and proactive support for sector capability building, such as leadership programmes. 
  • Self-organising thematic and locality based groups: A forum to bring together VCSOs to share knowledge and work on practical issues in partnership with the Council. This would replicate the existing “Homelessness Forum’ which was already widely seen as successful at platforming sector voices.
  • A dedicated infrastructure support organisation with empowered leadership and governance reflecting the sector and strategic alignment with the Council. This would be identified through a commissioning exercise.

This gave the Council concrete opportunities to move forward on. But the strengthening of relationships that the process catalysed are just as important a legacy of the work. There was a new level of honesty in discussions about how to address some of the historical challenges to collaboration. As a neutral broker, we were trusted to mediate between different organisations and perspectives and ‘hold up a mirror’ to all parties to help them achieve their ambitions for residents. 

Ellen Care, Collaborate Head of Practice said “The options appraisal served as a vehicle for a much deeper exploration of the value of the VCS to Brent and I’m proud that our work helped to make the case for the contribution it can provide. It was so rewarding to see the ‘light-bulb’ moments happening in conversations as new ideas about how the sector and council can support one another were seeded.”

After working with Collaborate, we’re in a different and a better place, with a great foundation from which to move forward. Collaborate were very open to listening but also to challenging us when needed, always in a way that was reasonable, sensible and well-delivered. I was delighted with how well Collaborate engaged with our stakeholders, who were really positive about the experience of working with them.

Pascoe Sawyers
Head of Strategy and Partnerships