Joined up working—it’s all the rage in public management at the moment. It helps the public sector work more efficiently. It reduces duplicated effort. It enables multiple agencies to combine their resources and expertise to tackle those “wicked issues”—another big public management buzzword.
And on the face of it it all seems to make sense. In the context of fire, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service has been doing interesting ‘joined-up’ work recently sharing data with a variety of other agencies to help identify, at an individual level, who is most at risk of fire. This enables them to target fire safety interventions very precisely, which will surely mean better outcomes for less effort and cost.
As I’ve been reading around the subject of community relationships with public bodies, however, I’ve started to uncover bits of evidence to suggest that joined up working may not be entirely good for outcomes. It’s all to do with trust. Some really interesting research in Bristol has suggested that actually some communities, and particularly poorer communities, distrust the fire service. This distrust hampers the ability of the fire service to communicate the fire safety message and may be reducing the uptake of fire safety measures. And the suspicion is that it may in part be down to the fire service being associated in people’s minds with other public services.
The notion is explored in more depth in some earlier research into poor uptake of community health initiatives amongst those in more deprived communities. The researchers in this study found strong evidence that people in poorer communities were reticent to engage with public services for a whole host of reasons. These included fear of loosing resources such as benefits, feeling they were being watched or judged, and poor experiences in the past, both of being treated without respect and of simply not getting the help they felt they needed. And crucially for the work being done by Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service, data sharing between agencies was identified as a significant factor leading to fear and distrust of the public services. This seemed to be particularly acute where Social Services were concerned, with the fear of having children taken into care widespread. Few would argue that protecting children isn’t important, but perhaps that purpose is not best served by an approach which is perceived as turning all public sector workers into spies, leaving parents afraid to engage with primary health care services.
There are certainly real benefits to be had by public services working together, but what is starting to become clear is that there are also some real problems associated with it. For all it may be done with the best intentions, some of the most disadvantaged people in society perceive joined up working by public bodies as a significant threat to them. As a result they make choices about the way in which they engage with services that may significantly hamper the ability of those services to achieve their aims. There are no easy answers. Abandoning joined up working is not a realistic option. But there is a clear need for public services to deepen their understanding of how their actions are perceived and how they affect the willingness of communities to engage with them.
- Higgins, E, Taylor, M, Jones, M and Lisboa, PJG (2013). Understanding community fire risk—A spatial model for targeting fire prevention activities. Fire Safety Journal, 62 (A): 20–29. DOI 10.1016/j.firesaf.2013.02.006
- Matheson, K (2012). Fire fighters, neighbourhoods and social identity: The relationship between the fire service and residents in Bristol [Online]. PhD Thesis, University of the West of England. Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/16692/ [Retrieved 14 November 2013]
- Canvin, K, Jones, C, Marttila, A, Burström, B and Whitehead, M (2007). Can I risk using public services? Perceived consequences of seeking help and health care among households living in poverty: qualitative study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 61 (11): 984–989. DOI 10.1136/jech.2006.058404