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What can a civil servant learn from a local charity?

Civil Servant Jacques takes part in a Careers Carousel event at William Ellis SchoolJacques is a civil servant participating in the Fast Stream programme, where graduates experience working across different government departments. He recently completed a 6 month secondment at Inspire! as part of the Charity Next scheme, helping the charity make their IT systems fit for purpose.  

I was excited to start at Inspire! in March 2018, but knew it would be a wholly different experience to what I’m used to.

My background is working in public policy and government projects, including the Department for Education, the Cabinet Office and the Home Office. I am used to advising ministers on policy issues in departments that employ tens of thousands of people, where projects are implemented on a national scale.

Inspire!, however, employ only around 30 staff members, running both a charity and Alternative Provision school from their Dalston premises. As the front line of careers education for local young people, I learnt that they have educated, mentored and supported over 15,000 young people in the last year, helping them make informed and aspirational choices about their futures.

Whilst their office is small, their impact is massive.

With Inspire!’s size and needs in mind, I was able to affect faster change than in government. Staff quickly agreed on low-cost proposals to increase efficiencies. For example, as part of a new Digital Strategy, the team agreed that using a cloud storage system would be a positive move.

Maybe this isn’t surprising – when making changes at a national scale, the size of the government machine can impede the pace of change. The leadership team and governing body of Inspire! were easily accessible, open to new ideas, and keen to make speedy progress.

But change can’t just rely on speed: I found the working culture to be dynamic, friendly, social and innovative. Even with tight budgets, there is an attitude of creativity and commitment to their mission which makes Inspire! a great place to work.

There is also a clear public policy challenge here.

Many of Inspire!’s services used to be provided by the local council, but cuts to local government have forced charities to step up to maintain crucial provision. I quickly learned that understanding the financial context of the charity sector was crucial. While I’m used to the concept of value for money in the civil service, budgets are considerably smaller in local charities like Inspire!.

I’ve seen this attitude replicated across the school sector – I am a governor for an academy in Southwark which has a similar community profile to Dalston. Whilst the government has clear aims on social mobility (see: the Race Disparity Audit, the Careers Strategy and work on Social Mobility), it’s clear that the role of schools and charities has changed to meet this need over the past decade. The 56 schools that Inspire! worked with last year are all working within this challenging funding context.

The key lesson?

Maintaining great public services with little resource needs two things to happen at the same time: effective internal change and a genuine commitment to improving opportunity for others. I’ve gained so much at Inspire! and am now returning to government to work on education policy in the Cabinet Office. I’ll hang on to these lessons of how the local can be applied to the national; how government can learn from small organisations to affect change on a systemic level.

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