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Co-producing a solution for social work training

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Colleagues at the Department for Education produced a solution for frontline social work training in collaboration with a social enterprise and pro-bono private sector support.

Find out the lessons learnt

They approached us with a solution

Government was seeking ways to raise the quality of social work candidates and deploy the best in the areas where they were most needed.

A social enterprise, Absolute Return for Kids (ARK) came to ministers in late October 2012 with a proposal for attracting and training top graduates to become the future leaders of the profession. They offered to pilot the programme in London and Manchester.

Officials were tasked with working with ARK to turn this promising idea into a robust business plan by the beginning of March.

Bringing people together

A partnership was created between the team of officials, ARK and a private sector consultancy who was providing with ARK pro-bono support, Boston Consulting Group. They each drew on their different expertise to help meet the shared the goal of establishing a business plan for ARK and in turn enabling the pilot to go ahead. The Civil Service team had to explain what processes and tests would be applied to the proposals and ask challenging questions so that the business plan could convince senior officials and ministers.

There was a risk of culture clash and a lot of time was invested to ensure strong relationships led to honest conversations. The regular face-to-face meetings that the team had from November to February we’re crucial in building trust which in turn helped the team understand one another’s contributions and changes.

“We had to not just put forward our proposals, but also explain why.”

ARK particularly benefited from the expertise, pace and drive that the partners brought, enabling the plan to be created more quickly than if they had worked independently and had to wait for their various questions to Government to be answered.

All inside the tent

Ministerial, parliamentary, press and sector interest in the work was very high, increasing the profile – including risk – of the project. This created understandable nervousness but the partners had moved from a typical lobbying relationship to a collaborative one that was solution focused. This gave confidence to officials that the proposal could work.


The business plan was accepted and a grant agreed to enable ARK to create ‘Frontline’ to deliver the pilots. The high quality co-production of the initiative meant that the plan was sound for implementation and the department did not need to work through delivery issues.

The formal relationship is now a far more conventional one of grant maker and recipient, but the trust built up through the process means all involved are very clear on expectations and goals, there remains a shared desire for success and space for honest and constructive dialogue as the project is taken forward by ‘Frontline’.


For others trying this approach, the team suggest you:

  • invest time in face to face meetings and building trust
  • clearly explain the reasons for your suggestions and amendments, and be open about how departmental procedures work so everyone can understand why things are being done in a particular way
  • be clear with all partners if there are areas which aren’t up for negotiation
  • set timetables and plans that all agree to work to so everyone is kept on the same page
  • be aware of the language barrier when working across sectors. Don’t use jargon check the words you use have a shared meaning
  • ensure you speak to legal and procurement colleagues at the start if joint working is likely to lead to a grant or contract; you want to stay within the rules!

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