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Step by step: practical approaches to joining up the NHS and VCSE sector

Shilpa Ross

A new King’s Fund report, ‘Actions to support partnership: Addressing barriers to working with the voluntary, community, and social enterprise (VCSE) sector in integrated care systems’, aims to support leaders in statutory and VCSE organisations by identifying and testing approaches to facilitate more equal partnership working.

  • Integrated care

Recently, I had the pleasure of talking to leaders in the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector, as well as leaders working in integrated care systems (ICSs) about how they were developing strategic partnerships to improve how health care is commissioned, designed and provided. Very often the conversations would begin almost apologetically, with leaders saying they were still in the early stages and laying the important foundation blocks for future joined up working. I’d say, ‘That’s great! Please tell me more. No detail is too big or too small for me to hear about’. My curiosity was as much about finding out how partners were getting to know each other as the nitty gritty of the practical work they were doing. It turned out everyone had valuable insight and experiences to share with me. Those actions to support partnership are shared in a new report from The King’s Fund, which shows proactive steps are being taken to improve strategic partnerships.

Barriers to partnership

The research was commissioned by NHS England, as part of its programme to ensure closer working with the VCSE sector. We focused on three barriers where those working in the statutory sector and the VCSE sector have struggled to align processes and ways of working:

  • Sharing data, intelligence and insight
  • Service commissioning, design and delivery
  • Getting funding and sustainable investment into the VCSE sector (this is a major issue which the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA) also looked into in their review of the funding landscape).

Actions to address barriers

Leaders I spoke to were well aware of how these barriers can get in the way of working in partnership. The statutory and VCSE sectors are generally trying to achieve similar outcomes – keeping people healthy and well – but structures, processes and not knowing where or how to begin often hold back progress.

It was encouraging to find out what people and organisations have tried out, and often small and tentative steps led to bigger and more confident strides. For example, in the West Yorkshire Health and Care Partnership, a representative from the Harnessing the Power of Communities (HPOC) programme joined in on a wide range of discussions across the various ICS workstreams – even if there wasn’t an immediately obvious contribution from the VCSE sector. Doing this helped the HPOC team understand the ICS’s priorities and helped others in the ICS understand what the VCSE sector can offer. Now HPOC is a key partner and working with the VCSE sector is a top priority for the Integrated Care Board.

Pulling together the examples of practical approaches to tackling the barriers that we came across, we produced a resource called ‘A framework for addressing practical barriers to integration of VCSE sector organisations’. The resource is available on the ‘Working in partnership with the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector’ workspace on the FutureNHS platform.

Who can help

Leaders generously shared their learning that changes happened iteratively, often starting from the ground up. Looking across the different examples, it was clear that the keys to success are paying attention to ways of working and principles that facilitate more equal partnership. These are within the gift of the VCSE sector and ICS leaders alike. And, finally, national organisations like NHS England and funders (including large charitable ones) can help mediate the barriers and facilitate action to support partnership working.


Shilpa Ross is a Fellow at The King’s Fund and works on a range of health and social care research programmes. Topics of her recent reports include the role of volunteers in the NHS, transformational change in health and care and quality improvement in mental health. Shilpa also has extensive experience in qualitative research.