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Working in partnership to deliver integrated care

Karen Hallt

Understanding people’s needs and aspirations is essential to improve health and wellbeing and address health inequalities. The voluntary, community and social enterprise sector is a valued partner of the NHS and local councils within the new integrated care systems and plays a key role in local health and care services.

  • Integrated care
  • Lived experience

Moving towards integrated services

Integrated care gives people the support they need, in the right place, and at the right time. This can only be achieved through a joined-up approach across the NHS, local councils, the voluntary and community sector, and other local partners.

In July 2022, 42 integrated care systems were legally established across England, each with two statutory elements: an integrated care partnership (ICP) and an integrated care board (ICB). These new elements are designed to maximise the value of local partnerships, looking beyond health and social care to address wider determinants that affect people’s health.

Within the new arrangements, people and communities are expected to be at the heart of all decision making, with the needs and aspirations of local communities actively listened to and represented across the system.

In line with statutory guidance for working with people and communities and ICB establishment legislation, all ICBs have outlined how they will work strategically with their system partners to build relationships with local communities, share insight across their system, and ensure people have genuine and meaningful influence at every level.

Working in partnership to focus on what matters to people

Our ICB engagement colleagues are taking a fresh look at how people work in their organisation and more broadly across the system, with strong recognition of the value of voluntary, community and social enterprise sector (VCSE) partners as advocates for and connectors to local communities.

Many ICBs are looking to learn from their VCSE partners. We’ve seen how effective VCSE organisations were in supporting people throughout the pandemic and there is great interest in building on trusted relationships and community champion approaches to encourage community development and the co-design of services.

Examples include working with VCSE partners to engage with communities, such as research programmes in North Central London and a Community Voices project in Norfolk and Waveney. Partnership models are being developed, for example, local Healthy Communities Forums in Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent to engage, involve and empower the VCSE sector within the system.

“Moving from understanding how people experience the care and support of single services or providers, to partners listening together to learn how they can provide better joined-up care – acting as a system – has enabled us to develop a clear and concise vision for the future. With the VCSE we have developed strong relationships with existing networks and community assets. Working together to identify collective priorities, common themes and opportunities and agree a collaborative system response which draws on the breadth of skills and experience within the partnership.”

Sophie Martin, Engagement Lead at Suffolk and North East Essex

Supporting systems and partners

We have several NHS England programmes to support our NHS, VCSE, Healthwatch and local government colleagues – including the establishment of VCSE Alliances in each ICB to embed the sector strategically across all levels of an ICS.

In summer 2022 we coordinated peer-to-peer feedback on ICBs’ approaches for working with people and communities. From this, we identified the support needed to benefit system-wide working and strategic engagement with local residents – in some areas the links with VCSE partners could be developed further.

Building the public’s trust and understanding is essential to encourage people to take an active role in engaging with health and care services and to empower communities. Working with VCSE partners to form stronger connections with communities is key, along with sharing insight across the system and visibly promoting the impact and outcomes of people’s involvement. 

As we face numerous social, economic and public health challenges, there is recognition of the resourcing and capacity demands of working in new ways across systems, particularly for local grassroot organisations. Joining up public engagement carried out by the NHS with that of local partners brings the benefits of integrated resources as well as residents being ‘asked only once’.

What is apparent from the ICB ambitions is that the VCSE sector can and will continue to play a vital role within integrated care systems.


Karen Hallt is the Programme Manager for Community Relationships within NHS England’s System Transformation directorate. With a background in patient experience, data and insight, Karen’s role is to support Integrated Care Board engagement leads as they develop their approaches to working with people and communities – recognising that resident’s ideas, feedback and support are crucial to solving short and long term challenges in health and care.