The search for “joined-up government” is a constant theme in the pursuit of more effective public policies. As the functions of government have developed, the challenge of remaining coherent – so that the left-hand of government knows what the right hand is doing – has grown.
With more specialized agencies and strategies, citizens increasingly face a fractured, complex and often bewildering State apparatus.
Thirty years ago the doors opened in an organisation in the heart of Dublin committed to putting joined-up thinking into joined-up practice. St Andrew's Resource Centre on Pearse Street occupies a former national school made available by the Archdiocese of Dublin.
It aims to address the needs of the local community in an integrated way, offering literally under one roof a wide range of services catering for individuals and families at all stages of the life cycle. Located in the heart of the community, it is easily accessible and proactively engages with local people as their needs and aspirations change.
A highly professional youth service operates in tandem with a family support service, with specialist counselling available on site
Today, over 11 major programmes and services are delivered with funding received from eight statutory agencies, each based on a specific service level agreement. Some are the local version of national programmes. Others were developed to address specific local needs. All are tailored to local circumstances.
Funding also comes from local businesses, from philanthropic donors, and from community fundraising.
From local toddlers attending the childcare service, to the senior citizens catered for by the day centre, all of the community can find services they need or seamless referral to specialist care. A highly professional youth service operates in tandem with a family support service, with specialist counselling available on site.
Adult education classes run alongside tuition and support programmes for school children run in partnership with students from Trinity College. The centre runs community fitness programmes for families and schools, supports community festivals, publishes a community magazine, and supports many local organisations with facilities and advice.
The Local Employment Service operated by the centre developed an innovative and low-cost model of training and placement which over recent months has placed more than 120 long-term unemployed people in construction jobs in the inner city.
Connecting the local community to economic opportunity arising from the major investment flowing into the Docklands is a key goal of the centre.
St Andrew's is not unique. The idea of grouping services to deliver them in an integrated and locally accessible way is not new. The establishment of Kilkenny Social Service Centre by Bishop Peter Birch and Sr Stanislaus Kennedy more than 50 years ago expressed the same philosophy, albeit in less complex times.
A passion to serve a community and advocate for its needs can sit uncomfortably with public policies
But the trends in service delivery are making it harder to sustain. More specialised agencies, more individualised and fragmented targets, more commercial procurement models that seek lower unit costs by standardising transactions in contracts that cover large populations – all threaten the capacity of local organisations to act as a broker, bundling services into locally accessible and mutually supportive programmes.
Collocation of services
What is at issue is more than collocation of services or organisational design. It is about a commitment to human flourishing in the context of community, not simply serving individual consumers or administering standard programmes. It expresses a commitment and solidarity for the long term, and for all.
A passion to serve a community and advocate for its needs can sit uncomfortably with public policies focused on inputs and their cost.
It may be, however, that such an ethical commitment is a key to better outcomes, especially in areas of concentrated disadvantage, while faith communities may best express their ethical commitment by deploying assets that lever public funding to invest in countering disadvantage.
Public policy is subject to the influence of fashionable ideas. Community-based service planning is out of fashion. However, the former International Monetary Fund chief economist Raghuram Rajan has argued that building up the community dimension is critical to the sustainability of economic and social development.
Research demonstrates that the quality and effectiveness of service delivery is a critical ingredient in strategies to counter exclusion and reduce inequality. The story of the last 30 years on Pearse Street merits wider attention.
Dermot McCarthy is chair of the St Andrew’s Resource Centre and a former secretary general to the government.