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This blog is written by Nigel Ball, Executive Director of the GO Lab. He reflects on a recent visit to Sheffield Futures, the largest youth charity in Sheffield, in the North of England. He welcomes comments via Twitter (@Nigel_Ball) or LinkedIn.

Jennie (not her real name) is a young woman who recently left full-time education and now works at a trampolining centre for kids. While this may sound more fun than many entry level jobs, her boyfriend – who she lives with – left the same job some months ago. What they both really wanted to do was become social media influencers.

This story might sound quite typical: a young person who feels like an invisible cog in society’s giant machine, holding an aspiration that sounds like a pipe dream to older adults (who have perhaps forgotten when they followed similar patterns of thought). But Jennie is not typical: she spent much of her childhood away from her birth family, in the care of the state. Now officially classed as an adult, she has to learn to stand on her own two feet: get a house, get a job, and get on with life through all its twists and turns. She must do this without the emotional and material ties to her birth parents that many young people are fortunate enough to be able to take for granted. For her to maintain a job is something that certainly cannot be taken for granted, as her boyfriend’s experience shows.

Earlier this month, the GO Lab team met Jennie and a group of other young people who had also recently left the care system. We visited Sheffield Futures, the largest youth charity in the city, run by Gail Gibbons, a GO Lab Fellow of Practice. The charity runs a wide range of services for young people in the city, among them the one that Jennie is part of, which aims to support care leavers into work. So far Jennie is a success story. But life for young people like Jennie who have been in state care comes with many challenges and obstacles, and things don’t always work out – even when they have the support of an experienced and dedicated team like Gail’s.

Jennie is one among a significant minority of people in the world – both adults and children – whose lifestyle or circumstances are not at the same level as the majority, on either a national or a global scale. Most charities, many parts of government, and some businesses are determined to help make lives better for the people in these circumstances. How these different organisations work jointly on issues becomes an urgent question – and is the focus of the GO Lab’s work. 

Given you are reading this blog, it is reasonably likely that you understand the importance of this question, and the moral and bureaucratic tangles that contrasting answers can create. Even though the technicalities might seem arcane to many people, sometimes the issues are thrust into the public eye: you may be familiar with the failure of criminal justice outsourcing in the UK, the scandal of Kids Company there, or the Uganda government attempting to shut down low-cost private education provider Bridge Academies. Before each of these controversies arose (and others like them), the government in question made decisions: should we use a grant or a contract? Should we set targets or trust that our partners will try their best regardless? How do we balance freedom to operate with the need to assure standards? 

All of these questions concern how the relationships between two or more organisations with complementary goals are best set-up and managed. We should maintain our energetic focus on helping work out how best to answer them in different situations. But we mustn’t forget that for the groups of people these organisations ultimately aim to help, the relationships that matter the most are the interpersonal ones that directly affect their lives: with friends, family members, volunteers, and professionals working for charities, companies or the state. 

We need to remember that it is ultimately these types of relationships that lie at the end of the chain of efforts to improve people’s social circumstances. That is why at the GO Lab we will continue to engage with people who receive services via cross-sector partnerships, and make sure that the intellectual rigour of our research is enhanced by a consideration of what life might be like for them. That is what lies at the heart of our work.