Anchor networks in practice: “why?” to “how?”


In the first of his series of blogs exploring the process of translating the principles that lie behind anchor institution networks into practice, Conrad Parke explores the mechanisms of turning buy in into action.

Getting buy in for a new anchor institution network is rarely a problemAfter all, why would any institution’s chief executive turn down the offer to be a part of something that will help them to employ local people and support local businesses. The real difficulty is turning that buy in into action. To this end there are (at least) two main problems: 

  1. Strategy fatigue
    Too often, the lengthy processes involved in devising and writing comprehensive multi organisational strategies can kill the initial momentum of the idea it seeks to service. Similarly, a strategy that is too broad can dilute impact, as it seeks to “do all things for all people. 
  2. I got 99 problems but the anchor network ain’t one
    In most cases it is not the people who sign up to an anchor network who have to turn membership into action. This responsibility frequently lands on the desk of officers who already have 100 other problems to manage. In other words, being in an anchor network is making their life harder, not easier which runs the risk of making them progress-stoppers”.  

In the Birmingham Anchor Network we have tried to overcome these two problems by adopting a specific action” led approach, as opposed to strategy ledwith those actions aimed at solving problems for institutions rather than creating more work for them. 

Case study – from hospitality to health


When I took up my role as the Co-ordinator of the Birmingham Anchor Network, I met with senior managers from each of the seven participating institutions. One of the questions I asked them was what problem can the Birmingham Anchor Network solve for you?  

  • For the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Trust the problem was staffing shortages at all levels of the organisation, particularly in the face of a second wave of Covid-19 and forecast winter pressures. 
  • For Pioneer Housing Group the problem was the threat of redundancy for many of their tenants because of the impact Covid-19 was having on certain sectors, particularly hospitality. 

There was an obvious match to be made. The problem was that the employment team at the Trust were unfamiliar with delivering targeted neighbourhood based recruitment, while the employment team at Pioneer were unfamiliar with the language, processes, pathways etc required for entering the NHS.  


The two institutions are now working together on a hospitality to health” project, combining their strengths and experience to deliver pre-employment courses for the NHS in the Pioneer neighbourhood. The scheme just welcomed its first 10 participants. 

While helping 10 people may not sound like a lot in the current crisis, the benefit of adopting this specific action” approach is that it is already leading to other changes. For example: 

  • The Trust is now reviewing its whole employment process to make it easier for people to switch careers into NHS roles. 
  • Pioneer Housing Group are now adopting this partnership approach to work with three other major employers in Birmingham for the benefit of their tenants 

By moving from a strategy approach of “why we should help” to the specificities of “how we can help”, the Anchor Network in Birmingham has created a strong pathway towards economic recovery that serves some of the most vulnerable in the city. And crucially, it serves to highlight that progressive change is contingent not just on the strong intent of local leaders but also on the presence of people on the ground who can knit things together and drive the exchange of knowledge and practice for greater social, economic and environmental good. 

To join the conversation about how anchor institutions can deliver in practical terms and the challengers and enablers you see for your place you can comment below, email Conrad or share your thoughts with us on Twitter.

CLES has developed packages of support for those at the front line of the economic reform process and is available to support in building and develop an anchor networks. Learn more →

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