Anchor networks sow the seeds of change

This article originally appeared in the HSJ.

Recent months have seen an increased interest in anchor institution networks, whereby NHS institutions and partners – like local authorities, universities, housing associations and the VCSE sector – collaborate to develop solutions to local social and economic problems. At CLES we work with and support many of these networks and, as this interest fuels an increase in activity, we are observing how these collaborations are not simply firefighting problems as they arise but also feeding into a more fundamental change in how anchor institutions view their role in the local economy.

In my role as Co-ordinator for the Birmingham Anchor Network I have been privileged to observe this process in action. This time last year the Network launched its pilot Hospitality to Health employment programme, as a response to an urgent employment crisis being faced by two of its members. Housing association, Pioneer Housing Group, were concerned about the number of their residents at risk of redundancy from a hospitality sector reeling from the effects of Covid-19, while at the same time University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust needed to recruit significant numbers of staff at entry level positions to support in responding to the pandemic.

The Trust recognised that former hospitality employees have the skills needed for care work, but they were aware that they had little experience of recruiting from other sectors or in delivering targeted recruitment at a neighbourhood level. Meanwhile, Pioneer had a local employment team but little experience in helping people access careers in the NHS. Through discussions brokered by the Anchor Network, the two institutions worked together in a way that combined their different strengths to successfully attract Pioneer residents onto a pre-employment course delivered by the Trust.

“the unique “alchemy” of the anchor network approach”

Hospitality to Health uncovered a great deal of learning about how to break down barriers to enable people with the greatest need into NHS careers. For the partners involved in the project and in the wider Network, this not only reinforced the importance of the unique “alchemy” of the anchor network approach but, more importantly, awakened them to the power that anchor institutions wield as local economic players with social justice at the heart of their mission.

Birmingham & Solihull Integrated Care System’s I Can recruitment programme – launched last month to deliver health and social care employment opportunities for unemployed and young people across the ICS’s geography – takes this thinking to another level. The programme specifically targets residents in the most economically disadvantaged areas and, moreover, demonstrates how the work undertaken by the Trust – an ICS partner – on Hospitality to Health has informed a new understanding of the role that all ICS partners play in their local economy. And this “lightbulb moment” appears to be catching: other members of the Birmingham Anchor Network are now similarly adjusting their approach to recruitment, and there is even talk of universal person specifications for common roles across all Network partners to make it even easier for a single application to be considered for multiple job opportunities.

“using the power of partnerships to enable institutions to fulfil their role”

Hospitality to Health’s other great strength was in using the power of partnerships to enable institutions to fulfil their role by connecting them to communities. For the roll-out of I Can, Pioneer Housing have been joined by Birmingham City Council and Solihull MBC in using their community engagement expertise to reach the people who need the most support into work. It is in this mobilising heft of connections made with organisations on the ground – enabling agile solutions to real community problems – and the magnifying effect of connecting with other large institutions – enabling their roll out at scale – that the real power of anchor institution networks can be unlocked. In this way, a pilot like Hospitality to Health, and a project like I Can, become not simply standalone initiatives, responding to crises as they occur. Instead they are the seeds of fundamental change to the way that anchor institutions view their role in creating local economies that serve people, place and planet.