How the Yorkshire Strategic Migration Partnership improved collaboration

How can a Strategic Partnership bring better coordination? We spoke with Yorkshire's SMP to find out.

Organisation Profile

We also spoke to Azzizum Akhtar, CEO of Rotherham Ethnic Minority Alliance, and Natja Thorbjornsen, Advocate for women in the Asylum System & Victims of human trafficking for Bradford Rape Crisis & Sexual Abuse Survivors Service to find out about their experiences of working with Migration Yorkshire as Voluntary and Community Sector representatives.

How have you changed the way you work with the voluntary and community sector (VCS) in Yorkshire?

The VCS are key stakeholders in the funding Migration Yorkshire (and all Strategic Migration Partnerships) receives from the Home Office. However, there was no cohesive structure to the way that Migration Yorkshire engaged with the VCS. 

We held a session where we asked the VCS how we could work with them better. Two key actions were to run more regular engagement events and to improve representation at the sub-regional meetings. The attendees nominated 3 VCS colleagues to form a working group to progress this with us. 

Background to the Yorkshire meetings structure: 

  1. Strategic Migration Group (SMG) meets 3 times a year. Focus on strategic leadership and coordination. Members of SMG are drawn from local government, statutory agencies and 4 members of the voluntary sector chosen by Migration Yorkshire because of the area of specialism or thematic area of work.
  2. Sub-regional Strategic Migration Groups in West and South Yorkshire & Humber assist the main SMG by providing a forum for representatives from local authorities, the police, health, the voluntary sector, the Home Office, Mears, Migrant Help and other key partners to focus how issues are playing out locally. 
  3. Multi-agency meetings at area level - hosted by the local authority and/or thematic VCS led meetings i.e around destitution or health. 

What was the rationale for this new approach?

While members of the voluntary sector have always attended sub-regional meetings, we realised there was no formal way of appointing people. Representation could be quite random and those who attended didn’t have defined roles or responsibilities. 

The working group wrote a role description and designed a fair nomination process. We didn’t want someone elbowing other people out the way and then risk others not engaging. In the first pilot year, we’ve had some great folk around the table that we might never have met without this new approach. 

How do you decide who represents each area?

They must have knowledge and experience of delivering frontline services for asylum seekers, refugees and/or migrants and be actively involved in an organisation. They also need to have a relationship with their local VCS and some experience working at a strategic level. Crucially though, we wanted a rep from the VCS in each local authority area who has been elected by their peers. 

We found a single point of contact in each area (often the local voluntary sector support body) and asked them to run a nomination process, advertise the role and invite people to stand. The list of those interested went back out for people to vote on. VCS organisations then had to approve the appointment, even if only one person stood. After one year, we are now repeating the process with the current reps running the nomination process. If they want to stand again we can run it.

What does the role entail?

Core responsibilities are to: 

  • Represent the views of the VCS who work with migrants within their local authority area at sub-regional level meetings. 
  • Act as a conduit for gathering and disseminating information between the different levels of meetings 
  • Act as the voice of VCS in their areas 
  • Contribute to debate and discussions 
  • Plan and take action together on migration issues and policies
  • Strengthen relationships and networks within their local authority area 

The reps are expected to attend 8 meetings a year, including 4 face-to-face and 4 online. They are also expected to come to 2 VCS engagement days. The roles can’t be shared because we want consistency and to develop the relationship. They also need to work closely with their local authority lead. It’s quite a broad role description and all the reps make it their own. They do it slightly differently based on what works in their area. 

“Multi-agency working ensures streamlined referral routes, and contributes to sector service development, planning and coordination to continuously improve services for clients.” - Natja

What challenges have you encountered?

Sub-regional meetings are not public meetings and information discussed is often not public, so a level of confidentiality about sensitive information is required. That confidentiality clause does, unsurprisingly, put some people off taking on the role. We’ve made it really clear in the role description to manage expectations. 

It’s required engagement and partnerships to ensure statutory sector representatives understand that issues can be positive if improvements are made. For example, when VCS raises contentious issues in a formal environment with the Home Office.

“The statutory sector and private sector delivery partners can sometimes be a little too defensive when they are presented with issues/criticism. When this leads to deflection and obfuscation, it can be frustrating” - Azzizum
“Time constraints. We are all busy in our daily work, and the meetings have to be kept relevant in order to be ‘worth’ the time spent on them” - Natja

What success or feedback have you got from organisations and stakeholders?

We’ve come to the end of the first year and feel the model’s got more traction. We’re in the process of reviewing it and gathering feedback. 

Everyone from the statutory side of the meetings has been really impressed and grateful for the knowledge, insight and expertise the VCS reps bring to the sub-regional meetings and benefit from the opportunity to develop deeper relationships. In some cases, it’s highlighted gaps and a need for local authorities to support and strengthen their VCS. 

For the reps themselves, people have said their involvement raises the profile of their organisations.  The work they do also provides an opportunity to participate in conversations they might not otherwise be involved in. 

Some have said it’s been a good development opportunity. We suspect it also helps to have a group where the reps can share challenges, and realise they aren’t the only one’s struggling with an issue. It’s a good opportunity for networking and sharing practice. Practically though, some have found the role to be  time heavy.

“It has provided me with an opportunity to learn more about the pertinent issues. We are based in a small town with a small Refugee support sector and no specialist support organisation. Other parts of the region have very experienced organisations. This model has provided me with opportunities to get to know those organisations better and use them as a resource for improving our knowledge” - Azzizum

How has this model improved communication, particularly during COVID-19?

The flow of information between Migration Yorkshire and VCS organisations in each local authority area has really improved. Throughout COVID-19, communication in both directions has been strong so we’ve been able to cascade important information about policy and developments. As a result, we’ve received updates on how organisations are responding, challenges faced and support needed. 

“We have an occasional dialogue with groups across the region but certainly it has strengthened sub-regional relationships. In South Yorks, we regularly get together as a result of this coordination. Whereas prior to this work, we almost never had meaningful contact” - Azzizum
“Considering we are all frontline organisations, with too much to do, limited funding & staff, I feel that we have firmed up that structure over the last couple of years, and we are coming up with collective ways of improving coordination, communication and meeting need in a continuously changing landscape” - Natja

What practical advice would you give to others looking to replicate this model? 

  • This model might not work everywhere - it relies on an amazingly active VCS
  • Don’t be afraid to try it - but you must be open to what the reps are going to bring to the table
  • Don’t force it. The model works because it was requested and designed by the VCS working group, so there is buy-in, commitment and a desire to get involved in strategic meetings that can be very statutory heavy
  • Work on building trust and accountability
  • Be prepared for navigating lines of conflict around maintaining confidentiality and the tension this can bring for reps and their accountability with peers in the voluntary sector
  • Consider how the VCS will be resourced to engage, and be upfront if you can’t resource them. There should be tangible non-financial benefits to make engagement worthwhile