Community Budgets: the answer, or more questions?

David Baker

At a conference about community budgets earlier this month, Eric Pickles said he was “in a hurry” to deliver better outcomes for troubled families. Using the context of the riots, the Government has prioritised turning around the lives of the estimated 120,000 families whose chaos and complexity cost the state significant amounts of money. To achieve this, the Secretary of State believes community budgets are “the opportunity” to succeed where other approaches have failed. We have three questions, and three suggested answers.

Firstly, is this going to require more or less resources? The line of argument is that the estimated £8 billion spent on chaotic families could be dramatically reduced if only duplication between, and contact with, the myriad of agencies involved could be reduced. While there is some truth in this, it won’t be so easy, or at least can’t happen as quickly as the Secretary of State would like. The best family intervention projects tend to be expensive, costing around £25,000 per family per year. Doing the maths, delivering this model for all 120,000 families would cost £3 billion. Whilst community budgets may or may not deliver pooling of resources between agencies, in our view the key issue has to be developing sustainable financial models, which allow family intervention services to fund themselves through the savings delivered for public services as a whole. But this needs to be clearly demonstrated and understood across all agencies.

Secondly, who’s best placed to take responsibility? Bureaucracies have been accused of being better at managing risks to themselves than actually taking responsibility for vulnerable people. We agree that public sector functions and professional responsibilities sometimes lose sight of the actual person or family. This is one reason why family intervention projects with a lead worker have been successful. Our suggestion is this: alongside agencies that deal primarily with housing or mental health or drugs - what about creating a new, and truly independent organisation that takes responsibility primarily for people whoever or whatever they are, driven by a set of values that make them its raison d’être?  Of course this isn’t a new idea but draws on the best of voluntary sector, public sector and faith-based ideals.  It may be simple, but complex problems often need simple solutions.

Thirdly, how radical will community budgets really be? While closer partnerships and pooling resources obviously make good sense, will simply re-engineered public services with more rational funding arrangements really deliver the transformation that is required? Families are often described as complex primarily because they have to fit with more than one established public service category. In our view resources need to be de-institutionalised so that they can be built around people and families rather than structures. And they need to be designed and personalised in the context of good, trusted relationships rather than just better and more coordinated services. It is these relationships that will help to empower disadvantaged people, developing tailored solutions with them, rather than having the same old structures imposed upon them.

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