Complex Needs - Complex Policies

David Baker

Just before Christmas, we learned more about the Prime Minister’s plans for the 120,000 ‘troubled families’ who, among other things, cause excessive costs to public services estimated to be £9 billion per year.  £450 million over the course of this Parliament will be invested to provide dedicated caseworkers, if funding is matched by local authorities and results achieved. 

At Shaftesbury we’ve been exploring this area. From the work we’ve done, we have a number of questions and suggestions about the delivery of this policy priority.     

Firstly, how different is this from previous policy solutions?  The family intervention model that is being promoted, based around single case-workers as opposed to multiple agencies, is very similar to that introduced by the previous government. So while it may be highly cost effective, it has the potential to be another “statist” solution. What these families need more than anything is a sense of hope, self-belief and trust; and again, this can in many cases be better delivered by organisations with more specific sets of values and based in the community - not there primarily as a ‘re-engineered’ public service whose main incentive is to save money.  But if this is going to happen,voluntary sector organisations need to be given more of a leadership role in family intervention locally.  The unfortunate reality is that some voluntary sector agencies such as Action for Children providing these services have had to scale down operations because of funding reductions.

Secondly, how do you best create more “responsibility”, the lack of which - along with state failure – is often blamed for creating the situation in the first place? It seems unlikely that heavy-handed enforcement will solve the problems at their root cause.  To get people to take more responsibility they actually need to be shown more responsibility and, in the right way, respect.  Our work has highlighted the value of developing good relationships above all else – within families, and between families and those that are there to support them.  In this way, in a context of improving relationships rather than just delivering services or short, sharp ‘interventions’, people are more likely to start taking on suitable responsibility for themselves and others.  It is likely to be voluntary sector organisations that are best at this – based in the community, there for long term, without the stigma of a public agency, appropriate for both friendship and constructive challenge.  

Thirdly, are the resources going to be used in the right way, and help to facilitate a genuine reform of public services?  The money allocated by government plus that proposed from local authorities is of course welcome, but it is likely to cover only a relatively short-term intervention, rather than a long-term and sustainable solution. This also begs a further question whether rolling out the family intervention model will in fact be part of more wide-ranging restructuring of public services, or remain as an additional bolt-on, valuable though that is. And finally, though payment by results is to be welcomed, it is important to note that in this area results can be disparate, not all of them may be cashable, and measuring impact is even more challenging than usual.

Our view is that family intervention services should be established as sustainable social enterprises. These organisations would take on a delegated portion of public money to work with families in a more creative way - recognising the importance of building confidence and self-worth, developing a trusted relationship with those in need, and tapping into community resources not easily accessed by statutory bodies. From the savings that would be delivered, not only will the social enterprise have a sustainable funding stream, but it can also return the bulk of these back to local or central government. 

The government should be applauded for focussing on a highly promising area of service delivery for vulnerable families, but there remain a number of challenges to overcomebefore their ambition is achieved.To do so, it will be necessary to develop the financial models to make family intervention services more sustainable in the long-term, likely to involve a more fundamental re-think of public services, and to focus on the bigger picture of creating hope, trust and self-belief for these families.

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