By Joshua.Chambers

18 Sep 2013

From unemployment to drug addiction, the public sector’s approach to helping families with multiple problems has often been fragmented. Joshua Chambers explores the new government scheme to unite these efforts

They are some of the most difficult people that the public sector works with: families with multiple problems stretched over multiple generations. These include long-term unemployment, drug addiction, domestic abuse and criminality; while children growing up in these environments struggle to stay on track, perpetuating the cycle of disadvantage and disorder.

Central and local government’s response to these families has traditionally been fragmented, with different problems dealt with by separate agencies. The health service tackles drug problems; schools and social services tackle truancy; the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) deals with unemployment; and the justice system deals with criminality.

The government decided in 2011 to bring these various approaches together to provide coordinated support to the 120,000 families it has identified as being most in need. It invested £448m over three years into a cross-departmental unit run by Louise Casey, a director-general in the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Pleased with the early indications, it invested a further £200m for 2015-16.

The scheme aims to join-up service delivery, tackling the root causes that lead to bigger problems down the line – and ultimately greater expense for the health and justice systems. “At the moment, we have uncoordinated, reactive services to families,” Casey told the Commons’ Communities and Local Government Committee in June. She called it “a programme of the head in terms of finances and, for me, of the heart in terms of what we can do [for] children and families.”

CSW has spoken to officials in central and local government to assess how work to join-up local services has progressed, and the obstacles it has faced.

Fixing trouble at the top
The first step was to bring together the efforts of the Whitehall departments that work with troubled families, so that the unit can then coordinate local activities. Therefore, funding for the unit has come from across government, specifically the departments of justice, health, work and pensions, communities, education and the Home Office.

The unit “sits across government,” Casey tells CSW. “Of course, it’s DCLG that we’re hosted in, but the programme has a cross-departmental feel to it.” Departments were willing to fund the initiative because “people can see that there is a relatively small number of families that have complex needs, and have a raft of agencies [helping them], but none of that [support] is adding up to substantive change in the families.”

It is also useful that David Cameron gave his personal support to this initiative. “Whitehall has big government departments and it’s always struggled to get people to work together [but] the prime minister wants it to happen and there’s a shared understanding of what we want to do,” Casey says. When she has needed to ask departments to act, or provide extra support to councils, she’s found it possible to do so – despite the additional cost to departments with their own priorities.

Her unit has set strict targets for local authorities, with the possibility of earning up to £4,000 per family for achieving results: either they achieve a reduction in truancy amongst the children, or tackle anti-social behaviour and reduce the offending rates of minors in the family, or they get an unemployed member of the family back into work for six months.

To ensure local buy-in, there is also a fourth criterion which is set locally. These may be around domestic violence, substance misuse, and looked-after children, according to particularly acute problems in local areas. In Leeds, the city council was able to combine its troubled families scheme with its work on reducing burglary – a particular problem in the city.

These local criteria have won over local authorities. Jim Hopkinson, head of targeted services at Leeds City Council says that his organisation “really welcomed that opportunity.” Meanwhile, Jayne Moules, troubled families coordinator at Newcastle City Council, told the Commons’ Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee in June that “it has been really liberating to have locally-developed criteria,” adding that “it has given us freedom to make sure that [those] local families we want to be part of the programme are part of the programme.”

This also meant that authorities combined the troubled families investment with their own expenditure on other, similar programmes. “The whole programme in Newcastle is predicated on the fact that we are building on existing services. None of the work that we have initiated as part of the Troubled Families programme is standalone,” Moules said.

Culture clash
Joining up local services has not been easy, though: demolishing organisational silos and encouraging different organisations to work together is taking time, and has highlighted obstacles that other similar initiatives could face.

The first broad obstacle was cultural. “From a local perspective, it’s still really hard [to join up services]”, says Casey. Bringing previously separate approaches together is tough because “people feel really passionate about what they want to do, but they’ve got to say: ‘No, we accept the overall goal.’” Hopkinson agrees: “Don’t let me give you any misconception this is easy,” he tells CSW, “strategic buy-in, strategic direction and willpower are still needed to make it work on the ground.”

Coordinating with local agencies is also difficult, as Leicestershire County Council told the CLG committee in written evidence this year. Leeds City Council also had the same problem: “Working with those agencies and saying: ‘Thank you for what you’re doing, now take a whole family approach on top of the fact that you’re very busy’ takes some doing,” Hopkinson says. Leeds had to invest a significant amount of time in briefing and training events to win over these organisations. “We have a small troubled families team in Leeds and one of the things they’re doing is mentoring different agencies through that process. We haven’t cracked it yet,” he admits, “[but] we’re a long way down the line.”

Councillor Dick Madden, the cabinet member for families and children at Essex County Council, agrees that “we all talk to each other but we’re still in our silos. This is us breaking out of our silos and working with teams together, [but] change is a difficult concept to take on board”.

Political commitment throughout the county council, starting at the very top, ensured that local agencies started to work closer together, Madden says. Leeds City Council also found that visible senior backing created an impetus for change: it set up a programme board for its troubled families scheme chaired by the city council’s deputy leader. This brought together all of the agencies likely to be working with troubled families, such as police, probation services, and local charities, ensuring buy-in from agencies before the scheme began, Hopkinson says.

The troubled families scheme sees a single practitioner from one of the agencies become ‘lead practitioner,’ responsible for a council’s work with the whole family and coordinating all associated agencies’ work. A potential sticking point here is that these agencies must negotiate which of them will become responsible for that work. “Sometimes it’s obvious,” Hopkinson says, because an organisation will already be heavily committed to helping a particular family, but where the most appropriate agency doesn’t have capacity to lead the work, the programme board commissions extra support on its behalf and shares out the cost – something individual agencies couldn’t achieve without the efforts of the central board.

Local authorities also must coordinate their efforts with nationally-run agencies, notably JobcentrePlus. At the start of the programme, local authorities struggled to build connections with these organisations because they have their own targets and initiatives. “It was clear to us that DWP and its structures are quite giant,” Casey says. Therefore, her team negotiated with the DWP to have JobcentrePlus employees seconded into local authority troubled families schemes, building closer links and understanding between them.

This partnership was vital, because long-term unemployment is a key problem affecting troubled families. The DWP already has two existing initiatives to help the unemployed: one using European funding, and the flagship Work Programme, which works with private contractors. The secondments were therefore “a way of trying to consolidate and make work a central part of what we are trying to do with these families; and to be honest, a lot of them are very, very, very far away from work,” Casey comments.

Data difficulties
Casey’s work to build close relations with JobcentrePlus was also crucial in mitigating the second big obstacle: data sharing. The CLG committee is currently investigating the troubled families scheme, and committee chair Clive Betts MP explains that “very often” there are “arguments being used that data couldn’t be transferred when in fact it could”. He adds that: “This runs right the way through attempts for government to join-up their services.”

Casey agrees that when it comes to joining up services, “a lot of people hide behind data sharing as a way of not being able to get things done. That’s not something we tolerate.” On the ground, Essex County Council, for example, found that they struggled to get data from different agencies – particularly police, schools and district council housing.

A crucial early victory was won by getting the DWP to part with unemployment data. Casey explains:“I’ve worked in the public sector for a very long time, and everyone is looking at free school meals, housing benefit, using backdoor routes” to figure out whether people are unemployed. She therefore decided just to directly ask the work and pensions secretary, Ian Duncan Smith, to share the data and he agreed to do so. “Departmentally, that’s been a real challenge for them, because they had to spend money and time on overtime [to process it]”.

The result of DWP’s datasharing has been incredibly helpful, says Hopkinson. “Hats off to the DCLG Troubled Families Unit, because they negotiated our ability to map the work-related benefits data onto household data,” he says. This built a complex understanding of particular families’ needs, and also allowed the council to prioritise its efforts, targeting its support to the families that were most in need.

One problem remains, though: councils need data on whether children are attending schools, but changes in education policy have changed authorities’ relationships with local schools. “It is no longer a requirement for academies to provide [us with] attendance data in the same way that they used to,” before they were academies, Hopkinson says. This means that local authorities must manually request data, rather than being able to automatically access it in real-time. In Leeds “there has been local buy-in, [but] it’s messier than the previous system” and more labour-intensive.

Trouble behind, trouble ahead
The overall results so far are a mixed bag. In June of this year, Simon Danczuk MP asked Casey about progress for the troubled families scheme at the CLG committee hearing, noting that according to the most recent statistics at that time: “You have identified 118,082 troubled families. Of those, 82,465 have not even been worked with through this programme... and a staggering 116,407 are still to be turned around. In total that is 98% of your troubled families.”

Casey responded that the number of families identified has drastically increased as a result of councils coordinating their data. “It is really hard work for colleagues. They are cracking heads together between the police, health and different parts of local authorities in somewhat difficult and challenging families,” she told the committee. “As of about 12 months ago, there were fewer than 5,000 families being worked with under family intervention, and now local authorities across the country... have got significant numbers of families being worked with.”

The most recent figures, published this week, show that by June councils had begun work with 49,979 families, and 13,999 of these families had achieved at least one of the DCLG’s targets by July.

One of the biggest problems faced in the current economic climate has been tackling long-term unemployment. Newcastle City Council’s Moules told the select committee that “the most challenging aspect of the programme is about getting adults into employment. Some of that might be about where we are in terms of the stage of the programme; it might be about communications with our colleagues, but we have not been able to put in any successful [payment by results] claims to date for adults who have been in continuous employment.”

A person working for a council who did not wish to be identified told CSW that they have concerns about the DCLG’s “thirst for progress” and frequent requests for data. “If a family has got that many complexities that they hit our criteria, you’re not likely to turn them around overnight. It does take time to set up a system and get those cultural programmes in place.” That said: “We fully understand why they’re impatient because they need to demonstrate the value of this investment”.

Many people in councils question how their organisations will benefit financially from the savings achieved. “What contribution will government give back to us, to develop even further?” someone asked. Another asked specifically about healthcare savings, and whether the NHS will share them with local councils. Casey responds that savings will benefit local organisations, and how that is shared is “down to people locally to sort out themselves”.

The troubled families initiative has a great deal of potential, and while currently progress has been patchy, it seems that a corner has been turned and results will keep improving. For now, the real achievement has been to start bringing about a cultural change, with disparate agencies finally coordinating their work. Data sharing is the greatest challenge this scheme has faced, but the improvements achieved here show that it isn’t an intractable difficulty, and certainly not an excuse to prevent organisations collaborating.

Indeed, the scheme is set to expand, with more funding provided for 2015-16 to assist 400,000 families. Details are still to be worked through, Casey says, but this project is about “how we change the mainstream,” and so will take time. “You’re talking about change in generations: change doesn’t happen in three year cycles. Often it’s on five years minimum.”

If local public bodies have brought together their disparate agencies within five years, and provide seamless support to troubled families, that will be a significant achievement indeed.

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