The role of local government is changing dramatically and rapidly. The perfect storm of the new Coalition Government with two parties clearly dedicated to localism and once in a lifetime pressure on public finances presents local authorities with enormous economic challenges whilst offering exciting opportunities to reshape the way we work.
At Party Conference this week I spoke at the launch of a new report, Repairing Broken Families and Rescuing Fractured Communities, assessing the outcomes of the first 50 families to go through our innovative Family Recovery Programme. The programme points to a new way of doing things for councils.
While I was launching the report, Ken Clarke was in the Conference Hall delivering his speech. It rightly drew plaudits for the section on the employment of prisoners but of more interest to us was his clear commitment to payment by results.
This notion that taxpayer funding should be focused on initiatives that actually deliver rather than persevering with failed old policies had already been touted in Eric Pickles’s speech earlier in the week. The Communities Secretary recognised that so much of what councils do can provide savings huge savings for taxpayers. He spoke about early intervention projects for children and families and told conference that timely investment in problem families will always be cheaper than picking up the pieces.
In Westminster, inspired by the work of Iain Duncan Smith, we reached this conclusion more than two years ago. Our response was Family Recovery, a project that sees families with complex needs fast-tracked into an intensive intervention programme. Our research indicated that a relatively small number of families in the area were responsible for the majority of antisocial behaviour in our communities. Often families were dealing with a cocktail of causes and effects.
Domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health problems were all commonplace. Family Recovery uses a ‘whole-family’ approach, drawing on the data and expertise of professionals within the council and partner organisations, to work through specific problems with the parents and children.
Crucially, a pre-requisite of enrolment onto the initiative is the signing of a ‘contract with consequences’. For many this will be the first time they have been confronted with the potential consequences of their negative behaviour.
While we’ve long been aware of the benefits the programme provides to these families but as a responsible local authority, committed to providing our residents with value for money, we recognise the need to demonstrate the advantages for council taxpayers so we embarked on a project to assess the financial benefits to the public purse. So, in addition to fewer antisocial behaviour incidents, increased school attendance and better management of debts, and using a ground-breaking ‘cost-avoidance’ research model we can estimate that for every £1 spent, £2.10 in costs are avoided by public agencies.
The problem for councillors comes when we assess where in the public sector these savings fall. Because whilst 42 pence per pound in avoided costs directly benefits the Council, with the balance benefiting housing associations, the NHS and Whitehall departments.
Localism lies at the heart of this new vision for reversing social decline. Local authorities are uniquely placed to deliver this form of initiative. Councillors will have unrivalled knowledge of their area, its challenges and will often know the families most in need of support.
Westminster City Council has taken undoubted risks in funding and developing this programme and we’ve taken the time to prove its effectiveness. Now it’s time for the Government to put its money where its words are and back the approach.
It’s only right that if through our expenditure we create savings for the Ministry of Justice, we should see a return on our investment in the form of a share of those avoided costs.
In a new era in which public officeholders of all levels are being challenged to deliver savings, we must think radically about the way policies are delivered. The days of top-down, Whitehall driven targets, followed by failure, followed by new targets are, thankfully, over but what replaces that futile process is still up for grabs.
The new framework requires local solutions to local problems built on a payment by results model. Our message to ministers is this: we’ll take responsibility for solving the entrenched social problems in our communities but Government must be responsible for paying its fair share. You provide the funding and we’ll deliver the results.