Andrew Laird is a founder and Director of Mutual Ventures.
“Get Brexit Done” may have been the campaign poetry, but there was also plenty of governing prose in the Conservative Manifesto. In fact, there are some pretty radical ideas which would bring real meaning to the concept of one nation Conservatism and demonstrate that this government has a genuine commitment to bolstering the social fabric which binds local communities together.
There were some big public service spending commitments – but there was also a focus on “prevention” i.e. keeping families and individuals healthy, productive, and safe so they don’t need help from the government. For sure, people want to know that public services are there and are functioning well if they need them. But given the choice, they aren’t queuing up round the corner to get into their local hospital or to have their children cared for by the State. They’d rather be healthy, purposeful, and enjoying life with their families.
This brings me to the idea of “Family Hubs”.
The Manifesto states:
“We will improve the Troubled Families programme and champion Family Hubs to serve vulnerable families with the intensive, integrated support they need to care for children – from the early years and throughout their lives.”
In essence, Family Hubs would provide one-stop support for vulnerable families. You can trace this idea back to the work of Hilary Cottam (who has deservedly received an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List). Hilary’s work is based around a number of public service “experiments” which created local groups of public service professionals working together to support specific groups of vulnerable people. The core idea is that a mixed team of police, community nurses, social workers, housing officers etc. would spend time really understanding a family or a person and what they need to thrive. Accepting as a starting point that these families and individuals are already costing the state a fortune in support, they would have the freedom and time to try different approaches. If one approach doesn’t work then it is still a good investment of time and effort to try something else.
Perhaps the best manifestation of this idea is in Wigan. If the Conservative Party wants to hold onto constituencies in the North and Midlands then it will have to look at what’s working for local people in places like Wigan. In that northern town, they have put in place community based weekly “huddles” (Family Hubs in all but name) which meet weekly to discuss how to support specific families and individuals. This type of local co-operation between previously siloed services can stop families and individuals being passed from pillar to post and also prevent difficult cases falling between the cracks. There are plenty of examples of individuals or families with a whole range of challenges (costing the State a huge amount) who don’t quite meet any individual public service threshold.
For Family Hubs to work they will need two things – freedom and funding.
It’s interesting that the Manifesto talks about “improving” the Troubled Families programme. For a start, this shouldn’t just be a programme with a start and an end – it should be the way local public services are delivered. Period. In her book, Hilary Cottam tells the story of how David Cameron visited one of her projects which had brought a range of public service professionals together to focus on specific vulnerable families. He was so impressed that he decided on the spot that this should be rolled out everywhere. The civil servants who were there took on this challenge, applied the usual central government scaling model of standardisation, incentivisation, and competition. And so the Troubled Families programme emerged. Hilary Cottam is very clear that this approach killed the essence of what made her work successful. The commissioned providers of the programme often gamed the system. Hilary Cottam quotes a senior Council leader:
“We know the Trouble Families referrals were not the most needy families. It was a numbers game”.
The change was not sustained and once the Troubled Families programme had blown through “like the hot winds of a desert storm” the families and front line staff went back to what they had been doing before.
Family Hubs need to be allowed to grow organically in a way that works for local communities (what works in Consett might not work in Bolsover!) and without the perverse incentives generated by a crude payment-by-results system.
In Wigan, there was excellent council officer leadership, but six years ago they also had reserves which they dug into to allow the investment in the new way of working whilst still providing statutory services. Prevention takes time to flow through to an actual reduction in demand for services and the associated saving.
Today, not many councils have the reserves to invest in such intensive prevention activity. Wherever it comes from, funding will be needed in order to set up Family Hubs in parallel to continuing business as usual. There has rarely been a more appealing invest to save case.
Making this radical change to how public services are delivered would help people (often forgotten in forgotten towns) lead productive lives, reduce unnecessary hospital/GP visits, keep children out of care, help older people be supported at home, and generally keep families together. All of which has the added benefit of saving money and boosting the economy.