‘You need to know when to let go’

We need to ‘think family’ and work back from there, argues Jayne Moules

From unemployment to drug and alcohol dependency, the public sector’s approach to supporting families struggling with multiple problems is often silo-driven and disjointed. The ‘families programme’ is Newcastle city council’s local manifestation of the government’s ‘trouble families’ initiative, which is headed up nationally by Louise Casey, dubbed ‘respect czar’ under Labour when she ran the Respect Task Force after a successful stint in charge of the antisocial behaviour unit. The programme is designed to help families to overcome multiple challenges – such as truancy, worklessness, youth crime and antisocial behaviour.

Jayne Moules, coordinator of the families programme in Newcastle, describes the initiative as ‘thinking family – thinking again about how we work less in silos to be much more family-focused’. Her team currently works with around 300 families a year, who meet the government’s centrally determined criteria.

‘From the outset, it was about identifying families that had particular characteristics’, describes Moules. ‘Where there was antisocial behaviour, where there was criminality in the family, where they was poor attendance or poor behaviour at school … or adult unemployment’. The government identified around 120,000 families nationally as meeting these criteria and the council was given funding for its share of the national target to deliver.

‘I think there’s been a winning of hearts and minds of the practitioners who work with families’

The data-driven approach of the initiative is helping the council to target support proactively where it is needed, reveals Moules. ‘That’s the other significant change about this. In Newcastle we haven’t adopted what we would call a “referral culture”. It’s us identifying the families. It’s really data-driven.’ The programme uses a variety of datasets across different organisations to drill down to the family level. ‘We’ve used postcodes as our common denominator if you like’, explains Moules. ‘Then we’ve used our youth offending data, our housing provider data and our data around antisocial behaviour.’

One of the things that inspired Moules to lead the Newcastle families programme was her experience in the Sure Start unit. ‘Being asked to lead on the troubled families agenda did feel [like] an opportunity to continue the integrated working journey we’d been on … trying to work holistically.’

Though Moules initially found the focus on targets and outcomes for the family challenging, she believes it has led to a radically different way of looking at public service delivery. ‘In the nearly three years that we’ve been delivering the programme, having very prescribed outcomes per family has been one of the gems of the programme … Not about delivering a percentage increase in this, that or the other, but it was actually individual families that needed to improve outcomes.’ She continues, ‘I suppose it’s been a revelation, because my natural instinct three years ago was: “Oh God, this feels very prescriptive”.’

Central government has determined ‘what’ local authorities need to achieve through the programme, but the ‘how’ has been left to local practitioners, one of the key characteristics that Moules believes has contributed to the success of the programme. ‘It’s galvanised people … To get the family to be improved in terms of absolute outcomes, you have to work with the police, with probation, youth offending teams, schools, health and so on …’

When launched in 2011, the term ‘troubled families’ drew criticism from a number of organisations, including the British Association of Social Workers. Newcastle has consciously avoided the tag to ease the approach to the families involved. Moules elaborates on how this works in practice: ‘What a practitioner would say to a family is, “You are a priority family for us because you have a number of things going on and with your consent we’d like to work as a team.’’’

Moules believes this team-based approach works for practitioners, as well as the families involved: ‘It’s been apparent over the past few years that some agencies are much more comfortable in working as a team around the family; identifying that they have their professional skills but actually that they don’t have to do everything.’ Each family has a lead practitioner – a first port of call for families – who can help draw in expertise from a variety of agencies able to meet their needs and create the right framework for the families to succeed.

There have been challenges along the way. One of the difficulties encountered by Moules and her team has been data protection and information-sharing: ‘It’s a challenge because there’s so much interpretation about what data protection means and even at a local level we have different guidance, different information, [different] governance for every organisation and they tend to be fairly risk averse … It’s been about winning trust and confidence on a personal level … You just have to get people to trust  you.’

Some partners expressed anxieties about whether this approach delivers efficiencies, particularly when their own funding is contingent on delivering against their individual objectives. Moules is adamant that it delivers better outcomes for families and longer-term benefits for the public purse. ‘But what I think is difficult is that people who make the investment don’t get the benefit’.

This is a real challenge for public service reformers. Investing in early interventions like families programmes of this kind may offer potential savings for the criminal justice system, welfare spending and the NHS, but these services do not contribute to the cost of the programme. One of the strengths of the troubled families initiative is that it has given direction, funding and freedom to local authority programmes – like Newcastle’s – to tailor a local approach that generates benefits for the families and the taxpayer in the long  term.

Moules also argues that cultural and attitudinal change has been part of the challenge. ‘Some of the barriers have been people saying, “Well, that isn’t my business”.’ One of our targets has been employability and working with families who are a long way from the labour market and trying to work with them … People would go: ‘Well, that has nothing to do with me.’ Moules argues that it is about persuading practitioners to realise the impact they can have individually and collectively on the life chances and opportunities of families on the margins: ‘I think there’s been a winning of hearts and minds of the practitioners who work with families.’

One of the next steps for the Newcastle families programme is to ‘build capacity’ within the local community. Moules and her team have been working with Action for Children and Barnardo’s to recruit and train local people to become family support volunteers. ‘We’re not talking about parachuting middle-class volunteers into hard-pressed areas’, maintains Moules. ‘We thought it was better to challenge local people from disadvantaged areas because, as they say themselves, “When you go home on a Friday night, we’re still here”.’ It is still early days for this approach, which Moules describes as ‘fledgling’, but she is determined to keep investing in local volunteers ‘because it feels instinctively right.’

It is not just the local community that Moules wants to empower to make a difference. The programme offers the families themselves a chance to take control of their own lives: ‘One of the prizes we want to offer families is to say “By getting to this point you won’t need us – we’ll be out of your life.”’

Moules also has a message for public servants themselves working on the frontline. ‘We’ve trained 200 practitioners and some of them need to think about letting go. Let go of a family. Know when to back away because they’re managing and they don’t need you any more.’ Providing a clear goal for practitioners to feel they are working towards – that families actually exit the programme and see real improvement in their lives – is perhaps one of the elements which is so galvanising. ‘I would think, “Well, what is my job’s purpose here”,’ Moules asks only partly rhetorically. ‘Some of it is to do myself out of a role with this family.’

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Liz Kendall MP is shadow minister for care. Steve Reed MP is shadow minister for home affairs

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Download the full pamphlet, Let it go: Power to the People in Public Services, here

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About:

  • Jayne Moules is coordinator of the families programme in Newcastle
  • The families programme is Newcastle city council’s response to the government’s ‘troubled families’ programme
  • It is a multi-agency programme building on existing services and using a key worker-mentor model
  • The approach is about thinking about the whole family, with named key workers and sustained support
  • An innovative use of data to identify families characterises the approach
  • Building ‘capacity’ is an important next step for Newcastle

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Photo: Jason Alley

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