Turning around public services, the Family LIFE example

On Tuesday, following David Cameron’s pledge on Monday to ‘turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families’, I posted my analysis of why public services have struggled to turn the lives of these families around in the past, arguing that they have been designed and managed in a way that makes sense for government, but not for citizens. While there are systemic reasons for this, public service providers in some localities have begun to turn around services to focus on citizens.

The Swindon Family LIFE programme, which the Prime Minister praised on Monday, offers an interesting example of the co-creation of a new approach to family intervention by multiple public agencies in Swindon, the social innovation group Participle and families themselves. LIFE stands for Lives for Individuals and Families to Enjoy. At the core of the programme is a new type of relationship between public services and families and a concentration on developing their capabilities, networks and resilience.

The origins of the Family LIFE programme can be traced back to 2008 and recognition by public agencies in Swindon of the need for a new approach to families with complex needs.  Members of the local strategic partnership, One Swindon, were aware that there were a number of professionals in contact with these families, but – from the rising number of children in care and from anecdotal evidence – that these interventions did not meet the needs of families or enable sustainable change. They therefore asked Participle to help them to develop a new approach to supporting families in ‘chronic crisis’.

The approach to developing the Family LIFE programme was based on a design methodology brought by Participle, which began with a stage of discovery, bringing together thinking in design and social change. An important aspect of this stage was reconsidering the problem, before jumping to solutions. Participle and Swindon worked with 12 families during this discovery phase, which included six months of the Participle team living in the community with families and shadowing frontline workers.

The picture that emerged was of a disjoint between the approach of public services and the realities of the families; as one of the team commented to me, “we were just not speaking the same language.” It showed that government interventions were having little effect on the lives of families living in chronic crisis, and that the activity of the system was even creating a barrier to change. Service provision was found to be characterised by:

  • Delivery by professionals with a separate ‘professional’ language and the removal of any personal nature;
  • Enforcement without relationship;
  • A lack of trust, honesty and transparency, on both sides;
  • Negative systemic behaviours and cultural beliefs;
  • Service design that was not relevant to people’s lives;
  • High costs with little or no outcomes of change;
  • A focus on reporting, risk management and monitoring; and
  • The attempt to rescue rather than support people.

Families in turn felt powerless, that there was no safe place to ask for help, and exhaustion from fighting the system; “for many their career and expertise has become manipulating the system”. Through enabling conversations between families and public servants, the Family LIFE team found that the families were “hungry for change and do have aspirations. There just wasn’t the right kind of support there”.

The second stage of Family LIFE approach involved prototyping the programme with four families. Core to this was the recognition that change could not be achieved unless families themselves wanted and were empowered to make it happen. Therefore, families were given control from the start, to the extent that they interviewed – asking questions that mattered and were relevant to them – and chose the public servants they wanted to work with.

During the prototype stage, the four families worked with the multi-agency team they had selected on a variety of projects and practical tasks (including gardening, decorating, shopping, cooking and managing home budgets). The intention was to enable families to develop the skills and knowledge they needed to begin to improve their lives, while also developing a new and enriched relationship between the professionals and the families – building a sense of trust and a safe space for them to open up to talk about their aspirations, as well as the issues they faced.

The Family LIFE programme is divided into four stages which families move through, though the team acknowledges that this is unlikely to be a linear progression, with intensive periods and lulls, and setbacks and breakthroughs:

  • In stage 0 of LIFE, families are invited to participate. Although families are referred to the programme, the approach is anti-enforcement and they can choose to decline. The invitation period lasts for a number of weeks, during which the team builds a relationship with the family, gives them a sense of its benefits and attempt to create a space for the family to open up to the potential of change. If the family declines the invitation it remains open for them to choose to participate at a later stage.
  • In stage 1, the team and family spend time together to draw out the aspirations and the potential of the family, as well as the values and capacities they wish to develop. Through a process of reflection, they begin to articulate a plan for the future and set themselves a project to work on independently of the team over an extended period of time.
  • In stage 2, the families begin to identify themes in their activities, friendships, work and relationships where they can start to explore new opportunities. They begin to experience the benefits of the changes they are making and become engaged in outward-focused activities (e.g. local gardening, helping neighbours, volunteering).
  • In stage 3, the families open themselves up to creating new social networks and relationships beyond their current friendship circles. They move towards independence (the team is needed less), build an exit strategy for themselves and eventually exit the programme.

At each stage, the LIFE team uses a variety of tools to engage with and understand the families, help them plan and reflect, open them up to new opportunities and experiences, and build their social networks and resilience.  The programme works with a team – rather than key worker – model in order to create opportunities for different family members to bond with different team members, to lower the risk of burn out, increase the scope for questioning and challenge, and create more of a sense of “a team building something together”.

The impetus of the programme is not just on the families to change, but also for the team members to change: “The programme is just as much a programme for workers as it is for families. We found that building the capabilities of the team and working in a very different way was just as key as the work that needed to happen with the families.” Participle therefore train the LIFE team workers in order to replace the unhelpful working practices encouraged by the system with the ability to develop richer relationships with families.

The Family LIFE programme achieved a number of early successes, including:

  • Reducing domestic violence;
  • Improving family members’ mental health;
  • Children entering education;
  • Adults seeking employment or training;
  • Individuals seeking help for alcohol and drug abuse;
  • Parents developing improved emotional support skills;
  • A child not being taken into care;
  • Family members building positive relationships between themselves and with neighbours;
  • Police call-outs being reduced;
  • Eviction orders being stopped;
  • Families developing healthier lifestyles; and
  • An estimated saving of £760k in the first year of running the pilot.

Perhaps most encouragingly, families taking part in the programme have not only invited other families to take part, but have also wanted to work with and support them. If, as well as changing the relationship between citizens and public services, the Family LIFE programme can become a platform for peer to peer support, building relationships and social resilience within communities, it has the potential to be extremely powerful. It could perhaps provide a model for encouraging active citizenship through public services.

Picture credit: gfpeck

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