Yesterday, David Cameron announced that the government would ‘turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families’.

This is not the first time the current government has taken an interest in these families, nor is it the first government to have done so. This is not surprising considering the government estimates their cost to the taxpayer to be £8 billion a year (others have estimated the cost to be yet significantly higher at £250,000 per family per year). This represents not only a large financial cost, but an enormous social and human cost as well. It is therefore worth reflecting on why, in the past, public services have struggled at turning the lives of these families around.

The problem lies – at least in part – in public services being designed and managed in a way that makes sense for government, but not for citizens. The shape and approach of public services has been determined by the relationship between service providers and central government, rather than the people who use them. This has meant that professionals are often focussed on coping with the symptoms of problems – rather than empowering citizens – and has led to citizens being treated as passive consumers of services – rather than activists, with knowledge and resources of their own.

Public service reform in recent decades has been predominantly centred on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the current model of public services, through structural reform and performance management, rather than redesigning the model itself. Organisational learning experts Chris Argyris and Donald Schön distinguished between single loop and double loop learning. Single loop learning has been a key feature of the last 30 years in UK public policy and is concerned with how things can be done more cost-effectively (“doing things right”).  Double loop learning – which has been significantly less prevalent, some would claim absent – on the other hand is concerned with whether how things are done is the most effective way to achieve the desired outcomes, focusing on reconsidering the sets of assumptions, or paradigm, through which action takes place (“doing the right things”).

The design and approach to public services adopted in the post-war years has proved remarkably resilient; the dominant features of the system in 1945 remain today: a design based on the separate silos of Whitehall departments, with powers vested in specific secretaries of state, officials’ careers primarily located within the silos, and cultures which reflect that reality. While this post-war organisational design reflects the system of accountability that has developed over time, it does not reflect the needs of citizens, who are often faced with a fragmented array of services that do not make sense to them and which are not well suited to solving complex social problems. Vertical funding streams, lines of accountability and performance management systems have caused public servants at all levels to focus on delivering services within their narrowly defined area, rather than achieving better outcomes across the system.

When viewing public services through the silos of government departments it is easy to miss their system wide consequences, including the problems and costs that are transferred to other public services. This creates fragmentation and duplication that undermines and damages the relationships between public services and citizens, which are crucial to tackling complex problems. Some families have been the target of hundreds of interventions a year which they have become skilled at deflecting; in Suffolk, one family was the subject of 700 interventions in an 18 month period by just two agencies (the council and police).

Despite all of the activity in the system there are still gaps in support that mean problems can go unidentified or untreated. There are many examples where giving citizens and families access to low intensity and holistic support at an early stage could avoid the need for high intensity (and expensive) interventions at a later stage. But the fragmentation of services, funding streams and accountabilities and the focus on inputs and outputs (rather than outcomes), have meant that public service providers have not been incentivised to spend resources on prevention or early intervention.

This is because the financial benefits of prevention – resulting from cost avoidance – do not necessarily accrue to the organisation that makes the initial investment. Through their Total Place pilot, Be Birmingham identified that for every £1 Birmingham City Council spent in early intervention on children and families would yield £10 for the locality. But only a quarter of that would accrue to the council, making the investment much less attractive in a silo-based funding system.

Each public service provider or professional works hard to tackle problems in their own area, but their underlying causes remain untouched, meaning social problems persist and are inherited by future generations. The human, social and financial costs of failing to build the capabilities of citizens, families and communities and dealing with the resultant problems are huge. If the lives of ‘troubled families’ are to be turned around – or better, if they’re to be prevented from becoming troubled to start with – public services must first turn around to focus on the citizen.

Attempts have been made to start to address some of these problems in localities through the previous government’s Total Place initiative. And the Coalition Government’s Community Budgets initiative (a direct descendant of Total Place) is specifically focused on pooling strands of funding from Whitehall to tackle the needs of the families to which the Prime Minister referred. Changing the relationship between central government and service providers is a vital step toward turning around services. It has the potential to enable and encourage:

  • a new focus, on dealing with the underlying causes of social problems rather than coping with the symptoms; working with citizens, families and communities to build their social resilience, by developing their capabilities and networks; and
  • a new relationship with citizens, where services are designed with citizens from their perspective. This represents an expanded view of a citizen: they are not passive customers, but activists, with knowledge and resources of their own.

A follow up blog will present a case study of work in Swindon, where public agencies and Participle have worked with families to co-create a new approach to family intervention and support, called the Swindon Family LIFE programme.

Update: The Swindon Family LIFE case study is now available here.