What is the Future of Family Services in this Age of Austerity?

21 January 2013
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Category: News
21 January 2013, Comments: 0
Westminster Central Hall was the venue for a conference hosted by the Family Strategic Partnership on Wednesday, 16th January on ‘The Future of Family Services in an Age of Austerity.’ The packed agenda included summaries of the Strategic Partners’ latest research publications, including Children England’s, Perfect Storms, the Family and Parenting Institute’s (FPI) Families on the Front Line? Local Spending on Children’s Services in Austerity, and Barnardo’s Commissioning for Better Outcomes. Optional seminars were also available on a variety of subjects including: Families and Substance Misuse, Families with Complex Needs, and School Reform.  There were also presentations by Robert McCulloch-Graham (Department for Communities and Local Government – DCLG) on ‘Commissioning for Troubled Families’, Louise Morpeth (Social Research Unit) on ‘Commissioning Evidenced Based Services’ and from Matt Buttery, CEO of the Family Matters Institute, on ‘Survival in an Age of Austerity.’

Oliver Hopwood, from research agency ESRO, presented the findings of, ‘Families on the Front Line? Local Spending on Children’s Services in Austerity’, a project he led for the FPI which sought to understand local authority spending decisions against a backdrop of budget constraints, new policy pressures and rising demand among local populations. The research suggests that the loss of signficant central government funding has served as a driver for significant change in the way some services to children, young people and families are delivered. There was evidence, he suggested, of genuine ‘innovation in austerity’ amid a continued commitment at local authority level to deliver a high standard of services to families using fewer resources.

Robert McCulloch-Graham, Director of Children’s Services for Barnet Borough Council, explored similar themes in his presentation, ‘Commissioning for Troubled Families’, particularly the financial savings of appointing dedicated case workers to support ‘troubled families’. Significantly this approach was actually found to be more effective in enabling these families to overcome some of their challenges. In January 2012 Barnet estimated that their targeted work with just 18 families had already saved £1.4 million. McCulloch-Graham is now working with other local authorities to develop the model.  

Kathy Evans, Deputy Chief Executive of Children England, spoke next about the impact of the recession on the voluntary sector. Children England’s report, ‘Perfect Storms’ analyses the cumulative pressures on VCS organisations and the inter-agency pressures across statutory and voluntary services for children and families. Evans suggested that some 64,000 charities that focus on children, young people and/or families as their main
beneficiaries are now struggling to respond effectively to an unprecedented rise in demand for their services in a climate of reduced income, a significant drop in asset value, rising fuel and heating costs and a reduction in the number of volunteers. In 2011 she said, donor income dropped by 20%  and the voluntary sector lost 2 volunters for every job lost in the paid sector.  A wealth of skills and experience, she said, have ‘walked out of the door’, the net result being that organisations are having to turn away people in need. On a more positive note, Evans felt that the voluntary sector would survive the challenges because its key asset is people, with the goodwill, drive and commitment to support and strengthen their communities and because it is already practiced at achieving a great deal with very little.

Commissioning and evidence-based practice were also key themes at the conference. Louise Morpeth (SRU) argued that evidence-based programmes were lower risk and inspired greater confidence because they had demonstrated the delivery of expected and quantifiable outcomes.  Jabeer Butt and Tracey Bignall  from the Race Equality Foundation described the challenges facing VCS organisations in navigating local authority commissioning processes.  Liam Duffy, Barnardo’s Director for Business Development, addressed some of these issues in his presentation on the charity’s ‘Commissioning for Better Outcomes’ report.  Barnardo’s acknowledged the obstacles and argued for more dialogue between the voluntary sector and the commissioners. Matt Buttery, CEO of the Family Matters Institute, concluded the day’s input. He spoke candidly about his experiences of the commissioning process and admitted that many people in the voluntary sector feel uncomfortable talking about fact, figures and outcomes.  But, he argued, it was important to ask ourselves the question, ‘If I want to serve families and not turn away people in need, where are those resources coming from that will enable me to help them?’  He also said that it was important, every now and again, to stop and reflect on why we do what we do.  In his case, Buttery admitted it was his passion for families – he wanted to strengthen and affirm family life and relationships and to help struggling families get back on their feet.

An official account of the day plus the presentation slides are available to download at the Family Strategic Partnership website. Click here.

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