Public services play a critical role in the economy. Education, training, labour market programmes health and social care, early years childcare, and community development, develop the capabilities and social resources that enable people to participate meaningfully in the economy.
An inclusive economy also serves the goals of the public sector. Economic improvements leading to reductions in poverty and inequality have social and financial benefits for public services. They tend to improve social outcomes, while also reducing the demand for expensive services. (e.g. dealing with the effects of poverty costs £79bn per year in the UK).
Despite the interdependencies between the economy and public services, and economic and social policy tend to operate in isolation from one another. Social policy has become a compensatory tool for those that have lost out from the market.
It is for this reason that Barking and Dagenham’s public service transformation programme, Community Solutions, is so compelling.
The residents of Barking and Dagenham, a borough of London, has a number of “wicked and complex challenges” facing its residents: lack of opportunity, economic precarity, housing insecurity and homelessness, high rates of domestic violence, and significantly higher levels of deprivation and unemployment than almost every other part of London.
The long-term economic decline of the borough heaped considerable pressure onto its public services, which was amplified by severe cuts to local government budgets since 2010. As Mark Fowler, Director of Community Solutions and Damien Cole, Head of Service Development note,
“the perfect storm of austerity and economic precarity hardened local leaders’ convictions that the way public services were organised was also part of the problem. A culture of silo working prevailed, and local residents came to rely heavily on expensive and acute council services. The council’s ‘paternalistic’ relationship with citizens contributed to this, as did a limited and fragmented approach to prevention.”
The borough’s leaders began rethinking the form and purpose of local services. Whereas previously, services were compensatory (focused narrowly on meeting acute need), services are now increasingly becoming preventative, with the ultimate aim of supporting self-sufficiency and economic and social participation.
Community Solutions: Shifting from Reaction to Prevention
At the root of the borough’s reforms is an effort to understand the nature and pattern of demand for public services, especially those at the acute end. By better understanding the trajectory of residents’ lives, including the nature of their interaction with local services at different moments of their lives, the council came to realise that large swaths of the population were not being supported early enough.
Owing to reducing budgets, public services tended to focus on people with the most acute need, for whom it is more difficult, if not too late, to assist. Meanwhile, those that faced less severe, but still significant challenges in their lives (for example, job loss or low paid and insecure work, and unaffordable high rent) were off the council’s radar. This was a problem because in the absence of any support, some of these residents would go on to face more significant problems, such as homelessness, as their needs escalated. This ultimately would increase demand for expensive services. It was unsustainable.
The Community Solutions service was introduced in 2017, to tackle the root causes of the multiple problems associated with poverty and economic precarity. It reorients services towards early intervention and focuses on promoting self-sufficiency, including by supporting people into reliable employment. The service brings together multi-disciplinary and multi-agency teams that work together with public and voluntary sector partners to provide preventative support to residents.
The service is available to a much wider pool of residents, who didn’t previously meet the eligibility criteria for council support.
“For not only those living catastrophic lives, but also those living unfulfilled and unhappy lives, those at risk of tipping over.”
Root Cause Analysis
Community Solutions acts as a front door for all people-supporting services, identifying the root causes of problems and helping individuals or families to resolve them before they escalate. Organising the service relies on a form of population triage, or recognising that different types of residents will require different forms of support”
For individuals and households that are deemed to be self-sufficient, the focus is on light-touch information and advice and signposting to appropriate resources.
For residents that are risk of ‘tipping over’, there is an additional focus on early action services, such as outreach and skills, employment and housing support.
For groups that have multiple and significant needs, there is more substantial support managed by multi-agency teams.
Impact to Date
Community Solutions is a relatively new service and therefore, its impact can’t yet be fully realised and understood. However, some positive changes have already been observed. One of the most dramatic is a notable reduction in the number of people in temporary accommodation, although legislative changes have also played a role in this. The number went down from around 1,960 in October 2017 to just over 1,700 by August 2018, owing to the council’s holistic support that enabled more people in need to find secure housing. Rather than simply directing those in need to temporary accommodation, people who could not afford private renting due to unemployment or financial precarity were supported to find reliable employment.
Similarly, some emerging evidence suggests that there has been a reduction — from 34 percent to 24 percent — in the number of people moving through the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH), who require high-intensity care and support services. The service and staffing structure of Community Solutions itself is having a positive effect on easing recruitment and retention challenges, which have escalated due to austerity. Mark Fowler and Damien Cole suggest that hard-to-fill roles are increasingly being filled by permanent staff instead of agency workers, because people are seeing the organisation as a good place to work. Although difficult to attribute to Community Solutions alone, volunteering with the council has also increased — rising from 89 people in 2017 to 259 in 2018. Volunteers play an active role in supporting the vision for early intervention, active citizenship, and self-sufficiency.
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