By Nick Whitfield
The arguments for shared services are well known to us all: economies of scale; the standardisation and consolidation of back office systems and functions, and greater consistency of service provision across a wider geographic area. Even so, following the reductions in public spending announced in the 2010 spending review the idea of sharing the whole range of local authority children’s services was radical and, some would contend, risky.
It was in this context that politicians and senior leadership teams in Kingston and Richmond began to explore the possibility of taking a new approach to delivering children’s services. Rather than just sharing services, both boroughs had an aspiration to be bold on behalf of the children and families we served at a time when spend on services to support them was set to decrease.
With support from the Cabinet Office’s Mutuals Programme we identified that the best fit would be to establish a community interest company (CIC) owned by both councils and commissioned to provide services on behalf of both boroughs. While we considered opting for a traditional shared service, we felt that the CIC model would provide the freedom to do things differently, bring in external expertise and expand our trading potential, while offering accountability and assurance through council ownership.
Catalyst for improvements
We were established in April 2014, the largest ‘spin out’ nationally with a mission to deliver services that enable children and their families to live safe, happy, healthy and successful lives. The new model has helped us to transform services in Kingston. In August this year, they became one of the first services in the country to jump two grades in one inspection when Ofsted rated safeguarding and services for looked-after children as ‘good’ across all inspection categories.
We’re very proud of this achievement but we don’t claim to have all of the answers when it comes to transforming services.
In our case we believe that the key to transforming our services was establishing a separate organisation with the freedom and discretion to genuinely do things differently.
Here are some of the changes and improvements we’ve seen.
Recruitment and retention
Feedback from job applicants (both successful and unsuccessful) has revealed that a motivator for applying was the prospect of working for an organisation solely focused on children and families, rather than being part of a much larger institution. This, alongside a commitment to recruit permanent staff, has reduced our use of locum and agency social work staff in Kingston from 57% to 7%. Our staff are a part of the community they serve and have a vested interest in seeing it flourish. This makes a difference.
We’ve tried to create a culture of openness and honesty within the company which enables us to identify issues and deal with them quickly rather than burying them away only to become more serious at a later date. We have done this by improving the timeliness and quality of supervision, encouraging managers to be approachable and by ensuring that accountability isn’t confused with blame. A smaller and more focused management team has meant that role modelling and reinforcing these behaviours is easier to do. It’s working.
We’ve given staff ownership over how we shape the company. They have relished the opportunity to do things differently. We’ve held ‘bureaucracy busting’ workshops to find ways to free up social workers to do what they do best: working with children and families. We’ve encouraged innovation in social work by creating Practice & Innovation Groups. And we’ve put our money where our mouth is by devolving budgets to the frontline to encourage creativity and give social workers and youth workers the ability to make quick decisions. One example of a new project funded through a devolved budget in the youth offending service has been a music project working with young people involved in the criminal justice system. The project has been extremely successful; the reoffending rate among 30 participants was 10% compared to local rate of 34% and national rate of 36%.
We also recently voted on our strap line: Achieving for Children, champions for children and families. This wasn’t my first choice, but I vowed not to rig the vote. This sense of ownership is impacting on staff satisfaction. Over 100 more members of staff filled in this year’s staff survey and satisfaction was up across a range of indicators. In particular, staff had a clearer understanding of the organisation’s vision, felt that as a company we were recruiting the right people for the future, and that as employees they were able to contribute ideas to improve the way we work.
Blending public sector values with a commercial approach
Operating as a community interest company enables us to trade services more than we were able to do as part of the two councils, as well as access new sources of income. We’ve been surprised by how quickly our staff have embraced the opportunity to be more entrepreneurial.
We’re now providing services to schools in neighbouring boroughs, demand for our children’s services improvement support is growing, and we’re using the new skills we’ve brought in to attract more grant funding. Many of these funding and business opportunities have been identified and pursued by staff on the frontline. This income and funding is enabling us to invest in new and innovative models of working, including the Better By Design project, funded by the Department for Education, which works with young people on the edge of care to support families to retain responsibility for their children, supplementing services offered by the prevention and early help teams.
The project also supports hard-to place looked-after children in residential care to move into specialist foster placements to support their recovery from trauma and abuse. The project is in its infancy, but it has the potential to radically change and improve the way we work with some of our most vulnerable children and families while significantly reducing spend on expensive residential placements.
Establishing a new company to provide services for vulnerable children and young people is not for everyone. It requires strong political leadership, a clarity of vision from senior managers and for the stars to align at just the right moment in time. That said, for those willing to accept the challenge, the freedom it allows really can enable you to be the champions for children we all hope to be.
Nick Whitfield is chief executive of Achieving for Children, and joint director of children’s services for Kingston and Richmond councils. Achieving for Children will showcase its model at its ‘Doing It Differently’ conference on 14 January.