Culture changes within children’s services are necessary to make best use of devolving budgets to frontline practitioners, interim reviews of three pilot schemes have found.
Reports on projects at Hillingdon, Darlington and Wigan councils, which were announced in 2018 and are overseen by What Works for Children’s Social Care, found reluctance among social workers allowed to spend money to keep children out of care.
The use of devolved budgets, which has also been experimented with by the children’s services company Achieving for Children, was lower than envisaged at all three local authorities. The report on Wigan’s experience to date described the pilots as a “stark reminder” that councils are unaccustomed to being able to provide financial help after years of austerity.
“[Social workers] are not used to having money to spend with families and not experienced in working with families to make decisions about how to spend,” it added.
Despite this, and other barriers including around bureaucracy, and whether the budgets were a fair use of money, the projects had resulted in some imaginative interventions. In Hillingdon, for example, a young person at risk of criminal exploitation had been helped to go abroad to stay with extended family, removing them from contextual sources of risk.
In each case the reports concluded tweaks or larger changes needed to be made to increase the success of the pilots, including around expanding eligibility and offering training to staff to enable a “cultural shift” to take place.
‘Like social work before budget cuts’
The three councils involved in the trials have been making their funds available in different settings. In Hillingdon, the council is making up to £1,000 available with “minimal” managerial approval for social workers in a new team working with adolescents.
In Wigan, cash of up to £4,000 per family per year has likewise been allocated to specific teams, one working to reunify children who have been in care with families, and one trying to prevent children entering care in the first place. Meanwhile, in Darlington, money – up to £10,000 per family subject to managerial approval – has been offered to all social work teams, but initially on a randomised basis.
Further reading on What Works for Children’s Social Care
All three councils had recorded spending on a wide range of activities, from a few pounds to take a young person out for a meal to hundreds on gym membership, therapy sessions or improving home environments.
Social workers involved in the devolved budgets schemes commented positively on how they removed “red tape” from making interventions, such as having to go through multiple funding panels.
Practitioners in Hillingdon noted that even being able to take a young person out for a meal or drink rather than sitting at home talking about “safeguarding, safeguarding, safeguarding” created an immediate rapport-building benefit. Larger grants, such as one that paid for a new kitchen, were seen as empowering to families.
But the Wigan report noted that for some the experience, while appreciated, was like “social work before the impact of budget cuts” – only now with a time limit attached to it.
‘Culture of being careful’
This intersection of the new money with councils’ longstanding financial woes proved problematic for many, with the reviews noting “reluctance” or “reticence” in each pilot location.
“It is difficult for us to use this budget because we are coming from a culture where you have to be very careful about how you spend,” said one social worker in Hillingdon.
In Wigan it was noted that the cash injection contrasted with practitioners doing their jobs without office necessities such as lockable document cabinets. “This sense that the basics are not being sufficiently attended to caused understandable frustration among staff,” the review said.
Other barriers included managers’ unfamiliarity with handing over sums to frontline staff, to the point where parties felt “intimidated” by the transaction, and social workers worrying they did not have time for extra direct work the cash made possible. The team at Hillingdon had intentionally been allocated lower caseloads in order to mitigate this factor.
Social workers were also worried about managing families’ expectations, or being seen to bribe them – and also encountered resistance from some families who felt the money lessened their independence. In Darlington, the randomised allocations of the devolved budgets also raised ethical concerns as to whether families were being treated fairly.
Owing to low uptake – with 21 Darlington families being made eligible but only seven funding applications applied for – the What Works reviewers recommended randomisation be suspended at the North East borough.
They also said the budget decision-making process should be revised in Wigan to make it more transparent and money more accessible, and that practitioners in all three authorities should be supported or trained to encourage greater use of funds.
Michael Sanders, the executive director at What Works for Children’s Social Care, said the pilots, while at an early stage, were “showing promising findings, and helping social workers to support the families they are working with”.
“We hope to increase the number of families we can offer assistance to with these budgets in the coming months, and look forward to seeing the creative solutions the social care teams in Darlington, Hillingdon and Wigan can offer,” Sanders added.
Community Care has also approached the individual pilot councils for comment.
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