Better together

10 May 13
Community Budgets show how effective joined-up funding and working can be in tackling social problems. But sharing data brings fresh challenges

By John Thornton | 10 May 2013

Community Budgets show how effective joined-up funding and working can be in tackling social problems. But sharing data brings fresh challenges

Tool, Illustration: Angus Greig

The four pilots for Community Budgets, which pool various funding sources for particular local priorities, have been very successful. The Local Government Association conservatively estimates that if the same approach was used nationally, it could save £10bn–£20bn, net of investment, over four years.

In the Budget, the chancellor pledged to push ahead with the expansion of pooled funding to ‘drive the transformation of local public services’. Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles says Community Budgeting could save up to 20% in some areas.  

So, why the slow progress and do we have the systems to operate in this joined-up, multi-agency environment?

The idea of ‘pooling’ is not new. It builds on at least two earlier initiatives – Local Area Agreements and Total Place. Total Place helped to reveal the scale of the challenges. Its pilots showed, for example, that there were 47 funding streams for social housing in Durham and 49 different public sector agencies in Luton/central Bedfordshire.

To be successful, pooling needs to be about much more than money. Ideally, it works by combining local knowledge, assets, efforts and budgets to redesign local services and deliver a more effective and unified approach.

At the heart of the Community Budgets initiative has been work with ‘troubled families’. You will no doubt recall a lot of the press coverage estimating that about 120,000 families, less than 1% of the population, face multiple problems that together cost the Exchequer more than £4bn a year. At present, there can be as many as 20 different public and voluntary sector professionals working with each family on different, though not necessarily recognised as related, issues.  

The London Borough of Hounslow estimates that a family that is supported early and therefore does not become troubled costs around £1,478, while a family whose problems escalate costs an estimated £64,000.

Another London borough, Barnet, has saved more than £1m (in terms of costs avoided) after six months work with its first 18 families. The council projects savings in the region of £8m for 100 families.

So the results of Community Budgets can be impressive. But to meet these expectations requires collating and sharing a lot of information. This can be difficult in terms of both information governance and technology. To achieve this, Hounslow has developed Mash – a Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub that ‘sits at the front door’ of children’s services.

A team of professionals from core agencies, including housing, police, children’s services, health, adult social care and probation, has been brought together to provide an integrated service with the aim of researching, interpreting and sharing relevant and proportionate information. This provides a pragmatic, ‘swivel-chair’ approach to accessing multiple databases and sharing pertinent information between different agencies.

As Community Budgeting moves into more complex and higher-volume areas, it will need to be able to identify and manage costs, processes, outputs and outcomes. This will require the development of better models for assessing ‘cause’ and ‘impact’, as well as greater understanding of the relationships between resources consumed and outcomes achieved.

Do you have the tools and expertise to do this – and the systems needed to operate in the joined-up, multi-agency environment required to make use of the new business models that might result? This could include sharing access to key systems such as customer relationship management, financial management, HR and procurement.

It will most probably mean starting a transaction in one organisation and completing it in another, thereby seamlessly integrating the ‘supply chain’ and processes for service users.

 It will almost certainly require integrating websites, information systems and reporting systems.

Are you ready for the expansion of Community Budgets?

John Thornton is an independent adviser and writer on business transformation, financial management and innovation


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