The recent spike in demand at the front door of social care, and of early help services has thrown into sharp relief the operational, and therefore financial, pressure on children’s services. It has exposed the inflexible design of children’s services and highlighted how it is poorly equipped to be resilient under pressure. For a system so exposed to external factors, namely the impact of behaviour of its residents and professional partners, it cannot be sustainable to operate within traditional, rigid boundaries that lead to one part of the system buckling under pressure and then being bailed out by others who have to deal with those immediate pressures.
It is these silos that make it all the more difficult to plan for the longer term. We know that in the future, the only way children’s services will be affordable is that if we can reduce the number of children and families that need intervention or support at the acute end, translating to a reduction in the number of children in social care and requiring placements. This will be reliant on effective early help but also about a different approach to managing risk and responding to need.
Our view of the world, and similarly for many of our clients, is that we need to work towards a whole system transformation, shifting the balance of resources so that our services are fit for the future. Most importantly these transformations feature a focus on preventing need from escalating and what the new models of delivery will enable this to happen. Better outcomes for children and families invariably link to solving issues and addressing problems earlier. However, we must hold our nerve in the face of the challenges this creates. Sudden increases in demand are a prime example. Whilst we must respond to them and ensure children are safe we must not let the urgent compromise our commitment to the future; a sustainable service.
My colleague wrote recently about innovation around resource allocation in sufficiency and how this could help us with financial rigour but most importantly, also help us to focus on outcomes, rather than on prescribing solutions based on what our services do. It points to world where we are more creative in responding to need as it emerges. The reasons for this are not only from the perspective of ensuring council resources are well spent, but to ensure we are doing the best we can by children and families when we invest in them and that means only spending our resources where it has enough of a positive impact. Unfortunately this principle can only take us so far if it’s only applied with children in care and placement services.
Rather it should apply across the whole system. It will help us to break down the silos and boundaries that lead us to respond as individual services rather than with a holistic view of what works best for families. We know that many of the factors that lead to children becoming looked after are related to the adults in their lives, including housing, parental mental health, substance misuse and domestic violence, so it would seem illogical to drive the approach to responding to these needs through an isolated children’s service. Silos reinforce rising demand over which individual services have limited control. Our response must be collaborative, it must be family focused and most critically, it must reflect that our local public services are only singular parts of a much wider local system.