Dorset County Council (DCC) had a track record of overspends on SEND Transport. Cost and demand had both been rising, and even though the budget for the service had been rebased, they were still working on a long-term plan to better manage demand.
The council asked iMPOWER to work with them on a three-month project. Their ambition was to increase the number of Personal Transport Budgets (PTBs), to help support the independence of children and, ultimately, to make the service more financially sustainable.
The council’s target was that PTBs would be used by 40% of parents requiring home to school travel support, but were not clear about how this could be reached – they needed a plan and a financial model.
Historically, the council had focused on eligibility for the SEND transport service, and had worked hard to apply criteria clearly to ensure that only eligible children were accessing support. However, the long-term vision for what the service wanted to achieve was still in development, and demand was simply dealt with as it entered the system. But with costs and demand rising, this had become unsustainable.
Dorset County Council reframed this problem by shifting the focus of the service onto independence rather than eligibility. This involved introducing a culture across the council which supported longer-term planning for children, with the aim of ensuring that they are well prepared for adulthood. Transformational change would be achieved by tackling behaviour and beliefs which had been well embedded within the council and with external stakeholders.
As in other authorities, responsibility for providing SEND Transport lay across three different teams with no single person accountable for performance. It was critical to address this, so that the transformation of the service would be driven by one senior manager, empowered and accountable for the change.
Previously, the council had not put enough focus on how to help parents make choices about their children’s travel to and school. From surveys and focus groups conducted as part of the project, it became clear that there was a lack of knowledge about the existence and flexibility of PTBs, and about the expectations of Independent Travel Training. Despite this, 25% of parents and teachers were keen to hear more or take them up, so an appetite existed. Additionally, it became apparent that many parents had not appreciated that PTBs and Independent Travel Training could support their child’s independence.
At the “front door”, council staff were automatically applying for travel assistance on behalf of eligible parents, which was driving up demand for travel by minibus and taxi by as much as 40%. Once this demand entered the system, discussions on home to school travel in Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) reviews were inconsistent, and when they did occur, teachers often described it a box-ticking or “cut and paste” exercise.
iMPOWER consultants were embedded within the SEND travel team, allowing them to work closely with the council’s project team. This enabled genuine collaboration on both project deliverables and on other relevant activities, such as amending the draft policy on introducing a consistent theme of independence and setting out how support options will be considered, and introducing more considered language in the letters being sent to parents.
Behavioural science was central to the project. iMPOWER facilitated workshops with staff about MINDSPACE (a framework for applying behavioural science), which resulted in numerous ideas about how discussions with parents could be structured in order to introduce the concepts of travel independence and the benefits of PTBs.
Later in the project, iMPOWER developed structured contact scripts which set new defaults and identified incentives for encouraging more independent travel. Some of the ideas generated during the workshops were used to redesign the relevant council webpage, which was critical as many parents undertake their own research online.
Working across interfaces was critical, both internally (within the council) and externally (with key partners). Staff from several parts of the council joined iMPOWER’s consultants to form a project team. iMPOWER also worked closely with the Dorset Parent Carer Council to enable the project to better understand parents’ beliefs and drivers, and engage them directly via focus groups with parents and young people, and interviews with teachers.
Comprehensive engagement at these interfaces enabled iMPOWER to build a deep evidence base to feed into the development of ideas, and to help prioritise where initiatives would have the most effect on demand.
Understanding the trajectory that the council needed to take to realise its ambitions was critical. iMPOWER developed a complex financial model which forecast the expected increase in demand for SEND transport, and modelled the impact various initiatives would have. With a clear view about the ambition of 40% of parents requiring home to school travel support receiving PTBs, this set the trajectory.
Additionally, as one of the quick wins identified during the project, the team started to develop a simple dashboard of Primed Metrics which could be shared across teams to demonstrate the impact the changes were having, and how close the actual effect on demand was compared to the required effect.
Critically, by the end of the engagement, council staff understood the concept of demand management and grasped the idea of behaviour change.
For the first time, the council was able to articulate how it was going to achieve its ambition for 40% of parents to receive a personal travel budget. The associated reduction in cost, which was made visible through the use of the new financial model, helped set out the direction of travel. The council was also able to outline what was needed in the implementation plan, which included detailed information on tasks and owners.
There was also more clarity about which initiatives needed to be prioritised to best impact demand: it was clear that changing the norm for applications and identifying where to input value-adding travel discussions into annual reviews of Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs).
iMPOWER were able to start delivering some quick wins for the implementation phase of the transformation providing training to staff so they could quickly change the way they held conversations with parents. This built momentum, so staff felt like ideas were being put into practice; the project was seen as more than just a diagnostic.
The critical success factor was the embedding of the iMPOWER’s consultants within the council’s SEND transport team, enabling them to work side by side with them and provide support. Putting in place project governance to build bridges across teams was also crucial.
Close working with the Dorset Parent Carer Council resulted in very high response to the parent survey. This ensured a depth of evidence that informed solutions and helped drive a high level of involvement in the subsequent focus groups.