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Earned Autonomy one year on – creating a more sustainable Early Help system

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Alison Smith is practice and area lead for Earned Autonomy (EA) areas for the Troubled Families Team at MHCLG. Following a round of monitoring assurance visits to EA areas earlier this year she talks about common themes and how areas are working to ensure their Early Help system is more sustainable into the future.

Earned Autonomy transformation themes

In April 2018, 14 local authority areas were successful in achieving Earned Autonomy status. In place of Payment by Results (PbR), these areas receive up front funding from the Troubled Families Programme in line with an agreed payment schedule and with the aim of supporting accelerated service transformation for Early Help.

The themes contained within development plans fell into the following key areas - the higher the bar, the more often it appeared…

Bar Chart showing the key themes. The highest bar signifies the theme where there is most interest (data integration) down to the lowest which is shared case management

Earned Autonomy assurance visits

During January and February this year Richard Selwyn (Head of Transformation, Troubled Families Team) and I visited all 14 EA areas along with other members of the Troubled Families team and other government departments. Each EA area operates under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with MHCLG and the visits were part of the monitoring and assurance framework for the MoU.

It was fantastic to have the opportunity to hear from leaders, front line staff and partners locally about their vision for Early Help and what was helping them achieve this. This blog discusses the key themes and the focus that local authorities and partners are putting on key changes to create a more sustainable early help system.

Unrelenting focus on developing the workforce

Training and development for those delivering Early Help and whole family working is a strong theme in EA areas. We found that where areas were thinking about how to make a sustained difference to practice there was a real focus on driving whole workforce change across all partner agencies.

A number of areas are implementing and formalising the Early Help skill set with formal qualifications, induction packages and training programmes for keyworkers and those regularly supporting families as part of a Team Around the Family.

Culturally, broader training programmes are focussed on Early Help as a function and making every contact count with the aim of developing a multi-skilled workforce. Everyone in the workforce is seen as an Early Help practitioner — able to take responsibility for dealing with issues first time, no matter what they are.

Most EA areas had established or were establishing locally based, integrated teams with a focus on a particular population or community. For some this had a largely children and families focus, however others had moved to integrated approaches involving adult services to enable a local response to residents of all ages.

Shared ownership

Trust between leaders and a coherent area wide transformation programme were fundamental features of leadership in most EA areas. The recognition or positioning of Troubled Families as a key driver for or congruent with wider transformation programmes was important for long term sustainability. As one Director for Children’s Services put it 'Troubled Families is not a pet project but integral to our approach'.

We could also see in most areas a strong level of trust between leaders within partner agencies where leaders take time to understand each other's priorities, create the shared agenda and a consensus about the need for change. The trust in some areas also extended to reducing the emphasis on which agency is responsible for what. This freed up thinking around use of resources 'Almost anything becomes possible when you don’t care who takes the credit’.

Earlier than Early Help?

The Service Transformation Maturity Model describes the importance of keyworkers having close links with voluntary and community groups to broaden the support available for families, some EA areas are beginning to take this concept much further, developing the concept of Earlier or Earliest Help and creating opportunities to connect families to local groups before they come to need support from formal services.

For some areas this is part of re-imagining the role of the public sector and local authority from the traditional role of deliverer to a convener of local resource and facilitator of connections; or seeing the Local Authority as a platform on which other agencies and the community operate — as one Chief Executive put it 'like apps on an iPhone'.

Fundamental to this approach is that most people would rather receive support from those close to them, physically and relationally, and more can be done to encourage 'people helping people'. For some areas this is being more formally established into the idea of a 'deal' with the community - with a clear role for the state and individual personal responsibility.

Realising the potential of digital transformation

Good data systems with a wide range of partner data and access bring many benefits including effective management of work with families, timely sharing of information and a better understanding of needs. Many EA areas were reaching a mature level of development around data warehouses or data lakes, matching a wide range of data from different partners.

Importantly, areas are beginning to use this data to target resources (both at a community and individual level) and ensure interventions are intelligence-led. Some areas are using the data available to them to predict families who are likely to need support in the future and share this intelligence with other services including universal services to enable them to understand the needs of the individuals they are working with.

Local authorities are engaging in helpful debates about the ethics of using data and testing this out with information governance. Areas are also thinking through how data is used alongside professional intuition and judgement so that they can move to a position where professional intuition is supported by digital insight or vice versa, not one or the other. For example, one area highlighted the importance of having a data system that could assess the level of need that could support the decision making of the professional.

Digital enhancements were also emerging in some areas to support swifter identification of appropriate support for families as well as using a wider range of platforms to engage and serve citizens. One Chief Executive said, 'you can always use digital to augment provision'.

Sharing the learning

We know that many local authorities who are paid through PbR are also advancing their work along similar lines and in the coming months we will be looking to develop opportunities to showcase and share the best practice from EA and PbR areas with all local areas.

Get in touch with me if you have something exciting to share.

Alison Smith

Troubled Families Team

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

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