Life Programme, Swindon

Themes this local practice example relates to:

  • Families, Parents and Carers
  • General resources
  • Local area early intervention strategies

Basic details


Organisation submitting example

Swindon Borough Council

Local authority/local area:


The context and rationale

The Swindon Life programme provides a catalyst for fundamental change in paradigm and a shift in the way public services are delivered in Swindon. It has led to a challenging and very different way of working and the creation of a new set of values and beliefs which are now embedded in the work culture. It has provided the catalyst for broad, structural and systemic change across all agencies, which will be fully implemented by 2012. It supports One Swindon (the Swindon Strategic Partnership) in its vision of not having any families living in crisis in Swindon in the future and in building a truly innovative, integrated service for all families.

The golden threads relevant to this example are:
• from good to great
• holding the baton
• know your communities
• culture not structure
• shape up and keep fit

For details on why Swindon developed the Life programme see the C4EO case study.

How did the Life programme develop?
The Strategic Health Authority agreed to fund Participle in this piece of development work on the basis that Swindon would provide project management, local capacity and engagement at all levels of the partner organisations to support the work. The commissioning process was built on the principle of collaboration and a partnership arrangement between Participle and Swindon partners, thereby overcoming potential delays through formal tendering.

To develop its new approach and fully comprehend the reality of the lives of the families that they were trying to support, a small team from Participle rented a council house in Swindon for six months and lived alongside them. These are families in chronic crisis demonstrating up to ten or more risk indicators, which include: children on child protection plans; children in need (supported by a social worker); poor achievement at school; exclusions; poor attendance; young offenders; looked after children; domestic violence; parental mental health; special educational needs/disability; anti social behaviour and substance misuse.

Twelve families were selected by Swindon partners, mainly through children’s Social Work Services, Housing and the Anti-Social Behaviour team. Participle, a project manager from children’s services, members of the 12 families and 150 staff worked together over a period of six months to understand the lives of the families and develop a new approach.

The initial learning presented to the senior leadership of Swindon partners was that families in their relationship with current services felt:
• oppressed
• controlled and that they were the child in theparent/child relationship
• isolated
• exhausted with fighting system
• that there was no safe space to ask for help
• a lack of trust, honesty, transparency
• hopelessness, and a belief that change was not possible.

These perceptions and feelings were mirrored by professionals who also said that they felt that:
• they were only working to the agencies’ agendas and not the agenda of the families
• they were forced by the system to act like a parent holding power and control
• actions they took were based on enforcement
• they were forced by the system to adopt a particular professional stance and felt that their professional language often alienated families
• service design was not relevant to peoples lives
• they were in the role of rescuing families and not empowering them
• there was a lack of trust, honesty and transparency
• the situation was hopeless and that change was not possible.

Following this analysis, Participle, families and staff embarked on designing a new way of working with families.

The practice

The Life approach is a programme focused on developing people’s capabilities and opening up new opportunities and possibilities to families in crisis. It is not about being directive, but about enabling and empowering families to open up about issues and about what they want to happen in their lives, and trying to get to the root of the problems holding them back. It is about creating a space where people can talk about what they aspire to and giving them the right support to build their capabilities and to find out how to access the kind of resources they need to make their aspirations real.

In the programme development stage, 12 families were involved in the initial research, four families in building the prototype, and hundreds of staff in designing the programme. The focus of the design was on:
• building something radically different that would produce outcomes wanted by many families and their neighbours and the wider community;
• providing greater chances for long term sustainable outcomes in health, education, future prospects and stability for families;
• finding a way of using government resources as an investment in people’s lives, rather than as a risk management system.

The three key approaches in the programme are:
• a team of people working in new ways and building new purposeful relationships between families, workers and the community;
• co-building capabilities for families and workers to release innovation and resource in the family, the community and government services relevant to people’s lives;
• building local living through:
o social networks;
o skills training opportunities;
o enterprise opportunities;
o peer to peer learning.

In the first 16 weeks of the programme, four families received intensive support from a multi-agency and multi-disciplinary team of staff from across the Police, Children’s Services, and Housing. The team was involved in very practical tasks with families, e.g. gardening, decorating, shopping, cooking and managing their home budgets, and this has enabled families to start to develop skills and knowledge to improve their lives and to be able to make positive choices. It also gave the families and the workers an opportunity to really get to know each other and a chance to talk about their lives in an informal setting, creating the basis for a new loving and purposeful relationship. It built a sense of trust and a safe space for them to open up to talk about their aspirations, as well as the issues they faced. 

By shifting the focus from problems and needs to capabilities and opportunities, our work supports families through a developmental process that they lead and which enables change and growth. 

Families were invited to be part of the Life programme. They interviewed and hand-picked their own multi-agency team, who ‘spoke the same language’ as they did, and that then formed the core of the team who took forward the Life programme. 

Desired outcomes included:
• reduction in domestic violence;
• improved mental health through families supporting each other and learning to listen to and understand each other better;
• sufferers of mental health issues engaging in social activities and work opportunities on which they had previously given up ;
• better choices by families in how they spend their time, including eating better and being more active and more social;
• individuals seeking help for drug and alcohol abuse;
• parents developing skills in how to support themselves and their children emotionally;
• children desiring to return to school after long periods of exclusion;
• adults seeking employment and/or training after long periods of unemployment;
• families being more active and engaged in community activities.

The Life team has taken on a supportive and brokering role for families in dealing with their services. It is clear that some council and other services are very complex and difficult to understand and may compound the difficulties that some families face. The Life team is able to help families, including children and young people, to understand what the council and other services expect from them, and take time to explain what needs to change within families in order to meet the expectations of those services. In parallel to that, because many different agencies have been involved in Life, there is now a new understanding across all Swindon partners that a different approach is necessary to ensure that families can clearly understand the different systems so that they will help the families rather than make their lives more difficult.

Evidence and evaluation - making a difference to children, young people and families

Performance measures and data
The pilot in Swindon has demonstrated impact for families and significant cost savings for the local authority. As of July 2011 the data, based on 55 family members participating in Life between April 2009 and July 2011, shows:

• 73% improvement in mental health conditions for those who reported this as a risk factor
• 86% of children, where school attendance was an issue, reported improvements
• 70% of children re-engaged with education, where this was an issue
• 69% of adults are seeking/in employment or training
• 86% of the 12 of families have a rent payment plan in place where this had been an issue
• 92% of family members building positive relationships between themselves
• 90% improvement in mental health conditions for those who reported this as a risk factor
• 80% reduction in police call outs
• 10 children not taken into care
• 13 children no longer having a child protection plan
• 6 eviction orders stopped
• individuals seeking help for drug and alcohol abuse
• 4 families (14 individual family members) having now exited the programme.

What happens differently for the services involved?
As a result of the new way of working with families in chronic crisis, through a team of workers who work intensively with the family, there are immediate opportunities to stop delivering services that do not actually support the family, but instead add to the crisis in families’ lives.

There is a new emphasis on addressing health issues, where adults in the family may have become ill due to long term poor lifestyle choices and children continue unhealthy patterns into adulthood. This is relevant to addressing both physical and mental health issues in families.

One of the principal aims of the programme was to develop the different way of working to ensure that the proportion of time that social workers spend in direct work with families against the proportion of time that they spend on paperwork could be turned on it’s head, from the current 80:20 (paperwork:direct work with families) to 20:80 (paperwork:direct work with families). This reduction in bureaucracy was to be achieved whilst still fulfilling statutory duties and effectively managing risk. It has been managed in part through the introduction of a ‘data downloader’, who works with the Family Life team each week to record their observations. We are also creating a new web resource to support greater efficiency and effectiveness, which will also enable increased involvement of families in recording their own progress and allow greater transparency.

The critical factor in the development of the Family Life programme has been senior leadership sign-up across the partnership, with a commitment to getting properly involved in the programme. We have got to know the families and seen and heard first-hand the difficulties that they face and the barriers that they find so difficult to overcome.

Families taking part in the Life programme have not only invited other families to take part, but have also wanted to work with them and support them. 

‘Life has done something important. It has highlighted for the whole council a different way of thinking. Transformation is not a host of enablers of structure and process, but it is about relationships, listening and conversation.’ (Swindon Director)

A Life family member said ‘I thought they were really nice genuine people. You could tell by their body language. They’d give you eye contact and really listen. They sounded excited and had a genuine interest. They were not clammed up. That’s a difference. They were not reading from a sheet of paper. Their ideas were fresh and it felt like their hearts were in the job. They were wanting to help and [were] not just doing a 9-5 [job] and going home’.

Helping others to replicate your practice

Swindon is a community budget pathfinder. Integrated services and Life form part of the approach to community budgets (CB) as outlined in the Community Budget ASK document.

The following overall success criteria have been set for Community Budgets for 2015:
• establish the Integrated Life Programme with an identified workforce for April 2012;
• establish a plan to identify and work with all 350 families (5+ risk factors) over the four years through the development of an integrated Life Programme. 
• reduce service costs year-on-year for CB partners through reductions from the baseline costs established for each family joining the approach. Year-on-year savings will be established from April 2012.

Costs and benefits
The Life team was funded from the Think Family grant and secondments and started working with four families in April 2009. The team consists of a manager, assistant manager, 6 Life team members, an administrator and an analyst. 

The initial funding source was the Family Intervention Project (FIP) allocation from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF now Department for Education). There were several discussions with DCSF officials during the first 12 months of the Life Programme because Life challenged the traditional FIP model based on enforcement, contracts and allocation of a single key worker. Instead, Life promotes a team working with the family, the development of a family-led plan and space for workers and family members to establish relationships and build capabilities within the family to support themselves and achieve lasting change.

These differences were overcome when the Early Intervention Grant was introduced in 2011 and the Department for Education acknowledged the need for local decision making on the use of funding and methods of working.

In April 2011, Swindon also successfully applied for £150,000 of Exemplar Funding from the Department for Education to fund the following posts in the Life team for two years:
• two social workers; 
• one mental health practitioner.
An independent evaluation of the Life model would also be funded in 2012. Recruitment for the above posts is taking place in September 2011.

Swindon is seeking to bring together existing financial resources from partners by October 2011 to ensure that there is time for resources to be agreed by April 2012. For further details on costs saved see the C4EO case study page 6.

Learning from the experience
Participle and Swindon Borough Council and partners learned, through spending time with families and reviewing other initiatives, that a new system needs to focus on being an open service, attractive and aspiring for families and their peers and workers - a ‘golden ticket’ to building the life they want to lead. 

The current Life model is truly family-led, building capacity for families to lead their own change process and creating opportunities to support families as they progress through the programme and into the community. Building the capabilities of family members who have experienced very complex problems such as mental health issues and abuse, requires team members to work intensely with people for a considerable time and setbacks occur along the way.

We have also learned that supporting families in building their own aspirations for their future is critical and has led to individuals seeking opportunities for employment and gaining new skills. There is now an opportunity for Swindon to build a truly innovative integrated service by developing the Life programme for work with all families using the whole Council and partner workforce.

Workforce implications
We have learned that this way of working is challenging for practitioners as it asks each professional to build a new relationship with family members as well as to support them to build their capabilities. This has required considerable investment in staff training, clinical supervision and one-to-one support. It has also demonstrated that there is a need to build the personal resilience of each team member to a high level. 

Community capacity building
The current implementation of the Life programme has focused on supporting families and there is now a need to develop opportunities for social networks in communities which will support change and enable families to re-engage with their local communities. This work will be linked closely with a programme called Connected Care operating in two areas of Swindon and led by a partnership of agencies in Swindon and TurningPoint.

Statutory interventions and child protection
We also acknowledge that the current Life model creates a potential tension within statutory work with families. Currently, for example, in families where a social worker is involved, the social worker remains and fulfils the statutory requirements in relation to children in need and those in need of protection. Furthermore, in families where housing and anti-social behaviour issues remain at a reduced level, there is a need to bring together professionals from all sectors to work with them.We have developed the Life programme model further to enable an integrated approach to families with complex needs, including a link with statutory interventions. We also aim to include learning from models such as Strengthening Families and the Family Nurse Partnership.

Impact of Life on the wider system
Life, together with the learning from integration and focus groups of families and local people, has acted both as a catalyst for fundamental change in paradigm and a shift in the way public services are delivered in Swindon, as well as being a key part of delivering that change. This change in how services are developed and delivered in future has not only been enshrined in One Swindon but also in a new operating model for the Council.

As an organisation, we need to increasingly work in different ways that better empower local residents and communities to do things for themselves where it makes sense for them to do so. We need to support them where necessary and to get out of their way when we are not needed to enable them to find the solutions that really work for them. Whilst we can bring useful specialist knowledge and expertise, we need to recognise that individuals and communities are often better placed to know what works best. 

We have already learned a great deal about working differently through Connecting People, Connecting Places and a number of innovative initiatives such as the Life project (working with families in chronic crisis). The hallmarks of this new way of working are: building deeper relationships in the community, collaborating in setting priorities and shaping solutions and build and harnessing more effectively the capability and capacity in the community. 

This is now reflected in new job roles for the most senior leaders within the local authority which includes an expected set of behaviours, including building meaningful relationships, demonstrating integrity, clarity of intention, resilience and self-awareness.

The learning from the Life Programme also has implications for leadership within public sector organisations and reflects research undertaken by the National College for School Leadership (NCSL 2011) Resourceful Leadership. For further details see the C4EO case study page 8.

What are lessons for the wider system?

Central government
• a willingness to support new approaches to the development of services and sharing risk, so that there is learning from success and setbacks;
• giving freedom to commission for innovation by flexing traditional procurements processes.

Local public services
• strong leadership and support throughout the development and testing stages across all levels of organisations, including political leadership and involvement of local communities;
• commitment and agreement to develop a new approach based on coproduction, collaboration and learning;
• willingness of all partners to work with a new organisation, such as Participle, which challenges the traditional ways public agencies develop and deliver services and engage with service users; 
• an openness to learning together and to being prepared to accept setbacks and see them as an opportunity for learning and not failure;
• the amount of support, encouragement and training that is necessary to build people’s emotional resilience in working in this way should not be underestimated; it can be very demanding. 
• arecognition that building capabilities among families with complex needs is a long term investment and that there is a need to collaborate effectively with statutory services.

Participle and Swindon Borough Council have collaborated to create Life HQ, a community interest company, to support the roll-out of the Life programme to other regions. Life HQ provides training in the programme’s fundamentals and capabilities, tools for Life teams and families to use to support their development, and the Lifeboard, an online system to facilitate the work and measure it’s impact in an empowering and time-saving way. Life HQ will support the development of Life in six regions in 2011/2012.

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