Moving early help forward with technology
Phil Neal lists the ways technology can help improve early intervention decisions by local authorities.
According to a report published recently by the Early Intervention Foundation, one in four children starts primary school in England without the necessary language and communication skills – many of whom are from deprived areas of the country.
While the early help agenda is gaining pace, figures like these suggest that there is more to be done to strengthen the initiative even further. Fresh ideas are needed.
Recently, I was privileged to hear about some of these at an event I attended discussing the challenges and opportunities of embedding early help into children’s services.
Attended by nine senior leaders from the sector and a director of a children’s charity, the event heard plenty of talk about the role technology plays in helping to tackle some of the barriers to effective early help.
One of the most energetic conversations focused on how technology is being used by local authorities to help ensure that schemes are aimed at those children and families who are most in need. There was consensus that while national key indicators are useful for identifying vulnerable citizens, local nuances must also be considered.
It was recognised that systems are needed which can bring local information into the mix, such as the geographical impact of a major employer leaving the area, for example, or an escalation in gang related crime.
That way, authorities can spot potential risk factors which may not be flagged by national categories for vulnerability alone. More targeted early help plans can then be designed, delivered and monitored.
Tracking targeted services
A key challenge was underlined by one leader, who pointed out that it is not always easy to prove the effectiveness of early help programmes.
This sparked further discussion around the fact that what works in one area may have no real impact in another.
Several senior leaders underlined the need for efforts to be focused on goals which are specific to individual communities.
For one area, this may be reducing the number of teenage pregnancies, while in another, getting families off benefits could be a key aim.
But whatever the aim, delegates agreed that sophisticated data analysis tools could make it easier to monitor the progress made towards specific objectives – and also help ensure that the time and resources being invested in them make a real difference in the community.
Early help partners
With multi-agency working increasingly becoming a blueprint for effective early help, data sharing was a hot topic on the day.
One senior leader spoke about the growing need for partners in health, housing, schools and the police in her area to be able to share data more effectively, so that practitioners can deepen their understanding of the multiple problems faced by vulnerable families.
Another attendee talked about a project to commission services cost-effectively across the region, and how by bringing data together, teams would be supported in shaping the provision according to the needs of the communities in which they work.
It was felt that early help schemes could potentially be more effective and sustainable if funding came from all the partners involved.
Although it was agreed that managing shared funding could prove complex, delegates saw it valuable to have systems that can help maximise income streams and calculate the resulting savings to help ensure that all partners benefit.
Turning data into information
The children’s services leaders broadly regarded data as key in the drive to encourage a more proactive approach to early help.
Most felt that they already had a wealth of information on vulnerable children and families in their area, but many stated that this could be used more effectively to direct priorities.
They wanted to see historical information used more frequently to identify trends too, such as tracking fluctuations in homelessness, for instance, or school exclusions.
It was regarded as useful to have effective tools in place that allowed staff to drill down into the data to provide a clearer, multi-dimensional picture of what help is required by a family and where.
There may be a need for a programme to support teen parents, for example, but if the rate of take-up is poor, authorities need to be able to dig deeper into the information they have available to find out why.
The event revealed the extent to which leaders in children’s services are thinking innovatively about what systems they need to deliver successful early help.
There was broad recognition that an early help approach is the direction in which children’s services is set to travel in.
To support this, emerging technology needs to help teams to gain a greater understanding of their communities, enable more effective monitoring of targeted schemes and allow fresh thinking to shape the future of early help for the benefit of children and families.
Phil Neal is the managing director of Capita One.
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