Features: April 8th, 2011

Early intervention in the lives of children can make a real difference, but shrinking budgets are making this increasingly difficult. Pete Houslander looks at the way that business intelligence can provide a way to cut costs and provide a better service. He argues that when councils have access to good sources of information they can use it to uncover the story behind the data.

In the current financial climate the increasing challenge that will deliver high quality support that will improve the lives of children and families at risk may seem for some authorities to be almost unachievable.

However, there are those in the corporate world who would regard such challenges as powerful tools for driving the change necessary to ensure they are running efficient and thriving businesses. Has the time come for local authorities to look at some of the successful strategies being used to deliver results in the private sector? Could methods employed in the business world to drive productivity help councils to ensure children and families get the help they need in the difficult years ahead?

Using Business Intelligence in children’s services

Business intelligence methodology has traditionally been used in the private sector to ensure resources are targeted effectively and organisations are working as efficiency as possible to deliver their products or services. A successful business intelligence model should encompass the process of ensuring information, skills, processes and practices support good decision making within an organisation.

With authorities under growing pressure to do more with less, the effective use of business intelligence tools in the children’s services environment will support councils in making better decisions on where to invest money so that the desired results are achieved . One of the key areas where a business intelligence model can have the greatest impact is in planning and delivering early intervention strategies.

Focusing on early intervention

In commissioning the Graham Allen report, Early Intervention: The Next Steps, the government has highlighted its support for early intervention as a powerful tool for improving outcomes for children and families.

Research has shown that when successful early intervention strategies are put in place, authorities can prevent problems from becoming more serious further down the line. If steps are not taken to address issues early on in a child’s life, the increasing burden of cost to tax payers and society in the future could be much greater in terms of tackling issues like mental health, drug misuse, teenage parenthood and the associated impact to the community in policing crime – as well as the potential cost of incarceration.

A report published the New Economics Foundation revealed that for every £1 invested in schemes designed to catch problems early and prevent their reoccurrence, the benefit to society has been worth between £7.60 and £9.20. As public money becomes increasingly more difficult to find, councils need to prioritise early intervention strategies in the process of planning and delivering their services.

Uncovering the facts

The availability of good quality information, from a wide variety of sources, is essential to the success of early intervention strategies. Authorities should consider whether the data they have access to provides them with the whole story or whether there are sources of information being gathered by other teams, such as health or the police, that could add clarity to the situation and value to the decision making process.

Many councils are already gathering a wide range of data on children from schools and other services working with children and families. To gain insight from the huge amount of information they collect on children, councils need robust IT systems in place. These should include powerful tools that allow information to be scrutinised in great detail and shared easily with all those who need it.

By applying business intelligence methods and making good use of reliable data sources, authorities could uncover whether family breakdown puts children at greater risk of ending up not in education, employment or training (NEET) in their area, for example. They could also identify the potential causes of academic underachievement, ie to what extent it is a school-based issue and the degree to which social problems could be preventing a child from reaching their full potential. Knowing which circumstances – or combination of circumstances – result in problems for children, or simply flagging that a child has started to show signs of difficulty, by truanting for example, children’s services teams can put the right resources behind tackling issues to prevent them from deepening.

Authorities need to be able to uncover the facts affecting children and families in their area before they can make sound decisions on what action needs to be taken. It is vital that councils ensure they have access to good sources of information and that this is used effectively to uncover the story behind the data.

Measuring performance

When budgets are tight, it is critical that the services and support authorities are investing in achieve the desired effect of improving outcomes for children and families. Performance measurement is key to ensuring that money is spent on services that deliver the expected results.

To ensure effective performance measurement in children’s services
within an environment of reduced budgets, councils need to know that they are measuring the things that really matter. Their performance measurement process must provide insight into what is working and what isn’t. And crucially, this insight needs to be used to improve service delivery.

As in the business world, performance measurement must add value to the organisation. Reliable data needs to be presented to decision makers in a way that provides insight. Judgements are more informed and discussions are more productive as a result. Changes can then be implemented where they are needed to make a difference.

Looking at organisational structure

Key to a successful business intelligence model is ensuring all staff have access to performance data relevant to their role. This ensures the organisation as a whole becomes self regulating, with employees checking that their time is contributing to improved outcomes. Business intelligence becomes a tool to help all staff focus on their goals, rather than a top-down tool that managers use to pick out areas of weakness.

It is beneficial for councils to consider whether the right people are in It is beneficial for councils to consider whether the right people are involved at the appropriate stage in the decision making process in order to drive change. Top management commitment to doing things differently is also essential to ensuring authorities can continue to respond to the needs of their communities to help drive through any organisational or cultural changes that need to happen.

In a corporate setting, reduced finances can often lead to reductions in quality or output. This is simply not an option in a children’s services environment as a lack of support or poor quality services will put vulnerable children and families at greater risk.

Implementing an effective business intelligence model within children’s services can reap rich rewards. It will provide departments with greater clarity on the support children and families need and enable teams to intervene earlier to improve a child’s life chances. This, in turn, will help maximise resources so that authorities can meet the financial challenges they face in the years ahead.

Pete Houselander is managing director of Capita One. Their systems are used by 150 authorities to manage children’s services data.