Headlines: April 1st, 2011

Today is the starting point for a new approach to delivering public services. The uninspiring title of ‘Community Budgets’ gives no indication of the radical and far reaching changes that will follow from the pilot schemes which have gone live in 16 areas. The initiative could be described as the undercover launch of a paradigm shift in delivering public services.

The pilots will all focus on families with complex needs. The traditional approach to helping these families is for each agency, eg social services, education, housing, police, probation service, Job centres, to provide support from their own resources and to liaise with each other. The difference now is that each family will receive support from a team of people which will bring together all the appropriate skills. There will be a single pot budget made up of contributions from the main budget streams. This is the Community Budget.

The first 16 Community Budgets pilots will look to bring local agencies together to get straight to the heart of the problems facing some of the country’s most chaotic families. They expect to help at least 10,000 families by 2015.

Community Budgets turn the traditional top down model of service delivery on its head. Decisions on how to spend the single pot of money are taken at local level in the light of local conditions. Whitehall officials no longer issue guidance about how to respond to issues and policy making is carried out locally. These changes will allow the multi skilled teams to work across organisational boundaries and to find innovative solutions to the issues they are tackling.

This new model of service delivery has evolved from work which started in 2009 in developing total place. From the work done in the 13 total place pilots and the 80 unofficial pilots, it emerged that large sums of taxpayers money are spent on a small number of recipients. This work also revealed much duplication of effort and lack of co-ordination between the many organisations involved. It also became clear that while a great deal of money was spent on repairing social problems, little was spent on preventing them. This learning has been fed into Community Budgets and by focusing initially on families with complex needs, with the most troubled families costing up to £330,000 a year, it will be possible to refine the new model.

Community Budgets for families with complex needs will be extended beyond the pilots and later they will be progressivly extended to other areas of activity. The long term goal will be to provide all localities, or places, with a Community Budget. Place Boards are likely to be appointed to provide governance, set strategic direction and decide on local priorities. The current organisational structures could be replaced by multi-skilled teams in structures yet to be identified. For a vision of how the public service landscape may appear in 2020 see Productive Places – A Reflection on 2020.

Community Budgets are only half of the story of change. The White Paper Open Public Services will be published in May 2011. In February 2011 the Prime Minister revealed that the main thrust of the paper will be to allow non-public providers to run schools, hospitals and council services, such as parks and adult care. This will be achieved by creating a level playing field for alternative providers. Legislation will be introduced to create a presumption that private firms, voluntary groups and charities will be allowed to run services.

Community Budgets and Open Public Services are not conflicting concepts, but in combination they create a uniquely different situation. Potential alternative providers may find that contracts on offer are not for say providing an element of social services, but rather of operating multi skilled client service teams.