When Mark Fisher, the Chair of the Centre’s steering group, visited Bath & North East Somerset (B&NES) at the end of September 2015, he made the following reflections on a very personal and memorable visit to his home town: “I was struck by the opportunities which are available to B&NES, as a result of it being a small unitary authority: the chance to build excellent partnerships, to innovate and to be agile. Marks observations also sum up why it’s the Centre’s work supporting information sharing activity in B&NES is so crucial, “as the team can capture stories [of] barriers being resolved at the cutting edge.”
We have previously told the story of a young man called Tom, who has a severe history of mental health and substance misuse issues, which was threatening to tear his family’s life apart. When Tom had an incident it was dealt with by a number of different agencies, who fixed the presenting issue. The trouble was, because they weren’t sharing Tom’s information between them, the plans weren’t joined up and the root causes of the family breakdown were never addressed.
Or consider Malcolm Davis’ situation, who had become the victim of domestic abuse at the hands of his wife, Wendy. In the past the Police would have made repeated visits to the property to deal with these incidents, and the Housing Association would have also logged numerous Anti-Social Behaviour reports on their database. Again, because these two agencies didn’t share the information the spiral of physical and emotional violence against Malcolm and his children would have continued indefinitely and at great cost.
But because the local Troubled Families service, Connecting Families, worked tirelessly to improve information sharing between agencies, the wider picture of these two families was understood and they were given the support they needed. The early interventions of the Connecting Families service became the golden thread running through these success stories. In both cases, the question the Centre was interested in asking B&NES officers was: what made this possible?
To some extent, Connecting Families has become one of the top ten performing Troubled Families teams because it has been working with a small and manageable cohort of 300-odd families – so small in fact, the team knows every one of them by name. This makes the key-workers trusted companions who can be persistent in their support and challenge for families, rather than often-changing representatives of faceless agencies. The trust these key-workers gained early on with Tom and Malcolm also allowed them to tackle complex, interrelated family issues over time.
Building a trusting relationship is key to their success rate. As a result families are willing to consent to their information being shared with partner agencies or provide additional information about family members that enables the Connecting Families team to signpost them to the appropriate support services. So, for instance, Tom’s key-worker used agreed risk thresholds to identify the need for him to be assessed under the Mental Health Act. Equally, Malcolm’s key-worker heard a domestic abuse incident in progress whilst on the phone to him; having already obtained consent to share his information when she had started working with the Davis family, she made him aware that she needed to contact the Police, and help him to engage with an Independent Domestic Violence Advisor.
But B&NES’ size is also important to its Early Intervention success because, as Mark concluded, it is able to move quickly into spaces for change and work with a well-established, smaller group of partners to test out transformative ideas. During the last three years of its current Chief Executive’s tenure, B&NES has learned to embrace an ethos of radical innovation, which starts with the principles of an empowered workforce supported by strong local leadership.
This may mean being asked to submit ideas for new ways of collaborative working to the Council’s ‘10 in 100’ project. Or it might mean the Connecting Families service manager taking responsibility for the Welfare Support team, and with the Centre’s support, encouraging them to ‘Think Family’ about their claimant’s wider needs, so that they could provide a holistic response to these needs just as her key-workers did for Tom and Malcolm.
And once set free to deliver these changes, B&NES’ staff members need to be confident that they have well-defined processes that enable them to share information with their partners appropriately – and this means that their senior officers will support them to identify and manage risks, and back them when asked to justify their decision to share.
But of course, being agile and innovative is only one side of the coin. In order to develop a supportive and positive information sharing environment, the Centre has been working with the Connecting Families team to help change its organisational culture. This work has enabled us to demonstrate that B&NES
- is outward-facing in its approach to partnership working, and willing to start the difficult conversations that require both sides to make changes to their traditional working practices
- takes time to get to know those partners and what makes them ‘tick’, and using their energy and enthusiasm to encourage them to work towards shared outcomes
- develops leaders that understood risk and could forge change through a common language, uncluttered of the syntax of silos, with families and individuals written into every sentence.
B&NES has further to go on its information sharing journey, and the Centre will continue to support its ambitions to lead the Early Help agenda; for instance, by helping to make links between successful information sharing in the examples above and other transformative activity. But it has already come a great distance over the last three years, as the stories of Tom and Malcolm bear witness.