How can children and family organisations continue to make their services more accessible?

I have just arrived at Connect Assist to work with the family and children’s sector. The sector is in crisis in the wake of massive cuts in public spending.

Fewer resources, more needs: how can children and family organisations continue to serve – and make their services more accessible?

“Adversity always drives opportunity. The sector’s big opportunity is to push through better delivery, which is cheaper to the public purse.”

Stephen Bubb, Chief Executive, ACEVO

I have just arrived at Connect Assist to work with the family and children’s sector. The sector is in crisis in the wake of massive cuts in public spending. According to a January 2011 survey of 25 councils by Children & Young People Now, reductions in children’s budgets range from 6% to 25%, with an average of 13% – and with education and safeguarding protected, these cuts have fallen massively on youth services and early years services.

But, as Stephen Bubb eloquently states, there is big opportunity in this crisis. There is the opportunity to make family and children services better – opportunities that were, ironically, harder to grasp during the years of plenty.

Take one example from the charity sector. NCVO has recently halved the cost of its Member Helpdesk . But by working with Connect Assist it has, at the same time, doubled the helpline’s opening hours and increased overall use by its members. Saving money and improving a service really can happen at the same time.

In this new and challenging environment, the family and children’s sector now has an opportunity to address some long-standing quality issues.

There has never been enough choice about the way people access a service. This has reduced accessibility to working parents, to fathers, to parents of minority ethnic origin and to young parents. Recent ICM research,found that younger people are more likely to want anonymity than older users of services, regard speed and 24 hour availability as more important and are more likely to want access via Facebook and other social media. It is vital to give reticent users of services the opportunity to serve themselves on line, so that their confidence in the support offered can grow. They can see that their worries are real and legitimate and they can see that the service has something useful to provide in response. All this before taking the step of engaging person to person.

Providing face-to-face services typically costs 60 times as much as on-line and telephone help costs 7-15x more. That means it is important to ensure that face-to-face and telephone help is available for those who really want and need it, without the channels being clogged with people who would actually prefer to be served in other ways.

I am convinced that parents need support 24 hours a day. The night hours can be the hardest.

We are going to have to become much better at measuring performance – we have to be able to measure the changes to people’s lives that we bring about, and then report these easily and effectively, in order to compete for resources. Perhaps it is a good thing for families if services that cannot do this efficiently are replaced by those that can?

Many of the organisations that have thrived in the last 10 years have done so because their business model was well adapted to and reliant on large quantities of public sector funding. The total change in funding environment will require the evolution of very different business models and organisational structures. I wonder if this is where we will find the biggest obstacles to rapid progress.

These issues of accessibility and business viability have been close to my heart for years and I relish the new opportunity to contribute to progress in this sector.

If you would like to talk to me about these matters, do email me duncan.fishe[email protected]ectassist.co.uk or call me on 07950 028704.

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