Ground control: Breaking through a new frontier in personal budgets
Increasingly, when a new report is launched on public services, the question I find myself asking is, “Do people feel more in control of their public services than, say, ten years ago?” In amongst technicalities on national and local configurations, devolving funding pots and defining payment mechanisms, are we moving closer to a system where people feel things are being done with them – or done to them? It seems this sentiment about choice, control and personalisation has come in and out of fashion across different government departments and political priorities over recent years, yet little measurable progress has been made. Perhaps this is largely due to the fact that personalisation is perceived as “a good thing” as opposed to a proven way to deliver effective support in the UK.
This is why Reform’s report this week 'Proceed with caution: What makes personal budgets work?' is an important contribution to moving this policy area forwards. It doesn’t accept a particular standpoint. Instead, it proposes that we find the answers through trial and evaluation – moving from existing piecemeal personal budgets to a robust, scalable system across different policy areas. It also realises that a coordinated concerted effort is needed to make this happen.
Reform’s new report looks at how personal budgets have already been used to deliver public services in the UK, as well as different areas where they could deliver value such as education and employment support. The report doesn’t shy away from the challenges inherent in trying to change the system, rather, it provides practical recommendations on their effective implementation. There is a temptation, even from personal budgets evangelists, to put all of this in the “too difficult” box now, with other government priorities needing to be tackled. However, we shouldn’t accept the status quo. The public services people receive – often the people who need support the most – too frequently operate in inefficient and sometimes counterproductive silos. We know that people’s lives don’t work along service lines; we know that people are best supported by holistic services that are mutually supportive, not tangled to the point of paralysis. We need to start by proving or disproving the case for personal budgets and building from there.
Taking one of our areas of expertise at Impetus-PEF, helping jobseekers out of unemployment, the report’s recommendation to repurpose the DWP’s Flexible Support Fund (FSF) is a natural jumping off point. As it stands, this multi million pound pot of funding is designated for the use of Work Coaches to find support that fits a claimant’s individual needs. However, this fund is chronically underspent year on year and its effectiveness is never monitored. Improving transparency around the fund would be an obvious improvement - for example, which individuals benefit, what types of services are purchased and how it impacts employment outcomes.
The next step is to ringfence a portion of FSF in a small number of jobcentres with a group of claimants who have support needs. Each jobseeker would be able use their portion of funding as a personal budget to directly choose and purchase their provision from the system. The enabling capabilities of data and technology could also be tested, turning jobseekers from passive recipients to active participants, shaping flexible support to help them towards or in to employment. Both hard and soft outcomes could be success measures in these pilots, contributing to the evidence base around employment support.
At Impetus-PEF, we are driven by understanding what works, supporting our charity partners to evidence their impacts and scaling the best frontline support across the UK. In helping to transform the lives of disadvantaged young people, we know that support needs be shaped around people, not systems. By better understanding the role that personal budgets can play, the government can test whether providing people with support how they want, where they choose and when they need it, provides tangible benefits or not. And, if we can make services work better for the people who need it, we can look to improve outcomes across society, from education to employment, health and reoffending. Policymakers need to keep striving towards better public services and asking the hard questions – Reform’s new report sets them out to be answered.
Samantha is Director of Policy at Impetus-PEF and an advisory board member for Reform's report 'Proceed with caution: What makes Personal Budgets work?'