Families > The Life Programme

In 2008, Participle was approached by Swindon Council to develop a new approach to stop the cycle of crisis for a small number of families that seemed to be falling through the gaps of existing service provision. While the number of families were small, the cost implications of their problems were large, and the cyclical nature of the problem was worrying.

We asked: How could we support these families to end this cycle?

The families we worked with in the Life Programme were characterised by complex inter-generational issues of neglect and deprivation. They were typically involved with multiple government agencies, each making interventions with little or no coordination with other departments.

In the development phase, we spent 8 weeks with these families experiencing their lived realities. At the same time, we made a study of the frontline workers involved with these families, and found that 74% of their time was dedicated to administration work with only 14% of their time spent face-to-face with those they supported, and much of that focused on data gathering. Aside from its ineffectiveness, neither the frontline workers nor the families felt content or empowered in this system.

We saw these commonalities across the families we spent time with:

All the families we met were isolated and often lacked connection to their extended families and the wider community including their neighbours, the latter due to poor behaviour of their children.

Little time and space 
Their lives were full and busy (engagement with government agencies) and physical space often cramped. There was little space to reflect on life, a lack of perspective on the severity of what they were living with and little lived experience of other realities.

We saw the barrier between the families and those that work with them, each side feeling negative about the other which meant communication was difficult.

Living in the now
Many of the families were forced to live in a reactive way, in the moment with little space to think forwards, to plan, to make proactive choices and ultimately be in control.

Positive investment 
With so much time spent doing admin work and monitoring families, little time was left to do developmental work with families further reinforcing the reactive nature of life.

Currency in crisis 
The families we met were described as chaotic but life didn’t feel chaotic for the families- this is how life has always been and it was glue that held them together.

The Life Programme was delivered by multidisciplinary teams in each location, all of whom were recruited based on their desire and ability to work with families openly and honestly, building trusting relationships. Families were invited, rather than mandated, to participate. Once they accepted, they got to choose which Life Team member they wanted to work with, although the entire team was available for support at any time (a team around the family rather than a key worker approach).

The programme was based on 4 broad stages:

  • Invitation - opening families to change
  • Aspirations - building a plan of what a better life might look like
  • Activities - developing and practicing core capabilities around relationships, working and learning, health and wellbeing, and living in the community
  • Opportunities - sustaining independence and building social support networks

The Life Teams were based in a house on the same estates or neighbourhoods as the families they supported. In addition to several conversation and reflection tools developed, all progress was logged online in a Life Board, which families had access to as well as team members. As the Life Board was used in real time in sessions with the families, this cut down on the amount of time spent recording notes and progress, reducing administration.

We took the Life programme to four different locations in the UK. Our work with families in crisis helped to shape the political conversation on this topic in the UK. In 2011, the Troubled Families Unit was formed, with the aim of rewarding local authorities who hit certain targets on a payment-by-results mechanism. While we were happy to see the issue being given the importance it deserves, this system focuses on short-term results over deep, long-term changes and the selection criteria often leaves out those families with the most complex challenges who we had been working with.

Although cost savings are never the only reason for local authorities to implement the Life Programme, they are always part of the conversation. These are complex to calculate as the number of people we worked with was small, and local authorities cannot immediately ‘cash’ the savings represented by preventing someone from entering prison or preventing a child from being taken into care.

With those caveats, the Life Programme working, for example, in Wigan for 1 year with 50 families saw an estimated £132,802 cost savings. Over all four regions and 3.5 years, we estimate total direct savings were £727,890.

Of course, these are only the short term savings; those that might accrue over the next ten years have yet to be calculated. Recent testimony from Wigan shows that savings have continued to grow.

This work had wider reach than we anticipated and influenced our partners and the way they work. You can read more about this and our broader impact in our learning report.