Life aims to support and empower families in chronic crisis to develop their capabilities and build the lives they want to lead.
The Life Programme represents a unique approach to working with families in chronic crisis. Often positioned as groundbreaking, in reality it is a common sense new application of resources, within systems that don’t always work that way.
The Life Programme started in Swindon, where they realised their services were not producing positive results for some families. One Swindon (a local partnership between Swindon Borough Council and other agencies, such as police, probation etc) partnered with us to develop a new approach.
The first part of the project involved the Participle team getting to know families identified by Swindon as being in chronic crisis. We spent time living alongside families in the local community – eating together, shopping together, looking for children in the middle of the night together – and also shadowed frontline staff working with the families. The aim of this intensive research phase was to better understand the lived reality of both families and workers.
From this emerged various insights with four key messages.
The first was about how entrenched the difficulties and histories of service involvement were for these families. For example, while tracing one family’s interactions with the council, we discovered that over 18 years, there had been no real change in their circumstances, just many cycles of repeated crisis and intervention.
The second insight was about time. Looking at one worker’s engagement with a teenager on their caseload, we were able to plot that 74% of their time was spent on administration, 12% supporting the teenager indirectly through liaison with other agencies, and 14% in the family home. What’s more, the majority of this ‘direct’ time was spent collecting information and data to fulfil the reporting duties in the 74%.
The third insight was about the barriers erected between families and workers. We found that the services working with families were not designed around the realities and needs of family life but to fulfil a specific agency agenda, often explained to families in alienating and professionalised jargon. Most of the agencies involved with families in chronic crisis had an enforcement-led approach, which left families feeling defensive, isolated, oppressed and exhausted with no safe space to ask for help. We found many fantastic and motivated workers but they often felt overwhelmed and constrained by systems. Sometimes they could be so keen to help families that there was an emphasis on doing for and to, rather than doing with; rescuing rather than empowerment.
The final insight was that although these families were costing services a huge amount of money, £250,000 being a conservative estimate of the annual service spend for the most troubled families, very little of this was being invested in opportunities for change, developing capabilities or building support networks. We pictured this as a gyroscope, with lots of activities and services swirling around families, but the family themselves stuck relatively unchanged in the middle.
With the backing of One Swindon’s Senior Management Team, Life was developed as a successful pilot project, co-created with families themselves, with the aim of creating more productive and beneficial relationships between families and the system.
The Life Approach
As both families and the key workers who visit them will know, the way the system currently works with families can leave much to be desired. Bureaucratic requirements mean that, on average, 80% of key workers’ time is spent on admin and only 20% actually with the families. Much of that 20% is also devoted to assessments. This can mean that frontline workers end up spending the majority of their time on the system itself, rather than in building the kind of relationships that open people to change and address causes rather than symptoms. In addition to this, most interventions focus on one family member and in relation to only one aspect of the problem – neglect, alcohol abuse, violence, etc. This serves the needs of the system, not the whole family.
We believe that what is needed is a new relationship with families that starts from a different place and supports transformation. Life is therefore not just about families and workers, but also about wider services and local authority partnerships.
The Life Team
Life is an opportunity for frontline workers to discover and develop an approach to supporting families in chronic crisis that focuses on relationships and capabilities.
The Life Programme aims to free up frontline workers from excessive bureaucracy and siloed service delivery. Instead, it enables them to have the time and space to get to know and support families with what’s really going on in their lives. Life Team members are recruited for their personal qualities and professional skills and use their insight and creativity to build relationships that support change and find solutions that work for and with families.
Life team members think beyond standard assumptions, both about the people they work with and about themselves. They aim to leave rigid professional constraints behind and bring their real selves to the work they do. Rather than treating people like problems that can somehow never be solved, they seek to build compassionate and constructive relationships,working together as a reflective team around the whole family.
Watch the video below for an idea of what makes Life different for the Team:
Life is an opportunity for the whole family. The Life Programme was designed with a group of families who were fed up of being labelled as problems and wanted to prove they could make things happen. The film below is made by the first families involved, who wanted to share their journey with other families.
Life Programmes start with an invitation. The Life Team are a dedicated team of workers who have come together to support families in a new way. We ask local authorities to nominate families that they think would most benefit from the Life Programme and then visit in person to listen to what families have to say and talk to them about how Life works.
We believe that families are the experts in their own lives, so the first thing the team has to do is get to know each family and understand what works for them. We call the first phase of the programme “invitation” as it is just that: it’s about spending time together, developing trust and building a relationship that will genuinely support change. It also gives families the chance to decide if Life is right for them. Being open to change is an important criteria for the programme, as in our experience change is only possible and sustainable if it is chosen.
We have found that a crisis point can often be an opportunity to engage but the most important thing is that the family are open to change. Part of the Life invitation process is a fun activity, chosen by the family and planned by the team and family together. It could be a picnic in the park, a trip to the zoo, an outward-bound activity or a takeaway pizza in the living room. What matters is that it helps everyone get to know each other, gives the family an experience of choice, responsibility and a different kind of working relationship, and starts the Life Programme journey with a positive experience.
A series of simple and practical bespoke tools have been developed within the Life Programme that support and track the work with families. These tools help ensure that difficult conversations happen, plans are made and reflective change happens at all stages of the work. These Life tools are gatekeepers between the programme stages, as well as helping with recording process amongst the families.
We are often asked about these tools and are happy to share the core Life tool, the Talking Triangle. You can download a copy of the Talking Triangle tool here and some further information and feedback from families on using the tool here.
We have produced a report on the Life Programme to offer up Participle’s reflections on our work and share the lessons we have learnt with others in the sector. The first part of the report describes the iterative way that Life was developed in partnership with families and services and the second part of the report contains case studies of each Life Programme, along with some family stories and feedback from team and family members. Originally written in 2013, we have added in a 2014 update on our work and learning. We hope that this report sparks discussion and interest. You can download the report here.