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Funding Soundbites

Marion MacLeod

The Scottish Government recently published its evaluation of the ‘Whole Family Wellbeing Fund’ one of its latest tranches of funding for small, time-limited projects. Irrespective of the merits or otherwise of some of the activities carried out under this banner. We have been down this road many times, albeit under slightly different branding. Benjamin Franklin (or possibly Albert Einstein, though most likely neither) is reputed to have defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

The road to hell may be paved with good intentions but the road to wasting public money is littered with short-term projects, time-limited pots of money, grant aid rather than core funding and scattergun approaches to disbursement rather than building a firm foundation of publicly owned and democratically accountable services, based on the best available evidence of what is effective and efficient. The number of such flagship funds, initiatives and projects that have been launched amid great fanfares only to be languishing, wrecked and forgotten, on the seabed a few years down the line are too many to list. They have, however, collectively and systematically, consumed millions of pounds of public funds while failing to achieve anything that might remotely resemble the kind of systemic change needed to resolve the problems facing children and their families in their daily lives.

This evaluation focuses largely on process. This seems to be the prevailing modus operandi for evaluating the application of public money these days in Scotland. Possibly establishing how much good has been done is either too complicated or the findings would be too embarrassing. Even within its thereby limited brief, the evaluation methodology appears to be based almost entirely on self-reporting with no meaningful reference to context and no objective assessment of actual or potential impact.

It is interesting to note that the key objectives of the Fund seem to replicate those of many ‘ground-breaking’ initiatives, ‘flagship’ policies and ‘transformative’ strategies over the years. This begs the question as to why these goals remain unachieved despite the huge sums of money invested in them and the apparent political commitment to their achievement. It is frankly astonishing that ‘Year 1 is about the exploration and understanding of children (sic) services as a “complex system”’ after decades of similarly poised initiatives, not to mention the mountain of research evidence that should have provided some clues about where to start.

One of the answers probably relates to the matter of ‘apparent’, as opposed to actual, political commitment and will. Politicians are interested in big publicity and big promises. Putting in the hard work and committing the necessary resources to make these promises reality is much less glamorous and attracts much less media interest. Since the government at national level is never directly responsible for delivery, failure can be laid at someone else’s door (usually that of local authorities). By the time the next election comes around there are new headlines to be grabbed and shiny new promises to be polished up.

The descriptions of work carried out are largely dispiriting. Asking people who need information and support about system design seems to be another case of fiddling while Rome is burning. Available funds should be spent on giving them the help they need, not on asking them to do the job that many professionals are highly paid to do. People are far more concerned that they are waiting two years for a hip replacement than they are to be ‘engaged’ in the process of designing surgical interventions. Infrastructure seems to have been given as much priority as actual service. This is not to say that none of the work carried out with the Fund is useful, though quite a number of activities seem to be reincarnations of approaches that have come and gone (sometimes several times over) through the years. Some of the approaches mentioned in the report, though not explained in any great detail, seem worthwhile initiatives that are moving services towards the preventative community-based models Common Weal has advocated in Caring for All and associated policy papers. The Fife 24-hour support service (p25), the North Ayrshire Family Centred Wellbeing Service (p29) and the South Lanarkshire Early Help Hubs (p37) appear to be based on evidence and responsive to need and it would have been helpful if the report had conveyed more fully the methods and impact of these services.

Even where positive change for children and their families is being achieved, however, it is woefully under-ambitious, precariously funded, frequently not based on the best (or sometimes on any) evidence, lacks organisational cohesion and fails to address the need for radical and comprehensive systemic change. It is appalling that, decades on from the inception of community planning and partnership in children’s services that we are still ‘developing structures and governance’. If this is still work in progress, someone should be held accountable for wasting the millions that have already been poured into it.

We need evaluations that tell us whether the money invested is doing enough good and reaching the right people. It is almost farcical that one respondent stated that there were ‘no clear success criteria or dataset’. If a service is achieving the most positive and sustainable change, do more of it and stop doing the other things that are less effective. If it is not, stop doing it immediately. Funding lots of ‘projects’ may be good for soundbites and photo opportunities but they do little, ultimately to change lives.

There is nothing wrong with building on our core public services, though doing so will probably not make headline news. We know what is wrong and we know how to put it right. Service planning and development should be based on the wealth of evidence, knowledge and experience already available to us, not on of some kind of treasure hunt for magic solutions. What we need to be evaluating is the impact on real lives, not on how frequently people on six figure salaries sit in a room together.

2 thoughts on “Funding Soundbites”

  1. The truth is, just under half of our population is in paid employment. Of course we have children are retired people in our population accounting for a large number of those not in employment but even if we consider just those between 16 and 65, only three quarters of these people are in employment. Considering that getting people into employment is one of the most effective ways of improving living standards and lifting people out of poverty, this should be a central focus of government policy. Short-term ‘initiatives’ are not what is needed – long term strategy and delivery is essential.

  2. The truth is there are many reasons why people of working age may not be ‘economically active’ – i.e. in paid employment or actively seeking work – and there is very little that government is able, or willing, to do about it.

    Large numbers of people, especially those aged 16 and 25, are in full-time education or training; many stay at home to look after children, or to care for sick and/or elderly relatives; many more are unable to work through disability or long-term illness; a substantial number prefer early retirement, even some who incur a substantial drop in income as a result; and many people are simply discouraged or disillusioned, through long-term unemployment, lack of suitable or stable employment, poor conditions and terrible pay, and for many other complex and seemingly intractable problems.

    The truth is that many people in work in Scotland have dire living standards, and that for most even those are falling. Even if, by some miracle, the Scottish Government managed to develop and implement policies to raise the participation rate – which fell sharply in the UK after the Covid pandemonium and even now remains a full percentage point below pre-Covid level – it would not remove the desperate need for well-funded, well-resourced, and well-directed services for children.

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