Providing social workers with discretionary budgets resulted in creative solutions to help children, young people and families, new study finds

02 April 2020

Social workers in three local authorities spent money on home improvements, therapeutic interventions and trips to restaurants and cafes to help children, young people and families at risk of entering care, as part of a pilot project run by What Works for Children’s Social Care and Cardiff University. The study credits the use of devolved budgets as beneficial for children, families and social workers.

The research found that spending fell into three main categories:

  1. Practical, material and financial – providing items such as bedding and clothing, home improvements and help with rent arrears
  2. Therapeutic – providing therapeutic services that would not otherwise be available or would have involved a long waiting time, such as psychological assessments, or counselling for children or parents
  3. Relationship building – providing activities and opportunities for children and young people to build a connection with their social worker, or for families to spend quality time together

Though money was used to provide some high-cost goods and services – a car, caravan, respite care – the study found that social workers were putting relatively modest sums of money to good use. Social workers reported that small sums of money, spent on activities like go-karting and meals out, allowed them to build a relationship with children and young people, “as a person, not just a social worker”.

The study found that, after some initial reticence, social workers thrived when given the autonomy to administer the budgets. Those involved were empowered to engage in creative ways to quickly address challenges. The social workers participating in the project were careful and prudent with the budgets – considering purchases that would help the children and families and have sustainable impact.

The report recommends that local authorities consider enabling social workers to exercise freedom to make spending decisions, for instance with small amounts of money, whether or not they implement devolved budgets, as trialled in the project.

The report also recommends further research into how using the money in different ways many help and support children and families facing different risks and challenges. In this project, many of the most creative uses of the budgets were where the level of concern was less serious and children were not at risk of entering care imminently.

Michael Sanders, Executive Director of What Works for Children’s Social Care, said: 

I’m pleased to see the results released today. The findings from the three pilots areas give us a strong indication that giving social workers professional autonomy can pay dividends in terms of their practice and relationships with families, helping young people to get the support they need. 

David Westlake, Research Fellow, CASCADE at Cardiff University, said

We genuinely didn’t know how devolved budgets would be used when the pilots began, so it was an exciting project to be involved with. Most of all, it was a privilege to see how creative social workers can be when given the resources and autonomy to help children and families. I hope the findings contribute to a wider debate about what social workers need to make a difference