This evaluation explored how ‘devolved budgets’ might be used by Children’s Social Care to provide resources to families and reduce the need for care. A devolved budget is a financial resource that is made available to social workers to spend with families. The idea is that social workers and families are best placed to know what help is needed to make sustainable changes and keep children safely at home.
Pilots in Hillingdon, Darlington and Wigan offer insights about different approaches to implementing devolved budgets. Hillingdon used the funds to help adolescents, mainly those at risk of extra-familial harms related to various forms of exploitation. Darlington worked with families with children who were at risk of care entry. Wigan used devolved budgets with families where the goal was reunification from care, and families where children were at high risk of entering care. Decision-making about expenditure was devolved to frontline social workers to some extent in all three pilots.
We aimed to understand the nature and feasibility of devolved budgets, including how and why they were used. We also explored the challenges and opportunities of working in this way, in order to identify evidence of promise and impact.
How we went about it
We used a mixed methods approach to develop an initial theory about how devolved budgets are used and what outcomes they might lead to. This drew upon qualitative and quantitative data from all three local authority pilots. We analysed data from administrative records and questionnaires, and we undertook a range of interviews, practice observations and focus groups involving practitioners, managers and service users.
- All the pilots were successful in devolving decision making to social workers, and processes supported them to provide resources to families quickly and without bureaucracy.
- Budgets were used for a wide variety of purposes and in creative ways. This included material, practical and financial help, activities to support engagement with young people, and therapeutic support.
- There were clear benefits for children and families, and perspectives on the intervention were broadly positive. There was evidence of collaborative working that involved families, but most workers did not tell families how much resource was available. Some families wanted more of a say about how resources were used.
- The rate and amount of spending was lower than expected in all three pilots, and many of the children and families involved do not seem to have been at risk of entering care imminently.
Our findings suggest that the intervention is worth exploring and evaluating further. There are also implications for children’s social care more broadly – as aspects of what was done in these pilots could be adopted by other local authorities. For example, giving social workers the freedom to make spending decisions more autonomously is likely to save workers and managers valuable time, and ensure help reaches families more quickly.
We need to know more about the various ways budgets are used and the outcomes that we might expect to see. It would be worthwhile to develop the intervention to target more specific needs, and to explore how it can be used in situations where children are at high risk, to help reduce the need for them to enter care.