Social service research: Innovations as illustrative examples for a new generation of social services
These innovation examples are time-specific and came about as a result of particular circumstances in Birmingham and more general problems caused by the current financial climate. However, there were some overall key approaches and instruments adopted by the innovations. In terms of how service users’ needs were addressed, there was a trend towards investing in capabilities rather than targeting deficits. The labour market innovations in particular focussed on personal development and developing individual ideas and talents.
There were also attempts to bridge the gaps, bringing services closer to the communities they were trying to engage with such as targeting particular neighbourhood areas. The innovations adopted a holistic approach with service offers that connect, the idea being that it was rare for service users to have only one issue to deal with at any one time.
Personalising support was also a key feature. The labour market innovations adopted a strong client-focused approach addressing the needs of specific individuals. There was also an example of providing ad hoc transfers beyond fixed entitlements; TDHP provided a combination of cash with individual support to help with the transition from benefits to work.
Some of the innovations involved innovations in public governance. The locality approach to unemployment for example involved city-wide support, localised decision-making and encouraged the third sector to participate. The BMHT involved a closer relationship between the public and private sector.
There are features that point to the links between the innovations and post-traditional welfare concepts, for example the labour market innovations described here are examples of an enabling welfare state with their focus on individual strengths and the YEER project in integrating economic and social development through stimulating entrepreneurialism, social enterprise and start-ups, is an example of a social investment perspective on public welfare.
Researching innovation and change on the local level: The importance of the local context
The local context is of central importance and local welfare policies in Birmingham had been underpinned by a focus on community cohesion, devolution or localism and social inclusion over the past few years. Politically there was overall consistency of references and values and agreement on social problems. There was a slightly different approach to solutions but social policy was developed through a largely consensus-oriented approach.
Birmingham was viewed as having non-conformity “built into its DNA” and a history of looking at different ways to deal with social issues. Local stakeholders believed there was a tradition of supporting unorthodox ideas. However, there was little opportunity for individuals or smaller organisations to develop innovations without the support of local government who saw themselves as an “enabler, a policymaker and a funder”.
Researching the role of innovations in local politics and governance
In terms of impact, all innovations were perceived as successful by local stakeholders. The labour market approach and projects were evaluated as part of a review of the wider funding stream, which included measurement against targets set and the views of those involved were captured. Some of the projects received positive attention from other local areas and from central government or won awards from national bodies.
There is little evidence to suggest that the innovation ideas were adopted from elsewhere, the small-scale projects identified a need (for example YEER conducted focus groups with young people) and designed a service to meet that need. The IES element of the locality approach came out of a national review of skills and Birmingham was one of the trial areas for the model initiated by central government (who then continued with it to underpin the approach to unemployment). The focus on local areas and involving the community had more to do with learning from the implementation of other central government programmes in the city such as the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund than ideas from elsewhere.
Some of the projects were perceived as a success but were still vulnerable; once grant funding was withdrawn, there was no mainstreaming of services. One of the organisations that delivered one of the projects exists, but is no longer funded to deliver the project; however, another went into administration after 30 years of delivering services in Birmingham. The locality approach to unemployment continues in some areas but not as originally intended due to a reduction in neighbourhood resources. The employment-based projects were intended to be time-limited, pilot projects and were small in scale, which meant the opportunity for scaling up was always going to be limited. In terms of legacy, the projects are part of best practice guidance produced by the local strategic partnership for the design, delivery and learning from new projects. The benefit support and the home-building projects continue but these have local authority involvement in their direct delivery.