Whole system approach to young people who offend: evaluation

An evaluation of our Whole System Approach (WSA) to young people who offend in Scotland.

5. Opportunities and Challenges for the Sustainability of the WSA

In this part of the Report, we focus upon the opportunities that are available to prospective WSA adopters; drawing on information concerning how practitioners have grasped the opportunities presented by the WSA way of working, and overcome some of the challenges outlined in the previous section. Discussion here is aimed at addressing Objective 2 (establishing what is working well and less well towards self-sustainability in the case study areas, and why); and Objective 6 (to establish the lessons learnt for informed sustainability of the WSA and to share these more widely). In particular, the effect of partner co-location and the development of dedicated WSA roles are discussed as mechanisms through which to promote WSA efficacy. This section concludes with a discussion of how these factors help sustain WSA practices as well as their capacity to facilitate possible expansion in the scope of WSA.

5.1 Sustaining the WSA ethos

Throughout the evaluation, practitioners highlighted the value of multi-agency working and information sharing, and the ways in which this promotes better outcomes for young people. The WSA 'brand' is considered to be important, as one practitioner put it, "a useful umbrella term", and a way of maintaining "buy-in", keeping different social work teams and partners on board with the core WSA values, which relate closely to the GIRFEC values. However it was also evident that agency "buy-in" to WSA policy and practice cannot be assumed, nor is the WSA the only approach to youth offending in Scotland.

Practitioners also highlighted the importance of public perceptions and public buy-in to the WSA. For example, practitioners from a range of agencies commented on how the WSA more broadly might be perceived as a 'soft option' by the public. Good communication was seen as crucial in this respect, for example, by explaining to communities or individuals affected by youth offending that action was being taken. Again, on-going work will be required to shore-up and sustain public support for the WSA approach.

Whilst the WSA focus on linked up working partnership was commended by partners across each authority, to some extent, public credibility and community understanding remained an issue. Ongoing work will be required to promote and sustain WSA values across and within partner agencies, particularly if there are future changes to working arrangements, for example, if WSA resources and responsibilities are allocated to different agencies or partners.

5.2 Shared Learning

It is clear that the adoption of the WSA approach in each case study area has provided an excellent opportunity for shared learning, which in turn has facilitated better understanding of the role, remits, and responsibilities of the multiple partners involved in the delivery of the WSA. Importantly, the WSA promotes face-to-face working, which is seen as key to the smooth operation of the process. Face-to-face work also enables WSA values to be communicated more successfully, better facilitating cultural change:

"We did an amazing amount of face-to-face briefings with officers. [Emails and briefings] didn't cut it for such a big cultural change… We would talk to probationers, any new probationer classes coming in… We had to capture a lot of cops who were used to certain processes [with] certain attitudes towards young people who offended." (Police officer)

According to some practitioners, the WSA enables partners to 'work smarter', drawing on the resources and skills of other agencies: this is directly linked to meeting partners face-to-face. Describing how such partnership working accelerates shared learning, one practitioner comments how the WSA:

"Opens your eyes to what's there... You get into the situation where you start to understand why people are there, what their role is and what their job does, where it fits into the system and you know if you need to speak with them again, you can do it."

That said, access to resources and services is uneven between local authorities. For example, there is limited third sector presence in Authority C. In order to address these inconsistencies, there may be value in considering the options for sharing services across different areas.

5.3 Resources and Funding

The WSA is resource heavy, specifically in terms of sustaining ongoing (often face-to-face) communication between a wide range of partners, the need for ongoing training, and the management of large amounts of information. Most (but not all) practitioners expressed concern in relation to funding and the availablity of resources, both currently and in the future. These concerns were exacerbated by the varying demands placed on authorities (the flow of police charges), and the multi-agency nature of the WSA, which meant that financial pressure experienced by one partner could have a knock-on effect on others. There was particular concern that, in an era of increasing austerity, the fall in crime and a reduction in the number of referrals for young people might weaken the position of the WSA within local authorities.

Having relied on minimal additional funds to establish and embed WSA into their youth justice practices, Authority A appeared to be the most resilient to budgetary pressures, to the extent that they had adapted their services and widened their client pool by extending the WSA to target a broadet range of age-groups (up to age 21). This authority also benefitted from relatively low case numbers, and a strong third sector presence. However, practitioners in Authority A were just as concerned as others about sustainability:

"Money is tight everywhere across the Council and social work is such a huge section of that. They want to make savings everywhere and if you don't really understand why we're doing what we're doing then it makes it easier to cut"

Increased information-sharing about working with young people, and better promotion/education of the advantages of the WSA to partner organisations and, perhaps more pertinently, Councils, is one potential method to achieve sustainability.

In Authority B, practitioners felt that even with established systems in place, the current pressure on resources posed a real threat to the future of the WSA. In particular, financial pressure placed on Education was viewed as a threat to the effective functioning of the WSA, potentially affecting the services available, and the capacity for information-sharing; for example, the resources to review cases and attend PRS meetings.

The impact of funding arrangements were most acutely felt in Authority C. For a 15 month period, a dedicated WSA team, funded by the Scottish Government, was on duty every day. Following the cessation of seed funding, three generic social work teams took on the WSA remit. However, it was felt that the loss of specialist resources had resulted in a loss of control in relation to case management, and a less consistent approach to dealing with youth offending, where cases were dispersed amongst generic social work area teams.

"You can see the ones that don't get such good service… because they get taken off supervision quicker than they should, and then they're in the justice system and they're much more vulnerable. I would say that's been the biggest threat; the service's loss of the social worker." (Social Worker)

A senior manager commented on how the local authority adapted to the loss of their dedicated WSA team, reiterating the importance of the presence of motivated and 'championing' personnel:

"We realised that losing the qualified worker within the team there was going to be a difference, but we had the commitment from the local authority to actually say we will still get that bit in terms of a social worker who is carrying the case will still be able to fulfil some of the roles: realistically it's no happening that way, and again a lot of that's to do with a social worker who doesn't particularly have the departed qualified social worker's level of motivation, isn't going to provide the same response as him… We are recognizing that, other senior social workers are recognising that, and there have been discussion about how we are moving forward with our Family and Youth services review and looking at whether we create qualified posts within these teams to actually undertake that particular piece of work, because it did make a difference".

Below, a practitioner in Authority C comments on the decision to invest in a dedicated team, rather than processes. The comments highlight the precariousness of WSA funding, and also describe how a dedicated team could benefit the local authority:

"The funding for [the] team was completely from the Scottish Government, and I think Authority C… were hoping that by the end of the funding they'd have enough money to keep us all on. So, that was the aspiration at the time. And I think just because of the climate, they weren't able to release as much funding from other places as they hoped they were going to be able to. So if [we were] to get some social workers back, that's going to have to be social workers lost from the area team. But the shadowing point is, look: give us a couple of social workers and [we'll] take the most difficult cases, the ones that you don't want to deal with, or your team aren't very good at dealing with".

5.4 Championing

The term 'champion' can be applied to each of the WSA leads in Authorities A, B and C, in that they have played a critical role in establishing WSA principles in each of their distinctive contexts and advocating its use. However, the championing of WSA approach and processes is not restricted to the WSA leads; it is also evident in the vocational nature of the engagement displayed by WSA dedicated social workers. Acting as a personal champion promotes what one social work manager described as "seamlessness" continuity in regard to the service provided. In practice, this meant ensuring, where possible, the existence of a primary case worker with whom a trusting relationship could be developed:

"It just kind of streamlines what was already in place and means that the most appropriate person is doing all the work with that young person." (Social Worker)

Champions are as important on the ground as they are as figureheads. Firstly, they sustain the ethos of WSA amidst less enthused partners or those with different remits or working practices. For example, as one WSA practitioner noted, this can counteract potential tensions with more generic social work teams:

"We were working with young people who would [also] be working with Children and Families and the minute they were 16 it was 'that's it finished, goodbye', but we would keep those young people, and they knew we would keep those young people because that was our ethos: we wanted to work with them".

Secondly, champions engage more effectively with the young people in question, encouraging their 'buy in' to the approach. As a social worker comments:

"You need some degree of credibility with the person that comes in… I know young people assess very quickly visually. So somebody comes in the door, makes something up, it might be right or wrong, but within seconds their ability to then talk to that person is affected. So you want people who they can engage with quite quickly".

Authority A's mentoring service is an example of vocational engagement, where social work attaches a mentor from the community to a young person whenever they feel it would benefit the young person:

"Previously the mentors would be working with maybe younger clients, a little bit of extra support: evenings, weekends, doing activities. Now we're working with older clients; they're maybe coming through Diversion, or Court Support, and then I would put in a mentor. These young people would previously not have been able to access any extra support." (Social Worker)

This service works to assist young people to transition into independence, incorporating the WSA ethos that young people require extended support, particularly beyond age 16:

"Their mentors are maybe helping them with employment issues, college applications, any kind of issues that are happening with housing." (Social Worker)

The service provides the intensive mentoring support that more complex cases require, in many ways similar to a third sector service provider:

"They're local people. They get paid, they're not volunteers, and we would expect them to get paid because they're doing some pretty challenging things but they stay for the right reasons, they're with us for a long time and they do it because they love it." (Social Worker)

One WSA lead spoke of the need to disseminate the WSA ethos amongst youth justice partners, so as to futureproof against the precarious reliance upon a single champion:

"We've got a good model, a good way of working, and we've managed to sustain that in [Authority] because we've had clear strategies and they've been signed off and agreed. I think that's been our saving grace. I'm not trying to be immodest, but a lot of it has also been down to my leadership, but the service we have shouldn't be dependent on one strong person, one strong voice."

Practitioners in one authority unanimously praised their WSA lead; but were also confident in the robust processes established which alllowed the WSA to function effectively in their absence.

In Authority C, a practitioner who had experienced the shift from working in a dedicated WSA team to being part of a generic local area team described how the WSA ethos was diluted as a result:

"Now it's diluted a bit, because you've got some intensive family support cases, some EEI work, some RaMPS [Reparation and Mediation/Parent Support] some diversion. But you've got all these other bits you're doing now and it's a bit more diluted from what it used to be. Whole Systems is very much more to do with offending and youth justice, whereas those other jobs are not so much."

The long term sustainability of WSA in any given authority is predicated upon staff expertise and their dedication to the WSA ethos, as well as diversifying its sources of influence. Continuity of personnel was perceived as beneficial to working relationships, and enabling knowledge to accumulate over time. A social worker in one authority provides one such instance:

"I think sometimes having the same face around helps. For the first two and a half years that we ran the TAC we had a police officer, a designated sergeant, who came every month and that enabled us to get off the ground and actually become very, very successful in managing the young people locally. Then he moved to another part of the neighbourhood, or division, so he couldn't come to our meetings anymore and then we had somebody who came for a year and then we had somebody else came for about 18 months. They just seemed to be moving around quite a lot and over the last ten months anyway, we really haven't had a consistent figure and it's been whoever's been available that's come along."

This may be easier said than done and demonstrates the importance of establishing processes so as not to rely upon any one person to lead. In one authority, the JLO decribed the fluid nature of the WSA arrangements, partly a result of precarious funding streams.

"We'll continue what we do right now, but it's always that revolving thing, of have we got the right folk around the table, and always reassessing that. And when we find an issue that children have, do we have a resource there that can tackle that? And that will just be the ongoing evolution of it".

5.5 Collaboration through Co-location

The successful implementation of the WSA in Authority A is partly premised upon historically healthy partnership working that is characteristic of the comparatively small scale, rural nature of the local authority. In addition to the greater familiarity and, for the most part, continuity of partners which characterises this local authority, the cultural embedding of WSA is furthered through the co-location of partners in one building. The office serves as a hub where seconded police, education, mental health and third sector representatives interact and are able to respond to case needs swiftly and with a more developed understanding of other partners' capabilities and resources.

Scotland has already recognised the benefits of co-location of multiple agencies. For example, West Lothian Civic Centre is a case in point, co-locating Police Scotland, COPFS, SCRA and Community Health and Care offices. Other exemplars include the Gartcosh Crime Campus, Wester Hailes Healthy Living Centre and Renfrew Health and Social Work Centre. Research into co-location of statutory agencies in Scotland found that "fewer than half of those responsible for commissioning and procurement in local authorities ensured that they always or often liaised with other providers to assure continuity of quality and value for money" (Reeder and Aylott, 2012: 12). These concerns are exacerbated in a criminal justice context, where the system possesses "an urgent need for the different parts of the criminal justice system to work closer together. At its simplest, each part of the system has little regard for the consequences of its actions on the other parts" (Reeder and Aylott, 2012: 12).

The amenable conditions of Authority A may not be present in most authorities, but the mechanism of co-location shows a way to better sustain and perpetuate the ethos of WSA, which should not be taken for granted. A Social Work Manager in one authority describes the 'scattergun' approach to referring cases that sometimes occurs; potentially co-location can assist in reducing this as well as promoting the WSA ethos through practice:

"Sometimes social workers are just as guilty of referring in a scattergun approach to anybody and everybody because they've committed an offence or they've maybe got a mental health issue, so it needs to go to CAMHS. Sometimes there's a lot more than just the mental health issue of the offence, there's other stuff there."

Not all agencies are convinced of the benefits of co-location, as this Community Safety practitioner remarked:

"But, I mean, there's strong communication between the teams so it doesn't really matter…if you're all sitting in the one building or you're dispersed, ideologically you're all together anyway, so the guys know that if they're dealing with a particular kid they know exactly who they need to speak to and don't hesitate in doing that, so there is that kind of joined up thinking."

Co-location can facilitate the 'championing' of WSA values and methods within and between partner agencies through close proximity, the development of trusting interpersonal relationships, timeous communications, and the incorporation of multi-agency working into everyday practice. In addition, co-location improves the prospects of sustaining the WSA ethos amongst partners whose wider institutional responsibilities and cultures may be somewhat reticent to the approach, most apparent in interviews from non WSA oriented police officers and social workers.

5.6 Expanding the WSA?

Whilst many interviewees spoke of the desirability of expanding the WSA to include older young people, that is, up to the age of 21 years, in reality this seems far from achievable. Expansion of the WSA approach to incorporate an older age group necessarily requires the continued presence of dedicated and trained WSA staff, as well as political will and resource commitment. Police from one authority warned that they were operating at full capacity, that any form of expansion would require extra resourcing to continue the successes they have made.

Echoing social worker comments on their crisis-led work patterns, a JLO made a similar comment regarding resourcing:

"The police being the police will always find resources to deal with something that needs dealt with there and then. That might be to the cost of more low end stuff, not that there's no urgency, so as long as it's dealt with there's no real issue."

Despite police in one authority describing the absence of adult social care from WSA as a "massive gap" in practice, expansion to include those aged up to 21 year is considered unachievable at present, such that efforts may be best focused upon maintaining the high quality of service for dealing with those up to the age of 17 until changes in resource or restructuring allow for it. As a JLO said:

"We've got a significant volume of referrals every month, it could be anything from 70 to 90 referrals for offending behaviour in that age group every month. Now the disposals are different, and they can fluctuate from month to month obviously, but the work in terms of assessing the referral, quality assuring it, making sure you have the right information to make the decision, make the decision, inform the right that you've made the decision, administrate them into the meeting, into the reports, into whatever disposal you've decided, getting the returns for that, and doing the statistics around that, and ensure that all the relevant databases are updated, already you're thinking that's a lot of work. Double the numbers that you've come in with 18-21 year olds, to what we already do with our young people from 8 - 17. I don't think that's achievable at the moment."

With specific reference to Police Scotland's restructuring, it is important to remember the wider structural and resourcing context influencing decisions taken. Much of this is outwith the WSA's sphere of influence, but inevitably has ramifications for the continuation of present levels of success. One JLO commented:

"It's about maintaining where we've got to now and hopefully continuing that, rather than focusing depleted resources on trying to establish further goals. Because you just can't do more for less sometimes. I think it's about recognition of what is the practical impact of the changes that Police Scotland, of the re-division that locally [Authority] is going to have, that needs to be teased out at a regional level".

5.7 Summary

Overall this section offers some insights into the ways in which practitioners have grasped the opportunities presented by the WSA way of working, and tried to overcome some of the challenges it faces. Key amongst the opportunities are the ways in which the WSA has galvanised closer partnership working and information-sharing, as well as promoting shared learning; although there is a strong recognition by practitioners that maintaining the WSA ethos and practice arrangements require continuous work. The WSA is resource heavy, specifically in terms of sustaining ongoing communication between a wide range of partners, the need for ongoing training, and the management of large amounts of information. It is therefore important that its visibility is maintained and that partners continue to 'buy-in' to the ethos and working practices. Some authorities have effectively promoted the WSA ethos through the work of 'champions' who have acted as WSA advocates; others used co-location as a way of cementing partnerships and creating economies of scale. The variations in both size of area and scale of offending in each local authority demands flexibility in approach and a shared sense of ideology in this regard.


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