Review of Autism Network Scotland

Review to inform the development of any future Autism Network Scotland, or other strategic delivery partner.

Executive Summary

1. This report presents findings from an independent review of Autism Network Scotland. Autism Network Scotland was established in 2012 as one of the implementation vehicles of the Scottish Strategy for Autism, and is funded by the Scottish Government.

Purpose of the review
2. The Scottish Government wished to 'take stock of the role of the Autism Network Scotland and consider its achievements and impacts to date to inform future decisions on the model and funding of such a network'. The purpose of the review was therefore to inform the development of any future Autism Network Scotland (or other such strategic delivery partner), in the context of a retendering exercise which it is anticipated will take place in 2016.

Aims of the review
3. The aims of the review were to: (i) assess the impact of Autism Network Scotland to date (ii) conduct a 'light touch' health check of current governance and financial arrangements (iii) assess the strengths and weaknesses of the current model and iv) consider the future role of such a network, taking into account the needs of stakeholders and the new Scottish Government Outcomes Framework for Autism.

Scottish Strategy for Autism and establishment of Autism Network Scotland
4. The Scottish Strategy for Autism ('the strategy') - announced in November 2011 - set out an agenda for improving the lives of people with autism and their carers. The 10-year strategy was developed by the Scottish Government working in partnership with COSLA. Progress on the implementation of the strategy is overseen by a Governance Group (until May 2014, the ASD Reference Group), supported by three Working Groups.

5. Autism Network Scotland ( ANS) was established in 2012 as one of the implementation vehicles for the strategy. Previous versions of the network had been in existence since 2004.

Autism Network Scotland
6. The network is hosted by the University of Strathclyde and funded by a grant from the Scottish Government. As of January 2016, the grant is equivalent to £420k per annum.

7. The current objectives for ANS are to: (i) deliver a hub of professional autism support (ii) support implementation of autism action plans across Scotland and (iii) provide support to the Scottish Strategy for Autism.

8. The activities of ANS are wide ranging and include: organising and delivering events, establishing and maintaining networks, developing the ANS website, producing newsletters and bulletins, responding to enquiries and signposting, supporting local autism strategies, and supporting the Scottish Strategy for Autism Governance Group and Working Groups.

Methodology for the review
9. A desk based documentary review was undertaken using material provided by both the Scottish Government and ANS staff. The ANS website was also included in the desk based review.

10. Face-to-face interviews were undertaken with all ANS staff and with the financial manager at the University of Strathclyde.

11. Thirty-eight (38) stakeholder interviews were conducted. This comprised 22 stakeholders who are members of the Scottish Strategy for Autism Governance Group and / or one or more of the Working Groups and 16 'wider stakeholders'. This latter group included individuals from local authorities, the NHS, academics, third sector providers and volunteers. Seventeen (17) interviews were undertaken face-to-face with the remaining 21 conducted by telephone.

12. The analysis draws mainly on the documentary review, the views of stakeholders, and the interview with the representative of the University of Strathclyde finance department; the interviews with ANS staff have been used mainly to aid understanding of the role and activities of the network.

13. The conclusions of the review (paragraphs 14-29 below) address the four aims of the review as set out above ( paragraph 3).

Impacts of Autism Network Scotland
14. ANS has achieved a range of positive impacts since its inception in relation to: networking and sharing good practice; provision of information and resources; raising awareness; collaborative working; and (local authority) strategy development. There is clear evidence that the work of ANS is highly valued by professionals, especially those working in local authorities and the NHS.

15. The agenda in relation to 'promoting wider engagement of people with autism and their families in ANS work and in the decision-making process', which was identified as a key objective for ANS by Scottish Government is highly challenging. This is a 'work in progress', and ANS's achievements in relation to this objective is commended.

16. The impacts for people with autism and their families and carers are mostly achieved through indirect means. The scale of any direct impacts is unclear given the lack of specific monitoring information.

Governance and financial arrangements
17. The arrangements for the financial management of the grant to the University of Strathclyde for the hosting and running of the network are well organised and satisfactory. No problems with the arrangement were identified.

18. Since 2012, just two formal monitoring meetings between senior ANS staff and the Scottish Government have taken place. Thus, there has been limited opportunity for discussion of potential strategic developments in relation to ANS. This is a deficit in relation to the governance of the network.

Strengths and weaknesses of the model
19. The main strengths of the current model for Autism Network Scotland which were identified are i) the (Scotland-wide) overview of autism practice and strategy development and ii) the independence of ANS.

20. The Scotland-wide overview was highly valued, and was seen to be a unique feature of the current model. The network was credited with providing a bridge between the national and the local landscape, and with joining up the many and varied activities across Scotland. The benefits for professionals, at whom the activities of the network are most obviously directed, were clearly apparent.

21. The independence of the network was very important to stakeholders, especially those from the public sector, who emphasised the particular benefits of the network not having a commercial role in service provision; however there were also concerns expressed about possible compromise to the network's independence either because of a (potential) new role in service delivery or because of its role as the 'voice' of the Scottish Government in relation to the strategy.

22. The main weaknesses of the current model which were identified are i) the lack of clarity about the remit of ANS and its relationship to the Scottish Strategy for Autism, the Governance Group and the Scottish Government and ii) the insufficient delineation of leadership roles.

23. These weaknesses have led to negative stakeholder perceptions about the governance of the network.

24. Other aspects of the model, in particular i) its hosting arrangements, and ii) its focus on professionals and autism practice are seen as both a strength and a weakness.

Future role of a network (or other delivery mechanism)
25. Achievement of the strategic outcomes identified by the Scottish Government will require a network - or some other organisation - which can provide an overview across Scotland in relation to: effective networking and the sharing of good practice; the provision of high quality information and resources; and awareness raising activities (both within services but also more widely for the general public).

26. There is no unique set of organisational and governance arrangements for delivering these functions; a network based largely on the current model is one possible approach, but other approaches (for example the model used within learning disabilities, or that used within the co-production context) are also possible.

27. Whichever model is pursued, there is a requirement for clarity of the remit, and clarity of the relationship to both the Scottish Strategy for Autism and to the Scottish Government. This clarification would require the specification of key performance indicators which could be used to monitor and measure progress. There is also a requirement for a clear governance structure. This would include a regular forum where strategic issues and developments could be discussed, and a clear delineation of leadership roles. Given the importance stakeholders placed on the quality of independence, an articulation of how independence could be achieved would need to be carefully considered and clarified by Scottish Government.

Definition and measurement of outcomes

28. The development of a clear understanding of the inputs, activities, outputs and (short, medium and long term) outcomes of ANS (or any other national autism network / organisation) is required.

Overall conclusion
29. Autism Network Scotland has achieved a range of positive impacts to date, based on a wide range of activities including networking and sharing good practice, providing information and resources, and raising awareness. The achievement of the strategic outcomes identified by the Scottish Government requires these activities to continue. There is no unique set of organisational and governance arrangements for delivering these functions. However, whichever model is pursued, there is a requirement for clarity of the remit and a clear governance structure as well as transparent performance outcome measures.


Email: Annette Pyle,

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