Built to scale: the Family Independence Initiative – Jane Mansour

In this post our guest blogger Jane Mansour showcases the Family Independence Initiative in Boston, Massachusetts. The project is a good example of the principles of ‘guerilla policy’ in action. Jane is an expert and consultant in international welfare to work and the commissioning and funding of public services. She blogs regularly at Buying QP. Thanks to Jane for contributing the post, and we welcome your comments.

The argument for the benefits of user and staff involvement in policy making is considerably strengthened by numerous example of projects that have been successfully designed and delivered using this blueprint. These range from actual projects – of which FII discussed below is a great example – to the use of a crowdsourcing approach to gather solutions for identified and specific local needs. These raise questions about the extent to which this approach is scaleable, and how this can be done without losing what made them work in the first place.

This week I met Jésus Gerena, the Boston Director of the Family Independence Initiative (FII). FII families create support networks in their own communities rather than accessing help through a key-worker or institution. As an organisation it has impressive results – in the first six months of operation participating families in the Boston wing of the programme saw their incomes rise by an average of 13% and their savings by 22%.[1] These statistics and many others covering family finances, schooling (both adults and children) and health and activities are compiled monthly. The data is actively uploaded by the participating families themselves. They are paid for this, and for leading, counselling and facilitating the monthly groups they attend. These payments total in the region of $2000 a year per family.[2]

The FII was the brainchild of Maurice Lim Miller; he was honoured this week by the MacArthur Foundation with a ‘genius award’ which carries with it a grant for $500,000. It works by not helping people in poverty. No, that was not a typo. The FII do not help, staff can be (and have been) fired for doing so. What the FII does do is provide an environment in which people have opportunities to succeed. Families work together to problem solve, record their gains and losses and have access to resources should they need them.

There are the three fundamental values that underpin the organisation’s approach. Firstly, the families are in control. Secondly, there is a formal feedback loop consisting of monthly and quarterly meetings and data collecting providing peer accountability. The process of recording information in and of itself, impacts positively on behaviour. Lastly there is access to resources to move forward. These resources are often in the form of matching or doubling the contributions participants make towards education, housing or business goals, but they can also be used to meet urgent practical needs (eg. a car or dental work).

Listening to Gerena’s passion for the FII approach, it is difficult not to get excited about it, about the way that this organisation is not only challenging much of the way that social policy has been cast, but is succeeding in doing so. The scaleability of successful but reasonably small projects is fraught with difficulty. The world of public policy is littered with examples of innovative projects that are hailed, placed in the spotlight, enlarged and ‘replicated’, but that then fail to deliver on the bigger stage. This is then followed by a blame game that often focuses on delivery, sometimes on commissioning, occasionally on design.

In two years the Boston operation has grown from 35 to 200 families. Gerena thinks there is the potential to continue expanding to 1000 families but, and it is an important but, this expansion needs to happen organically through families introducing themselves and others – a combination of ‘core catalyst families’ and ‘ripple families’. Scaling up fails when the guiding values behind success are confused within the method in which they are delivered, when the ‘how’ is mistaken for the ‘why’.

There are broader public policy lessons to be learned from the work being done by FII. These are not that welfare savings can come from the wholesale removal of frontline staff, or that bids to deliver programmes should need to be scored on how often the words ‘family’ or ‘social capital’ occur, or that a new New Deal for Communities is the answer. The lessons are far more challenging than simply producing a shiny new programme.

Miller has written a brief paper identifying the changes he thinks necessary for substantial change in the outcomes for low-income families. It’s worth reading in full. His final call to action identifies four changes that need to happen:

“1. We need to more accurately communicate the resourcefulness, capacity, and caring that is the true picture of lower income families and communities

2. Funders must allow for program approaches that provide help based on family and community initiative and strengths

3. Policy makers, funders and leaders must seek direct feedback from the consumers of programs they create and respond to that feedback

4. The target families must self organize and advocate for themselves and their communities”

As I sat in the FII office, it was striking that there are clear echoes in the UK – in terms of approach, positive outcomes, frustrations with the system, but also in the difficulty in capturing the wins and replicating them either regionally or nationally. Successful, sustainable ideas are evident in individual programmes but somehow the key to why they work gets lost in translation when ‘reform’ or scaling up occurs. Why is it that successful local programmes so often fail on the big stage? To what degree would this failure be mitigated by taking a different approach to both entrenched social issues and institutional frameworks? What impact would the following considerations have on policy design?

Long vs short-term investment: FII is aimed at the working poor – those who are increasingly ineligible for state safety nets, face significant marginal tax rates on any additional earnings and are in real danger of sliding back into poverty (cycling between work and benefits). It relies on the safety nets being there, it is an extension of benefits rather than a replacement for them – any savings to the welfare budget will only be felt in the long-term as people move up the income ladder. When the focus is on cutting spending rather than raising revenue, and results are needed quickly the long-term nature of many interventions is overlooked.

Look for ‘A Duh’ rather than ‘A Ha’ moments (Gerena’s phrase). There is a tendency to look for exciting, new, revolutionary change but often small, practical, simple and obvious opportunities are overlooked. Users and staff are the key to understanding what these are.

It requires a significant power shift to trust in people to make decisions about their own lives, find their own support network and provide the resource to enable them to make positive changes. What could this look like and how can it be supported by the state?

The need to end funding silos for people with multiple needs has been much discussed. The introduction of the Universal Credit in the UK aims to streamline benefits. The focus is on simplifying the benefits people receive rather than on the way they live and how services they interact with are funded and delivered. Bringing funds for the latter into one pot (universal support?) would have a very different impact.

What and how do incentives work for middle and high earners? Can the rewards for initiative they receive be extended to benefit claimants and those on low incomes? Skills policy and funding is an area that immediately springs to mind.

Feedback and data are both vitally important and often overlooked. This involves a change in perspective, from the compilation of simplistic league tables of outcomes towards rich seam data mining of the information gathered on the journeys of individuals as they bounce around the system.

There has been a tendency in policy design in the UK and elsewhere to believe that successful programmes will only come from providing more intensive external support. The experience of FII is that the ongoing cycling between work and benefits can be prevented through the creation of long-lasting social structures and support networks, underpinned by feedback and resources. The challenge is in reproducing co-operative policy making and delivery on a regional or national stage.

[1] These outcomes have improved over time and the experience of the two Californian programmes is of an income increase of 20%.

[2] These sums are not included in the increased income calculations

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