Exploring what Early Help service heads need to analyse performance so they can improve the quality of their services and make the business case for continued funding

Full Application: Funded


Early Help (EH) services support families with issues including domestic violence, substance misuse, mental health problems, poverty, family issues and others. EH services act before problems escalate and builds good relationships between families and councils.


EH Service Heads oversee EH locally. They’re typically sector experts, having worked previously as front-line practitioners, and are passionate about helping vulnerable children.

In order to make best use of their budgets, they need a good understanding of their services and area, enabling them to answer questions like:

  • Where is domestic violence worst?
  • Which families are destabilised by poverty?
  • Which of my services are helping most?

The problem

Across the country, EH Service Heads lack sufficient data to assess the performance and business case for their services, meaning:

  • They cannot optimise services – they can’t:
    1. prioritise spend
    2. assess service performance
    3. compare approaches and share best practice
  • Their services are vulnerable to budget cuts – EH budgets fell by over 40% 2010-18 (National Audit Office (NAO)), and seven councils have cut EH entirely.This will reach crisis point in 2021, when one-in-ten councils are expected to exhaust their reserves (NAO), and MHCLG’s £920m Troubled Families (TF) programme, which funds much EH, ends.

Problem scale

We know over 20 councils are facing this problem. National reports (Local Government Association, Isos Partnership, Early Intervention Foundation, Children’s Society) show Service Heads nation-wide lack sufficient data to improve services or assess the business case for EH.

Even sophisticated analyses, like MHCLG’s TF programme evaluation, are significantly limited by EH data:

  • Only 33 of 150 councils could submit usable data
  • Data limitations mean the analysis can neither “determine which factors are driving the results” nor “tell us how performance varies across councils or for which cohorts the approach is effective”


We think two driving factors are:

  • Unlike for Education and Social Care, there’s no national dataset for EH
  • The complexity and variety within EH means no single council has had the resources to invest in the user research required to solve the problem

Dependencies and stakeholders

Requesting, commissioning and delivering EH services involves several different agencies. These include:

  • Requestors – police, GPs, schools, mental health workers, hospital staff
  • Commissioners – schools, CCGs, councils
  • Service providers – specialist practitioners, schools, charities, children’s centres

Our key questions to answer in discovery are:

  1. What data would help Service Heads improve the quality of and invest in EH services
  2. Where this data isn’t available and why
  3. The scale of this problem nationally, and how other councils are addressing it

Our hypotheses:

  1. Insufficient data on EH services is a problem for EH Service Heads across councils
  2. Better data would help protect EH services from budget cuts and optimise efficiency

Key questions:

  1. How do EH Service Heads make service decisions currently?
  2. What are EH Service Heads missing to evidence the value of their services and optimise efficiency?
  3. What are the causes of this?
  4. What are councils currently doing to address these problems?

Current tools, products, projects

Key existing tools/products are data-collection systems (e.g. Mosaic, CPOMS) and forms, e.g. Common Assessment Framework – we’ll investigate user-experience of these.

There are great ongoing projects building EH case-studies (see national reports in Q2.2) and on basic regional benchmarks, which we’ll engage while searching for others, but we’ve seen nothing helping Service Heads understand and evidence services.

Research approach

The three councils will work in-depth together and test findings with seven diverse observing councils across the country: Kingston, Lambeth, Leeds, Southampton, Sutton, West Sussex, Westminster. We’ll work in two-week sprints, following the stages of the double-diamond approach:

  • Discover – identify and understand Service Heads’ and practitioners’ user needs and current EH services, systems and tools
  • Define – define a clear problem based on the user needs identified
  • Develop – develop a range of potential solutions
  • Deliver – assess options, develop alpha plan and deliver concluding reports

Within each stage, we’ll use a variety of research methods, including:

  • 1:1 semi-structured interviews, run by the core team with an expert, external user research partner to bring best-practice and new approaches
  • Multi-council, group workshops e.g. kick-off, show-and-tells, idea generation/development workshops – here we’ll use agile approaches to ensure we capture everyone’s insights and creativity
  • Group workshops and desk research to map national EH provision more broadly, including systems, processes and tools

Cross-council collaboration
Through doing user research in each other’s councils, running our workshops together and using the communication tools and techniques listed in Q2.5, we’ll create a genuinely multi-council effort with West Berks and Croydon.

To bring other councils in, we’ll publish outputs as we go, including:

  1. User research report, e.g. with personas and a longlist of validated user needs
  2. Cross-council service blueprint
  3. Tools and systems catalogue
  4. Brainstorm of potential solutions
  5. Business case
  6. Recommendations and plan for alpha

We think the two main costs of a lack of evidence on EH services are:

  1. EH budgets are not spent in the best way possible – Insufficient evidence on which approaches and/or service providers are most effective and best value-for-money means Service Heads can’t make best informed decisions.
  2. EH is vulnerable to budget cuts – Local government funding for children and young people’s services fell by £2.6BN from 2010/11 to 2016/17. Councils have responded to this financial pressure by cutting non-statutory services, such as EH.

Impact on families
The impact of these is that vulnerable families don’t get the support they need, their needs worsen, and children are exposed to even worse effects of poverty, family breakdown, domestic violence, substance abuse and other serious issues.

Financial impact

This means more families require specialist, high-cost support, such as Children’s Social Care, housing services and specialist mental health and substance misuse services.

The Children’s Society reports that early intervention spending fell by 40% from 2010/11 to 2015/16, while late intervention spending increased from 58% to 73% of council spending.

The financial impacts of this are enormous: EIF estimates that late intervention costs the public sector as a whole £17BN/year

The most detailed financial assessment of this, although only focusing on three outcomes, is MHCLG’s TF evaluation, reporting an EH ROI of 2.3X. This means the £1.5BN EH cuts have created £3.4BN+ of extra costs for councils and central government – a net-loss which no individual council has the local business case to avoid.

These are nation-wide problems

There is much research to suggest that insufficient evidence on what works in EH and shrinking budgets are problems for councils nation-wide: “Our analysis finds an ongoing trend where councils no longer have the resources to fund services that help families early;” (Children’s Society) “We need to build capability within local services to generate high-quality evidence.” (EIF)

Validation and sizing plan

Our plan to size and validate these costs is to:

  1. Test the national scale of the problem and validate its depth in our council and others, engaging other councils through user research, workshops, conferences, blogs, Twitter and Pipeline
  2. Collect and analyse case studies on:
    1. the benefits of EH services for complex-need families
    2. efficiency gains possible from EH services
    3. the impact that cutting EH services has had on other (often more expensive) services, in councils which have cut EH services
    4. councils (e.g. Bristol) which have successfully used analysis to direct/improve spending
  3. Economic analysis of the benefits of EH improvements (e.g. following TF evaluation methodology)


Skype – for:

  • regular virtual stand-ups across councils to check-in and ensure we’re coordinated, and everyone gets the help they need
  • regular virtual retrospectives to ensure we’re learning, iterating our approach and everyone’s voice is heard
  • livestreaming our workshops – we’ll save these on Pipeline

SharePoint – for:

  • collaborating on project outputs
  • storing all meetings notes so they’re easily accessible by anyone

Pipeline – for:

  • publishing outputs as we go
  • linking to upcoming and past livestreams and blogs from Simone on project progress and learnings

Trello – for:

  • tracking our progress as a team with a public Kanban board, ensuring everyone is up-to-date and accountable for their tasks

We hope to receive support from the Local Digital team on training, networking and feedback in order to effectively iterate our work and promote our results to the right audience.

Communication and promotion:

We hope the Local Digital team will help us promote our work to the right audience by amplifying our voice online through retweets and by sharing our blog posts. We also plan to take advantage of the Local Digital team’s network, joining community events to exchange ideas and promote our project.


We’d like to attend the Local Digital 3-day GDS Academy Agile for Teams Training to develop our knowledge base on agile project management and user research in the digital space. We’d also like to attend additional leadership and user research training sessions to become more self-sufficient for future digital projects.

 Feedback and advice:

We plan to hold several show-and-tells, to which we’ll invite the Local Digital team. We’d especially appreciate feedback and challenge on our conclusions after each phase of the project.

We also hope to learn and receive feedback from other councils that have run similar projects, have experience with agile working and user research, and / or have run projects on EH data.

Connection to the Troubled Families team:

In addition to the Local Digital team’s support, we hope to be able to speak to the MHCLG TF team; as a key funder of EH work, we’d like to learn more about their requirements for understanding performance of EH services and how well current data reporting meets those requirements. We hope that the Local Digital Team might be able to introduce us to members of this team so we can include them in our user research.