Linker Network Case Study

Case Study: Co-design in Western Sydney & Nepean Blue Mountains

The Safe Home for Life legislative reforms aim at improving outcomes for vulnerable children and young people, with a particular focus on increasing the number of children and young people at risk of significant harm who receive a face-to-face response.

In 2015-2016, the NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) provided face-to-face responses to 31 per cent of children and young people reported at risk of serious harm (ROSH) in NSW. In Western Sydney and Nepean Blue Mountains (WSNBM) District), this number was even lower than the NSW average.

In early 2015 FACS WSNBM District embarked on a multi stakeholder co-design approach to design and test initiatives under the FACS Safe Home for Life Reform (SHFL) legislative reform. This process was facilitated by an external consultant skilled in co-design methodology, and focused on producing better outcomes for vulnerable children, young people and families across Western Sydney and Nepean Blue Mountains.

Co-design or service re-design is firstly client-centred, and is a form of collaboration, which invites the people who have a stake in a particular product or service, process, system or communication to be actively involved in designing it.

Co-design workshops involving Government and NGO partners across Western Sydney and Nepean Blue Mountains were held in March and August 2015. Four focus areas were identified by the group and formed into projects, including improving the experience for clients who need to access and navigate the service delivery system, in particular family early intervention and prevention services.

A project team, made up of the co-design consultant, NGO and FACS staff, working in partnership, progressed the work focusing on targeted early intervention (TEI) and prevention services. In May 2016 another facilitated multi-stakeholder workshop was held to develop the new service model, now known as the Linker Network, and the project team continued the work to prototype elements of the model in 3 sites into 2017.

How does the Linker Network Model differ from previous approaches to service provision?

The current targeted early intervention (TEI) service system in NSW lacks flexibility and coordination, and it can be difficult family’s and young people to access the right support at the right time, leaving client needs unmet and early intervention opportunities are missed.

The new model is based on the concept that frontline staff of NGOs and agencies will better coordinate with each other and become dedicated ‘relationship managers’ (or Linkers) for individual families and young people. The Linker is accountable for ensuring families can receive the right service(s) regardless of who delivers it. This means that service providers need to change the way they operate, by working on behalf of the entire service system to help the client.

The model puts the customer at the centre, unlike the current system where families are made to fit the system, and referred from agency to agency and NGO to NGO, with no single point of contact to help them navigate the system.

In addition to the linker concept the model is based on the following:

  • Place-based Integrated Services: community context and population needs and other local factors are taken into account to optimise service delivery.
  • Shared brokerage: Sharing resources to enable urgent early intervention and to fill the gap. This includes a shared ‘bucket’ of funds among NGOs.
  • Family-Centred Plans: A family profile co-authored with the family, outlining goals and agencies to assist with achieving these goals. This Plan goes with the family from service to service, as needed.
  • Consistent Welcome Approach: A new culture which ensures ‘first contact’ is welcoming and helpful rather than assessment focused.
  • An ethos of Coordinated Family Support: To develop an overall culture of co-ordinated service support for families. This is the ultimate goal of the Linker Network Model.

Linker Network Model
Source: FACS - The Linker Network Model 1

Summary of the development of the Linker Network Model to date

March 2015: 3 day workshop facilitated by a consultant to explore the optimal experience for children and young people at risk of serious harm. The workshop involved over 40 NGOs and representatives from Health, Justice and Police.
Leading up to the workshop the consultant interviewed a range of stakeholders to obtain a common view of what is working well and not working well in the Child Protection system in NBM & WS. The interviewees included senior and frontline staff from FACS and NGOs as well as two young people currently in Out of Home Care in the NBM & WS Districts.

September 2015: 3 day workshop to expand on focus areas identified in the first workshop (includes preliminary ideas for the linker network model).

May 2016: 3 day workshop to develop and refine the linker network model including six service concepts and eight enablers.

December 2017: work commences on prototyping the model.

Developing a new approach to service provision

FACS has purposefully partnered with their Government and NGO partners across WS and NBM through a process of design workshops (outlined earlier) and ongoing project team work to co-design the Linker Network Model.

Work on prototyping the new elements in the Linker Network Model is happening between February and August 2017, in three sites:

  1. Uniting is a large NGO that is trialling the model to see how it fits with existing procedures and processes and what changes are required to implement the new approach.
  2. A community hub at Wilmott (Mt Druitt) is being set up at the community centre and will use the linker network model as an entry point for local community members to access the service system through outreach services.
  3. Blue Mountains LGA. The prototype will help demonstrate how the model will work in a geographical area and how a group of service providers can work as one for the benefit of the client.

Lessons learned

The project has already involved a two year commitment, however, it is too early to say whether the perceived benefits of the Linker Network Model will be realised. The co-design methodology is a long term approach, given the time involved to work through this type of process, develop concepts and maintain the ongoing and substantive participation of local service providers, which is critical to getting it right and successful implementation. As such, the project has already achieved some success to have reached the prototyping phase with the sustained and active involvement of so many stakeholders. There are a number of factors that have led to this success:

Alignment with the FACS Targeted Early Intervention (TEI) Reform (state wide)

Currently FACS has nine Targeted Early Intervention programs which are more the result of historical factors than conscious design. FACS is aiming to develop a more cohesive system with common goals and outcomes through shared local/regional approaches to identifying community needs and priorities.

FACS WS and NBM District have secured support for the model from FACS Head Office (HO). They have been communicating closely with HO regarding the work being done on the Linker Network Model and how this work ties in with the principles of the state wide reform process.

Dedicated resourcing

  • FACS is providing considerable support for design, program management, and change management for this project.
  • Dedicated project team: FACS (2 full time), FACS backfilled two NGO positions, (1 full time and 1 part time so NGO staff could fully participate in project), external consultant (part time).
  • Additional investment required in terms of documentation, training, branding production etc.
  • Many NGO staff have contributed significant time and energy throughout the co-design process both in workshops and as part of the Linker Leadership Team, which is under a collaborative agreement and unpaid.

Commitment of NGOs and other Government Agencies to move beyond the concept stage to the prototyping stage

This commitment is a result of:

  • A common vision, shared by NGOs, on how the current service model needs to change and a shared desire to achieve better outcomes for clients.
  • The progressive leadership in FACS WS NBM District provided throughout the project. The Executive District Director and her team were consistently praised for the strategic role they played in leading the project and the relationships they formed with senior staff in other agencies and the NGO sector. The quality of these relationships has been critical in driving the project forward.
  • The co-design process itself and the facilitation skills of the external consultant (refer to Capability Spotlight).

FACS HO has recently announced an extension to contracts until 2019 for all TEI current funded services. This will provide an extension and transition period to support service providers to adopt the Linker Network Model concepts, and renew their funding terms to support the Model and service delivery to better support client and local service needs.

Challenges for the future Implementation of the Linker Network Model

The implementation of the model in WS and NBM is scheduled for the second half of 2017.

The Linker Network Project Manager noted that naturally there would be some challenges in implementing the model across WS and NBM. It will be critical to make sure that all relevant NGOs are on board and comfortable transitioning to the model. This will involve much more than one off training, but will require FACS to provide ongoing and intensive support so NGOs can change the way they operate to align with the new model. This work has started with the development of the website www.linker.org.au which provides a range of resources and ‘how to’ tutorials to assist NGO staff.

Opportunity for scale up

If the model is successfully implemented in WS and NBM over a two year period there is potential to roll out the model on a state wide basis.

Capability Spotlight

Service co-design

The case study demonstrates the capability of FACS WS and NBM to engage NGOs and other government agencies through a partnership and co-design process. This capability was strengthened by the support provided by the external facilitator.

WS and NBM FACS and the NGOs consulted were positive about the long term benefits of co-design and its ability to foster a shared ownership of the challenge the group is working on, the solution that is developed, and the implementation of the solution in the field.
In summary, there are at least 5 key features of co-design, including that co-design should:

  • Be client centred. Co-design asks service providers and service users to walk in the shoes of each other and to use these experiences as the basis of design changes:
  • Start with a desired end, rather than with what is wrong with the present service. In the process we look to build backwards from the outcomes we are seeking;
  • Focus on developing practical real world solutions to issues facing individuals, families and communities. In co-design, prototyping is a method of testing whether the ideas work in practice, and then refining ideas until solutions that work for service users and providers alike are developed;
  • Make ideas, experiences and possibilities visible and tangible using a variety of media, graphic, kinaesthetic and experiential methods. This helps to make solutions tangible and to make complex systems accessible; and
  • Have processes that are inclusive and draw on many perspectives, people, experts, disciplines and sectors.

FACS WSNBM were able to overcome a number of challenges posed by the co-design process. All co-design involves some transfer or sharing of power from funders to service providers and citizens. The Executive District Director and her team were able to support and empower service providers and other stakeholders to engage effectively throughout the process, particularly at the co-design workshops. Co-design is time consuming because of the high level of participation in the process. Again, the Executive District Director and her Team have had success to date maintaining the momentum and enthusiasm of NGOs and other stakeholders in the initiative. The use of the external facilitator also helped provide the necessary expertise and support to maintain direction and momentum.

FACS WSNBM noted that to get real benefits from co-design there needs to be a willingness to engage with and be open to a wide range of ideas and perspectives. Not all participants are well suited to the co-design process. Working with these people is tough, and the use of highly skilled facilitation helped to counter this problem.

Relationship Skills

Both FACS staff and NGO partners participating in the project have highlighted that relationship skills have been vital to the collaboration. In particular, they highlighted the importance of teamwork, a willingness to work with a range of people and to be flexible and adaptive in the way that they work. The facilitation skills that the external consultant brought to the project were considered critical to keeping the project on task.

As noted previously, the Executive District Director and her team were consistently praised for the relationships they formed with senior staff in other agencies and the NGO sector. The quality of these relationships has been critical in driving the project forward.

Empowered to collaborate

One of the main design principles highlighted by the case study is being ‘empowered to collaborate’. The Executive District Director overseeing the co-design project was empowered to collaborate because of her leadership style and because she was supported by leadership at FACS Head Office to lead the project and bring staff in other agencies and NGO staff on board. The Executive District Director equally has empowered staff on the project to collaborate with NGOs and other Agencies.

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