Local Digital
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Local Digital

3 ingredients to rapidly develop and scale a tool in times of crisis.

This blog post is the first of a series by Social Finance that talks about how they developed the COVID-19 Demand Modelling tool with funding from the Local Digital Collaboration Unit at MHCLG, and in collaboration with Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Data to Insight, and a number of other local authorities. The model is now available for download at the ChAT group library.

This is a great example of how collaboration can rapidly develop and scale a widely usable tool in response to an urgent need. We hope sharing our learnings might be useful for others in future work.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit at the beginning of this year, it created a situation no-one was prepared for. As lockdown was implemented, it presented a particular set of challenges for Children’s Services departments around the country:

  • Many of the traditional pathways for children’s services departments to identify and engage with vulnerable children (e.g. through schools) were either significantly changed or gone altogether during lockdown.
  • Under lockdown, vulnerable children spent more time at home with their families under increasingly stressful conditions.
  • There was uncertainty regarding the longer term impacts of the pandemic on wider society and the economy, which might stimulate a further demand for services.

Local Authority Children’s services urgently needed to begin modelling different scenarios, so that they would be able to plan for resourcing and protect their budgets — and this had to be simple for them. They needed to answer questions like:

‘How much of the ‘drop’ in demand due to lockdown would end up coming back later, and when?’

‘Will there be a second lockdown?’

‘What will the new normal look like after lockdown?’

Some Local Authorities responded by developing their own models. Kent, for example, developed a robust, referral focused model which was shared widely. Many others, however, struggled with the capacity to build something themselves.

Our team — made up of members of GMCA, the Data to Insight network and Social Finance — spotted an opportunity:

To bring together all of the work being done independently by Local Authorities and build a shared tool, that would be available to all, thereby supporting those who did not have capacity to build a tool themselves.

To do so would require three key ingredients:

1. Fast, accessible funding

Funding that was quickly accessible was integral to being able to deliver a useful solution. For this project, the MHCLG Local Digital C-19 Challenge provided just that. MHCLG offered funding to local authorities for Digital, Data and Technology projects that could deliver a product or outcome directly related to a ‘COVID-19’ challenge within two months. This innovative approach to funding in the face of a crisis allowed a much faster turnaround than would usually be the case. By providing funding when it was needed, and avoiding a typically lengthy procurement process, the model could be developed and released when it was needed, rather than three months too late.

2. An engaged community of potential users

This funding, however, could not be used to its full potential without having an engaged community of potential users. From the outset, this project was linked strongly with GMCA and Data to Insight, a national project that supports local authority children’s services to use data better by enabling resources to be shared. As well as providing input to the model, Data to Insight gave the project access to a wide range of local authorities for trialling and later sharing the tool. This included Kent, whose original model formed the basis of the final product, and who supported the development of the tool.

3. A dedicated, flexible team

Finally, Social Finance was able to complete the equation, providing a dedicated, flexible team, with the combination of skills in user research, Excel modelling and stakeholder engagement required for such a project. In addition, the team’s track record of delivering projects relating to Children’s Services meant they could quickly get up to speed and begin working to build the solution.

The Outcome

After just two months of rapid iteration, the team launched the COVID-19 Demand Modelling tool to assist local authorities in modelling different scenarios for their referrals, CPP caseloads and CLA caseloads, which has since been shared with over 300 local authorities.

This is a testament to what can be achieved when the type of innovative financing MHCLG was able to provide can be combined with strong, collaborative networks of local authority partners and supporting organisations.

More details on the model itself, and a link to the tool can be found in this blog post, and stay tuned for our next blog, which will delve deeper into the process we went through to gather and prioritise feedback from a large number of invested stakeholders.

For any questions about the tool or about this work more broadly, please contact christopher.owen@socialfinance.org.uk or alistair.herbert@eastsussex.gov.uk.

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