TFM: working with, not for

The 2019 Their Futures Matter Conference, held in Sydney on 11 February, was an important reminder of the need to work with, not for, communities, when building evidence of outcomes.

Their Futures Matter (TFM), a landmark, whole-of-government reform designed to improve outcomes for vulnerable children and families in NSW, is committed to using evidence and evaluation to inform service design, outcomes measurement and investment. As put by TFM Executive Director, Gary Groves, ‘gone are the days that government funds something that sounds nice, without real rigour around outcomes. It’s nice to have 100 referrals walk in the door, but now I really want to know the outcomes for those referrals.’ The reform promises that evidence, monitoring and evaluation will drive continuous improvement across all areas of the system response and service delivery.

While we’re excited about this, it’s important to remember the many ways that different communities can understand, define and measure outcomes. The way that programs are designed and measured should be decided in close collaboration with community. While standardised measurement tools and RCTs have their place, a program or intervention that works for one cohort may not be appropriate for another.

This point was made best by Conference Chair and international affairs analyst, Stan Grant, who reflected honestly that as a child, he lived with many of the risk factors that predict poor life outcomes – living itinerantly, attending multiple schools, and having an incarcerated parent, not to mention the intergenerational trauma of the stolen generation. Today, a ‘Safety and Risk Assessment’ may have allocated him as a ‘high-risk’ child. Despite this, he stressed that ‘the very worst thing that could have happened’ would have been for the state to remove him from his family. He believed that the genuine love and care of his family outweighed the risk factors. Stan’s case, like many, underscore the need to recognise non-western views on safety (and other outcomes more broadly).

At the conference, ARTD also showcased our recent successful experience of working with, not for, community under TFM’s Aboriginal Evidence Building Partnership pilot. The pilot aim was to build an evidence base of promising programs and services that are improving outcomes for Aboriginal children and families. It did this by linking Aboriginal service providers with evidence building partners to work together to build providers’ data collection and evaluation capabilities.

Key to the success of our two pilot partnerships was our commitment to a partnership approach – establishing mutual trust and agreed ways of working early on, communicating regularly and openly, rescoping workplans to best meet current and future needs, and demonstrating an unwavering commitment to capacity-building and self-determination.

While the pilot required providers to embed standardised, validated tools to measure wellbeing outcomes, we worked closely with them to identify their additional data collection needs. We did this to ensure the data collected reflected what was most important to the service and its community and could be used on the ground to inform and improve program delivery. We are excited about the rollout of the pilot this year, and TFM’s commitment to a partnership-driven and capacity building approach to ensuring the service system meets the needs of Aboriginal children and families.

Conference keynotes also shone light on some of the other encouraging achievements of TFM to date. These included having more than 1,000 families engaged in new family preservation and restoration programs and establishing the first, human services cross-agency, longitudinal (+25 years) data set in NSW, providing large scale, de-identified matched data.

TFM Program Director & Investment Approach Lead, Campbell McArthur, said that beyond having what he deemed ‘the best dataset in Australia’, it’s the insights that the data can bring us that are truly exciting. The commitment to evidence means we are better able to compare and contrast the experiences of different cohorts, to better understand what works, for whom, in what circumstances. It also allows the system to identify population-level trends earlier and take evidence-based responses.

Attended by over 700 government and non-government representatives, we left the conference ready for the work ahead under TFM. Director for Children and Families in Scotland, Michael Chalmers, reminded us that ‘joining up services and creating change takes time and is difficult. But its important to keep your eyes on the prize: improving outcomes for our most vulnerable children and young people’.

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