Family by Family: the column

(Four minutes of extracts from a 27 minute video which can be watched here.)

Here’s today’s column from the Age and SMH.

MASS production and professionalised services built modern prosperity. But in welfare their legacy provides one of the great challenges of our time.

One size might fit all in a factory, but might not work so well solving individual people’s problems. And professionals have heads full of training and expertise, but how much do they understand clients on welfare? Many care deeply about their clients, but what if those clients just don’t relate to them?

Today, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill will launch the evaluation of a new kind of social program that has been pioneered by the Adelaide-based Australian Centre for Social Innovation, which I chair. Called ”Family by Family”, the program’s principal goal is to reduce the prevalence of families falling into crisis and of children requiring state or foster care.

But we’re doing things differently.

The program is a hybrid between a behaviour change and a mentoring program. ”Seeking families” considered at risk of falling into crisis are paired with ”sharing families” who’ve endured hard times but have come through. Sharing families are then coached to mentor seeking families.

The program melds insights from social science, social work and ”design thinking”. Design has powered Apple to be the wealthiest company in the world and the largest consultancy in the world, Deloitte, has put it at the centre of its practice. Where social and professional sciences tend to reduce life to a set of principles – lawyers reduce things to rules, accountants to money – design thinking is a kind of counter-narrative that tries to let the practical wisdom of our life break out of the strictures of professional knowledge. It’s a consciously cross-disciplinary search for insight that values playfulness, improvisation and empathy, creatively understanding and engaging with everyone’s perspective in a system – in this case the kids, the social workers, the families, the schools.

Designers don’t imagine they have the answer to a question when they start. So they prototype solutions and test them, and improve them and prototype them again and again, documenting their progress until they’ve got them as good as they can.

So Family by Family was ”co-designed” with the families it seeks to help. It was endlessly prototyped over many months with the families advising our team how to improve it. We’re more like a start-up than a government agency, which is to say we’re building our service as we build our relationships with potential purchasers of those services – typically those who provide care – from government agencies to philanthropics like Uniting Communities.

Family by Family’s evaluation tells a powerful story of a social program working where other well-intentioned programs have struggled. Ninety per cent of our families said it had helped them achieve their objectives, with 50 per cent reporting it had helped them ”a lot” or ”a whole lot”.

But let me bring it home for you with a story. A single mum approached Family by Family. Her goal? To bond better with her four kids, her kids’ teachers and perhaps others in the local community. With 27 separate statutory ”notifications” of suspicions that she was neglecting her kids, Child Protection was heading for a court order to take them into guardianship.

Her sharing family took her family camping and spent time with them. She learnt many things from them, not least to hug her kids! Their behaviour seems to have turned the corner. Over the last six months and Child Protection has withdrawn the court order. The 30-week program cost around $13,000. If that sounds expensive to you, it’s a fraction of what social workers would have cost, and it looks much more effective. Moving all four kids into care would cost $224,000 per year. So if we’ve steered just one family from the shoals of state intervention, we’ll have saved the state government around $2.5 million before the kids all turn 18, more than the entire cost of the program so far.

And that’s just direct costs to the state, before accounting for all the future costs of the blighted lives in terms of lower aspirations, education and wages and higher rates of crime. That is all those processes by which the problems perpetuate themselves into the next generation and the next … If that’s predestined to happen by default, something tells me we can do a lot better by design!

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18 Responses to Family by Family: the column

  1. conrad says:

    Not that I’d want to start with the Mike Willisee style direct question, but since you’re the chairman, what in reality are these guys doing that other family counselling centres around are not (that of course is in comparison to the numerous other NGOs, not the government)? That is, what in particular makes them unique, rather than just the pretty general claims made here? Also, calling this type of service endlessly prototyped is really over the top given the number of clients they could have actually seen over the span of months would be pretty limited (let alone long enough to collect enough real data to compare efficacy with other programs out there).

  2. Julie Thomas says:

    Sounds like a brilliant idea to me Nicholas. It seems like an extension of the ‘youth workers’ idea. Youth workers who have problems themselves – so they are often called the walking wounded – can effect change in the ‘troubled young people’ because they have ‘credibility’.

    As well as having credibility, a family who had done it tough and survived – the sharing family – would have a whole lot of information and tips that a social worker would never have been able to provide. They are a role model and the value of role models in the production of a decent society seems to have been ignored over the past decades.

    There was a bit of work done on the importance of role models for learning back in the ’70’s and of course since people are not the same, some of us learn more effectively by seeing and experiencing and others by listening and understanding.

    I do believe that back in the day when I was young, the rich and successful accepted that they had an obligation to set an example for we less able people. They don’t do that these days although Gina does give us some verbal advice about how to get richer, but she doesn’t set a good example personally does she?

  3. Nicholas Gruen says:


    The program is prototyped, not each individual interaction. I’m surprised you detect nothing much more than buzzwords here. The program is quite different to “other family counselling centres around”. It’s not a family counselling service. No-one counsels anyone or tells anyone what to do. Two families are introduced to each other and they work on the “seeking family’s” issues. The sharing family has a coach (not a social worker, though of course some of the coaches are trained not just in coaching for the program but also in social work). That means that a family in difficulty and a family that has been in difficulty but is well disposed to help, work on their problems in a structured way.

    That’s not a ‘family counselling program’. It’s a structured attempt to provide what services might be possible to get the community to heal itself. Having just been to the launch of the evaluation tonight, I can only say that the enthusiasm of the families is remarkable and the results seem undeniable.

    In any event, the best way to appreciate it is to have a look at this video.

  4. conrad says:

    I wasn’t being cynical — I was just trying to get to the bottom of how it worked. If you’re promoting these things, I imagine it’s worth making these things clearer as you did there than what is in the article (at least to people who you might try and get funding from who have some knowledge of these things). It seems to me quite similar to the Big Brothers Big Sisters program that runs with teenagers, except it’s with families. As far as I’m aware that program works quite well and has become relatively big because of it.

    Also, I think you have an incorrect understanding of what most of these centres do when you say: “It’s not a family counselling service. No-one counsels anyone or tells anyone what to do.”. The reason for this is that the idea of most counselling centres isn’t to “counsel” people or tell them what to do, it’s to help them explore options that they may not have thought of or help them work through these things. In this respect, the counselling model is basically the opposite of the medical one where the doctor tells you what is wrong with you, although in recent times it’s moving towards the medical one as the clinical model takes over everything thanks to the government rebate stuff (basically, everything becomes a clinical problem and counselling dies out).

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Yes, thanks Conrad, you’re right. I must have seemed a bit defensive. It’s hard to squeeze everything you want to into 800 words. I don’t know of BBBS, though I guess I should. No doubt something to learn about, but I would expect that Family by Family is a great deal more ‘designed up’ than it is – though who knows. They’d presumably have more experience than us so they no doubt have things to teach us.

  5. Julie Thomas says:

    The program seems to me to – like the big brother/sister program, be a way of re-creating the family and community relationships that used to exist in neighbourhoods. It seems to me that, over the past decades, many ‘dysfunctional’ families have become disconnected from the social supports that an ideal society would provide without government intervention.

    Within extended families, there have been winners and losers in the struggle for individual wealth and success, and this has resulted in the loser families becoming isolated and not receiving the support that families in the past felt obligated to provide to each other.

    Neighbourhoods and schools have changed also; when I grew up both of these places were more integrated, with well-off families living close enough so that I could be invited home to the rich kids houses and see how they did things. I don’t think that happens now, schools are segregated with those who come from the right backgrounds getting all the support, and those from the wrong background getting very little or none, so that the divide increases.

    People who assess themselves as failures, develop ways of coping with this judgement they make about themselves, usually depression and/or anxiety and this is what causes that slide into welfare dependency which then can become a ‘trap’. But it is the depression and the dysfunctional thoughts, not the welfare itself, that creates the problem.

    I think there are many other ways this sort of program that really seems to work because it finds functional friends for people who don’t have any.

    Hey I just realised, one has to opt in now to get email notifications. You blokes gave in?

  6. conrad says:

    Julie — I agree with you that a big benefit of this type of program is allowing people to model the behavior of others. I imagine there would be many more of these types of program if they wern’t exceptionally hard and expensive to run (i.e., needing a constantly changing pool of families to match others with).

    However, not that I want to sidetrack the thread, but the idea that there were more and better neighborhood/community relationships back in the olden days seems about as legitimate a claim as that of people saying how good the 60s were. I seem to remember Bob Ellis (??) writing a funny article on this belief and how that didn’t coincide with what he remembered . As evidence for this, the the divorce rate and number of divorces involving children has been trending slowly down for ages (see e.g.,, suggesting that families are more stable now, not less (obviously this could be for lots of reasons, but if “community relationships” are really getting worse and not replaced by something else, then they were not such a big factor in keeping families together anyway).

  7. Julie Thomas says:

    Conrad, absolutely I agree that it’s a myth that we actually had ‘better’ or more supportive communities back then; it’s a hypocritical myth and the community support was in reality only for those who conformed. I haven’t read of Ellis’s experiences but I am well aware personally of the repressiveness of the social requirements to conform back and that they were very damaging to family cohesion.

    Nicholas, I thought the video is very well done; I have facebooked it as I have lots of friends – well some anyway – who are interested in that sort of thing. I’m thinking that facebook could be a useful part of these sort of programs also. There could be enormous benefits for the participants from learning how to use a computer and fb is so easy to use. It is possible to set up private groups that include only certain people in your friend list, and one could do ‘group therapy’ this way. Also it is a useful way of disseminating information and skills that so many disadvantaged people don’t have; like you can post a video of someone cooking something or replacing a mower spark plug.

    Another program that should work really well but doesn’t, and costs far to much is Residential Youth Care where young people (aged 8 – 18) who are ‘not appropriate’ for foster care are accommodated in houses where they are cared for by an assortment of carers. The main problem is that the ‘youth workers’ they rely on – because they are cheap – are too often the ‘walking wounded’ or worse, and just don’t have the skills to manage the kids.

  8. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Though I’ve used the ‘back in the old days’ meme regarding the program before, and may well do so again, I think it’s yet another way to be misled about the secret sauce in the program. I don’t think it’s ‘old style community’ or even ‘mentoring’ or the avoidance of frontline social worker counselling in favour of peer counselling. I think it’s the way these elements are ‘designed’ which is to say worked up by a highly disciplined and deliberative process.

    It’s like the difference between a good conversation and any old conversation. The former happen quite rarely. They require discipline, intentionality, constant courage not to retreat into platitudes. So my hunch is that this is the secret sauce – some process by which what matters to people can be surfaced and then subject to sustained effort and high quality interaction with peers. That’s not the kind of thing you can pull off easily or conjure up with a simple formula.

  9. Julie Thomas says:

    “So my hunch is that this is the secret sauce – some process by which what matters to people can be surfaced and then subject to sustained effort and high quality interaction with peers. That’s not the kind of thing you can pull off easily or conjure up with a simple formula.”

    So you think it is not even the process itself. It really depends on having good workers and participating families and being able to put them together?

    I think programs like this really need is people who can do ‘people math’. What I mean is that there are people who can look at a bunch of numbers and find a pattern in them that makes sense; we all know that not all people can do this. But there are people, I think, who can see or understand the ‘patterns’ or the ‘maths’ of how people behave and again not all people are good at this.

    Maybe this is something similar to the unmeasurable thing that Paul talks about in his post about things that are impossible to measure. He says “I will argue that it is our ability to ‘see’ these things that is the real cause of the success of economics, not our superior connection to hard data.” Similarly, I’d argue that it is people who can ‘see’ these things who become more effective psychologists.

    • john r walker says:

      julie I think this old post by Nicholas is germane

      and in particular Antonios comment:

      One of my favourite Kant passages expresses the idea that so often comes up in Wittgenstein and has been popularised by Gladwell’s Blink, the idea that judgement requires practice. Here’s the quote:

      If understanding in general be defined as the faculty of laws or rules, the faculty of judgement may be termed the faculty of subsumption under these rules; that is, of distinguishing whether this or that does or does not stand under a given rule (casus datae legis). General logic contains no directions or precepts for the faculty of judgement, nor can it contain any such. For as it makes abstraction of all content of cognition, no duty is left for it, except that of exposing analytically the mere form of cognition in conceptions, judgements, and conclusions, and of thereby establishing formal rules for all exercise of the understanding. Now if this logic wished to give some general direction how we should subsume under these rules, that is, how we should distinguish whether this or that did or did not stand under them, this again could not be done otherwise than by means of a rule. But this rule, precisely because it is a rule, requires for itself direction from the faculty of judgement. Thus, it is evident that the understanding is capable of being instructed by rules, but that the judgement is a peculiar talent, which does not, and cannot require tuition, but only exercise. This faculty is therefore the specific quality of the so-called mother wit, the want of which no scholastic discipline can compensate.

      For although education may furnish, and, as it were, engraft upon a limited understanding rules borrowed from other minds, yet the power of employing these rules correctly must belong to the pupil himself; and no rule which we can prescribe to him with this purpose is, in the absence or deficiency of this gift of nature, secure from misuse.[28] A physician therefore, a judge or a statesman, may have in his head many admirable pathological, juridical, or political rules, in a degree that may enable him to be a profound teacher in his particular science, and yet in the application of these rules he may very possibly blunder– either because he is wanting in natural judgement (though not in understanding) and, whilst he can comprehend the general in abstracto, cannot distinguish whether a particular case in concreto ought to rank under the former; or because his faculty of judgement bas not been sufficiently exercised by examples and real practice. Indeed, the grand and only use of examples, is to sharpen the judgement. For as regards the correctness and precision of the insight of the understanding, examples are commonly injurious rather than otherwise, because, as casus in terminis they seldom adequately fulfil the conditions of the rule. Besides, they often weaken the power of our understanding to apprehend rules or laws in their universality, independently of particular circumstances of experience; and hence, accustom us to employ them more as formulae than as principles. Examples are thus the go-cart of the judgement, which he who is naturally deficient in that faculty cannot afford to dispense with.

      As far as I’m aware, although philosophers have often spoken about wisdom, no previous philosopher spoke about this very important distinction between rational knowledge and judgement so directly. At its worst, the philosophical tradition, starting from Plato, pretty much argues that reason is wisdom.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Julie,

      Well yes, you need high quality people, but perhaps most people are high quality when one finds a way to disrupt the small talk and the platitudes and (instead) play to their strengths.

      • Julie Thomas says:

        “At its worst, the philosophical tradition, starting from Plato, pretty much argues that reason is wisdom.

        I’d not say that reason is the ‘worst’ thing about philosophy at all. Reason has provided the solution to a great many problems but it won’t solve the paradox problem or the problem of understanding human behaviour, or how human relationships work.

        I’m a bit dubious about Kant. I haven’t been able to consider his ideas without sort of ‘sneerng’ at him as a closed minded bigot, since I read that he totally dismissed Eastern thought as not being philosophy.

        I don’t think psychologists have antinomies though. Nicholas says (in the antinomies post), “We always think that if we can only nut something out properly we’ll get the answer.”

        Perhaps economists always try to nut things out but I don’t. I know that if I ‘think’ about something too much, I end up with too many options to choose from and I become more confused – like the Irishman in the barrel told to piss in the corner.

        Do you use rationality more than intuition when you paint. And… what about athletes and that thing called ‘flow’ where you positively aren’t allowed to think rationally or the magic dies?

        • john r walker says:

          “Do you use rationality more than intuition when you paint.”
          Don’t real know how to answer that :-)….. thinking is movement and movement is thinking. The breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup is primary the text is secondary

          all I can say is that, procedural? rational thinking is useful/essential before and after but way too slow when I am dancing.

  10. paul walter says:

    Yep. This is the sort of thing that makes a bloke a little bitter and I hope that scheme helped, because it sounds in direct contrast to what’s projected from welfare, who regard people on welfare as guilty till proven innocent.

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