Mixed messages weaken families’ relationships

There is a growing tension between the role of public services in supporting families, and sanctioning their behaviour. This may strike some as an abstract, political problem, but in the daily lives of struggling families these mixed signals can cause doubt and confusion that serve to undermine trust in public services among their intended recipients and risk compromising their effectiveness.

In research published by Demos today, which explores the relationship between families in Scotland facing complex, multiple disadvantage and the support available to them, this relationship breakdown was widespread, and often contributed to making a difficult situation (such as job loss, mental health difficulties or bringing up children on a low income) even more difficult.

Two examples where this is particularly problematic, because support and sanction roles sit together within the same service, are the jobcentre and social services.

In the case of the jobcentre, parents often felt they were being forced to comply with certain terms and conditions attached to their jobseeker’s allowance claim and in return received very little real help in finding a job, or were offered jobs that did not fit their family circumstances, and were not informed about the full range of benefits and concessions they were entitled to.

A better arrangement would be for the support function to be outsourced to private and charitable providers, with jobcentres retaining the monitoring and sanctions role. Jobseekers would have a choice over which support provider they engaged with and would only visit the Jobcentre to sign on. This separating of the two roles would help clarify the relationship with jobseekers and ensure that the support function is viewed as truly supportive.

In the case of social services, this separation is trickier given the crucial importance of safeguarding children, but our research revealed a relationship between families and social workers that was frequently characterised by mistrust and suspicion, with families often refusing to accept support because of a fear of being perceived as inadequate, or of losing their children. As one parent phrased it, ‘they just think “fail, fail, fail”, and they take the bairn off of you’There are clear issues here, which need to be recognised and tackled.

In contrast, good relationships are ones based on trust, reciprocity and mutual respect, which empower people to ask for help when they need it rather than pull away out of fear or mistrust. For many support workers across Scotland and the UK the process of building this kind of relationship is second nature. The same approach needs to shape all public services at the structural level, eliminating some of their inbuilt inconsistencies. The worst public services are not those that take away, but those that give with one hand and take away with the other.