Finding a radical solution to a common challenge I The Municipal Journal

In our 'age of austerity' the notion of 'efficiency' has become inextricably linked with cost savings. But efficiency is not simply about cutting money, it is about identifying and applying the most direct means to achieve a goal.

Not just how much resource is used, but how appropriate that resource is, when it is used and how it is targeted. In Knowsley, for example, developing ‘a skilled and reliable volunteer workforce to greatly enhance quality and availability of [early years] services and their impact on users.’ (Ofsted).

That is not to say money is not involved. Innovation Unit’s model for delivering efficiency in public services, Radical Efficiency, developed in partnership with Nesta, is about delivering public services that are different, better whilst also being lower cost. 

While the results are lower cost, that is often a result of, rather than a driver of design decisions. That is because, at its heart, this approach redefines the goal of the service being delivered by focusing on the end user. The starting point is not ‘how do we save money here?’ It is ‘what will most improve people’s lives?’

The radical efficiency model draws on new insights gained from public service users, exploring the real challenges faced in communities. It revisits assumptions about who the ‘customers’ are. It creates a shared understanding and articulation of an agreed challenge or need.

Ultimately, it enables commissioners and those delivering services to draw on new resources and new suppliers in developing more effective and efficient processes. It is about providing different and better services which also result in cost savings.

Innovation needs ambitious and tenacious leaders because it often requires going against the grain.

But in focussing on those who use public services, innovation through Radical Efficiency is absolutely about going with the grain. Understanding the detailed patterns and rhythms of real people's lives is the starting point and informs the whole process. An excellent example of the Radical Efficiency model in practice is evident in the work done by Innovation Unit and the Children’s Centres in the Whiston Area of Knowsley.

Knowsley’s population is subject to disproportionate levels of deprivation, being the fifth most deprived borough in England, the source of which can go back three or four generations. Based on “ACORN? classifications, one in two Knowsley households are “Hard Pressed? and virtually no households are in the “Urban Prosperity? classification. 

The radical efficiency programme:

  • brought together a mixed team to drive the work, interpret research findings and co-design solutions; comprised of children’s centre staff, parents and community partners.
  • carried out an exercise to segment potential service users;
  • conducted intensive research and insight gathering, working with families and the wider community to understand the real challenges faced by families
  • carried out “horizon scanning”, looking at innovations around the world in early years work, to stimulate new thinking on existing challenges; and
  • undertook a resource audit to understand how money was being spent and what impact it had. 


The insights generated allowed the team to reframe the challenge they were trying to address. They originally saw children’s centres providing a quality service for those who used them, the challenge being to get more families to come into centres.

Their new view was a desire to build and grow a community which had the capacity and resilience to be its own source of support for families. They wanted to achieve this by investing in community institutions and leaders, ensuring that neighbourhoods and services worked in partnership.   

During the programme, the team developed a shared vision around building the capacity of parents to meet the needs of the community and had identified a parent-led social enterprise that was ready to take on the challenge: Family Voices=Family Choices.  

Family Voices are commissioned by the Children’s Centre to deliver their universal offer tailored to local need. This allows children’s centre staff to focus on more intensive, targeted provision for those most in need. Before the programme, early years services in the two areas reached 22% of families, by 2012 the figure was 90% and registration 60%.  In 2013/14 alone, Family Voices registered 285 families (exceeding targets) and engaged 98% into activities. 

The number of volunteers involved has grown from two enthusiastic parents before the programme to 38 volunteers recruited in the last year alone.  Ofsted inspectors recently commented on the ‘exceptional’ nature of the volunteering scheme and that the ‘innovative work with volunteers boosts the centre’s capacity to increase numbers, run activities and  has improved resources through successful funding applications’ 

Family Voices is now a well-known brand with 5 of their volunteers now employed by the organisation. They have strong relationships with local families, partners and community groups. The positive impact on volunteers is also significant, with many moving into employment, training and leadership roles within the organisation. In addition to this volunteers report increased self-esteem, reduced isolation and a sense of belonging.

The centre’s recent Ofsted report noted the “Highly innovative work with Family Voices”. With inspectors commenting that they had not come across anything like Family Voices anywhere else and stating “This is really unique, really enhancing quality of service, access and engagement”.

Creating a measurably better service has also reduced cost, and Family Voices has brought in additional funding through winning various bids, service level agreements and fundraising. So it’s time to recognise that while efficiency can mean savings, it should - and as Knowsley shows can -  mean much much more.

Published 7th August 2014 - Lizzie Insall is Programme Lead (Local Public Services) at Innovation UnitJoanne Parry is Children’s Centre Area Manager, Whiston, Knowsley and co-led the radical efficiency work.
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