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Breaking down barriers
New Start – 11 October 2002

Five years on, is the Social Exclusion Unit still at the cutting edge - or has it begun to drift? Chief executive Claire Tyler talks to Mark Smulian

Back in 1997 the Social Exclusion Unit was Tony Blair's baby. Like the new Labour government, it would help build a new Britain by directing the laser-like insights of the country's best brains into the cobwebbed corners of the nation's most intractable problems.

Truancy, teenage pregnancy, rough sleeping - all came under the unit's spotlight. And then in January 2001 came the unit's magnum opus, the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal.

There was no doubt that the SEU punched above its weight. Its reports were launched by the prime minister, the Chancellor or John Prescott: when it pronounced on an issue, civil servants stood to attention.

And now? You might be forgiven for thinking that the unit isn't flavour of the month any more. Tony Blair has global security on his mind. The man who inspired its establishment, Peter Mandelson, has fallen from grace. The unit's one-time ministerial minder, Mo Mowlam, has retired to snipe from the sidelines. Most of the original staff and secondees have moved on.

But if there's a perception that the SEU is in the doldrums, it's not shared by its new boss. Claire Tyler took the helm last spring, arriving from the Connexions Service, where she had been deputy chief executive.

Neither is it shared by ministers, she insists. She points out that Tony Blair and John Prescott last month paid an unpublicised visit to the East Manchester new deal for communities project, where they spent almost twice their allotted time meeting residents - hardly the sign of a government that's lost interest.

Ms Tyler joined the former Greater London Council as a graduate trainee in 1978, eventually becoming head of its inner city policy unit. After the GLC's abolition she stayed for a short time with the Inner London Education Authority, before joining the civil service in the Department of Employment.

She now heads 65 staff - a mixture of career civil servants, direct recruits, and people on contracts or secondments.

But before she can put her stamp on the Social Exclusion Unit there is unfinished business in the shape of investigations into young runaways, transport and the education of children in care.

She hopes these will be out by Christmas, after which the unit will seek fresh work. But isn't this approach a bit scattershot after the very focused work on neighbourhood renewal, which is arguably where the unit made its name?

'The unit was set up back in 1997 to shine a spotlight on particularly intractable issues,' she says. 'Neighbourhood renewal was the first time the unit did a report that was more focused on areas than on issues and groups. It was almost a seminal statement of where the unit had got to over a wide range of issues.'

The current crop of work has therefore been 'a return to the original remit of dealing with disadvantaged groups', rather than a loss of focus. The Neighbourhood Renewal Unit has been set up to implement the SEU's recommendations on the ground, and the latter will retain a policy and support role, Ms Tyler says.

She explains: 'We do policy development to identify areas that are tricky cross-cutting issues that no particular government department owns, or which have proved particularly intractable. In nearly all cases an implementation unit is set up to ensure the task is done.

'Our role is one of support, to ensure the resources needed are provided, and sometimes to help unblock some inter-departmental issues and perhaps to say when we don't think they are giving something a high enough priority.'

While the unit has moved from the Cabinet Office to John Prescott's sprawling Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the job hasn't changed. Mr Blair has asked the unit to chase departments to make sure the recommendations of previous reports are being implemented and making a difference on the ground.

'A department might be signed up, but new priorities come along or ministers change and we just check that social exclusion is still high on its list of priorities,' Ms Tyler says.

There is still a lot of ministerial interest in what is going on in the 88 poorest neighbourhoods identified by the strategy, she adds. And if any department is tempted to ease up, it still has to meet the unit's 'floor targets' on neighbourhood renewal.

These mean that departments are judged on their worst performers. 'These are treated very seriously by Whitehall. There is a group of permanent secretaries who meet to review [performance against the] neighbourhood renewal floor targets. For the first time they will be judged on the worst, not the average or the best.'

Ms Tyler believes the unit's current role is a natural evolution. She says: 'We are at the stage of the unit's life and government's life where we are starting to reflect a bit more on approaches to implementation which work for socially excluded people.

'We look at what has worked for people who have not accessed services, or not wanted to, but is now making a difference to them, and we'll pull out lessons that may have wider application across mainstream services like education and health.'

The approach that has leapt out for wider application from this experience is one-to-one interaction between socially excluded individuals and those who work with them.

Claire Tyler draws on her experience with Connexions here. There, many senior posts had been appointed with young service users either on the interview panel or helping to draw up the job description. It is an approach she would like to apply more widely.

'We learned in Connexions how important it is for young people to relate to and empathise with their personal adviser or mentor, and build a relationship of trust. It is often the first time that an adult has taken them seriously and taken a long-term interest.

'It was fascinating, cutting edge stuff really. Personal advisers were recruited quite often from outside and we had young people helping with the selection and job description who were able to say who would be the right person.' Some advisers were former youth or careers workers, but others came from a range of backgrounds, including a dance therapist.

When Ms Tyler's successor was chosen at Connexions, there was a young person on the panel alongside two senior civil servants, and this had been the practice for the appointment of most local Connexions chief executives. Young interviewers were suggested by youth workers.

'There was no shortage of volunteers. In Whitehall terms that is quite ground-breaking stuff. There may be more of it in future,' she says.

She believes this one-to-one attention is important in making the unit's recommendations a reality. 'People may need help with family breakdown, housing benefit, finance or whatever, and need a personal help plan that goes beyond simply telling them they need to go down to the benefits office, a plan that gives direct advice and puts together a package of support.

'The caseworker may perhaps need to go with them, be their advocate and take that final responsibility. So much experience in past has seen people being passed through a succession of professionals from pillar to post with no one person taking responsibility. I think that is a really key issue that applies to community regeneration.'

The second big area on which Ms Tyler wants to make progress is multi-agency working - the 'joined-up thinking' lauded in so many reports and strategies, but which is often missing at street level.

Regeneration partnerships have often been hampered by confusion over which agency does what, and inevitably misunderstandings and turf wars have developed.

'Effective multi-agency working is where there is accountability and you really do have one person in charge of all agencies, whether it is police, social services or whatever,' she says.

'There are real issues of professional disciplines, like client confidentiality, but it is very important to agree information-sharing procedures where there is information that can be shared. We have found really effective models of multi-agency working which show what is successful.'

Teams with people from different backgrounds need a team leader, who has to be accepted as being in day-to-day charge. 'They have to put difference aside in best interest of clients. It would be very good to have different professional disciplines training together,' she comments.

But this would not be another case of Whitehall diktat. 'I would shy away from imposing any model from the centre. We have learnt not to prescribe from the centre how things are done, but to be clear about the objectives,' she says.

Ms Tyler says she is 'really keen' on passing messages about mentoring and multi-agency working to the front line professions, not just to the rest of Whitehall. The unit will produce events and magazines to spread the word, and will have a session this month's Urban Summit.

Meanwhile the unit's staff are working on proposals for its next projects, to be announced by Mr Prescott in the new year. Inevitably the unit receives unsolicited suggestions about what it should do, as well as taking formal soundings around Whitehall.

'We get a lot of ideas, but I'm very keen that, given the stage we are at, what we do next will add to knowledge of the causes and consequences of social exclusion,' Ms Tyler cautions.

'We will be asking whether ideas fill gaps in our knowledge base so we have a better understanding of the big picture and its implementation, and looking at areas with greatest impact on government policies and programmes.'

The Social Exclusion Unit may have been lying low, but you can expect plenty of headlines in the months to come.