Building solid foundations for a homelessness campaign

The Salvation Army

“Andrew was very communicative and helpful. His proposal and initial conversation were fantastic. He delivered the data incredibly quickly and we have ended up with a wonderful outcome. It’s the type of data that we’re probably going to be using on an ongoing basis and we might well be in touch with Action Planning again in future – he did such a good job.”

Jeremy Bushnell, Policy Officer – Homelessness, The Salvation Army

The Salvation Army has been working on homelessness for a number of years, focusing on the common contributory factors: specifically addiction and mental health. When the Government announced that it was going to invest quite heavily in homelessness services, it was good news because The Salvation Army had been campaigning for more money to invest in tackling these issues.

However, the Government hadn’t specified how the money was going to be spent, so the next step was for The Salvation Army’s Public Affairs Unit to influence that decision. To support this campaign, the unit needed data to prove what they knew anecdotally: that funding had been going down while demand was increasing. They knew there was a lot of data available showing how much had been invested by local authorities, Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG) etc, but needed someone who knew how to go about getting access to that data and bringing it together in a format that could provide easy reference.

Following a recommendation from a former colleague and some online research, Policy Officer Jeremy Bushnell felt that Action Planning would be a good fit and submitted an invitation to tender (ITT). “I was blown away by the scale of the organisation and convinced that there would be someone who could do what we were after,” says Jeremy.

Action Planning Consultant Andrew Humphreys, a service improvement and change specialist with a deep understanding of organisational cultures, took up the case. In Jeremy’s words, “He obviously had a lot of knowledge and passion for homelessness, but the big thing for us was that he very quickly got what we were after and wanted to know how the work fitted in with our wider work. It wasn’t just a case of ‘what do you need?’ but ‘why?’ and ‘how can I help?’.”

The original ITT was a request for funding data, showing how much money had been  invested in addictions/mental health services. But when Jeremy told Andrew that his unit was also looking at demand for those services – and having a lot of trouble finding the data – Andrew offered to expand his search to this data too.

Andrew set about collating all public data relating to NHS and local authority spending on substance misuse support available over the last 10 years. He used the data to produce visualisations of trends in key spending lines that communicated changes in public policy over this period.

This work was to be accompanied by an internal round of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, made by the policy unit to local authorities and NHS organisations for data about how demand for mental health and addiction support services had changed over the same period.

Andrew produced two data products that related to NHS spending and local authority spending and demand on addiction, mental health and homelessness support services. The first combined data from NHS England and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (formerly MHCLG) to produce a single dataset showing absolute and per capita spending on homelessness services, substance misuse and mental health support per local authority as well as demand data for NHS mental health services per local authority area.

The second data product included available data on NHS spending and demand for mental health and addiction services by CCG area. Both products had official geography codes embedded so they could be used with a geographic information system (GIS) in future, if required.

Because the products included data about the number of people who had received treatment or support with addictions and mental health issues over the period, this saved a significant amount of work in making FOI requests to NHS organisations, as these were no longer necessary.

The Salvation Army was very pleased with the project outputs as they enabled them to easily interrogate the data and apply their knowledge of homelessness, mental health and addiction policy to identify issues that are likely to have exacerbated homelessness.

“An important point,” says Jeremy, “was knowing how to present the data in a way that is very simple and easy for us to use and extract going forward.”

At the time of writing, Jeremy and his unit were analysing the data and pulling out key stats, which would be the basis of a new report being published on homelessness spending, how it should be spent, addiction and mental health.

Consultant’s insight:
Data is very powerful, when you know how to use it.

I could tell from the first conversation I had with Jeremy and his colleagues at The Salvation Army that they instinctively knew there was a relationship between government spending patterns on the factors that drive homelessness and the number of people experiencing homelessness, and that what they really needed was to “see” these patterns in a way that enabled them to pinpoint where one had affected the other. Fortunately, I had previously overseen a financial benchmarking programme for local authority spending so was very familiar with the data that would be available, as well as having experience in the homelessness charity sector. I was able to combine these two areas of knowledge in my approach to the work.

It was important for me that The Salvation Army would be able to pick up the work I had done and use it without the need for ongoing support from a data “expert”, so I used tools in Microsoft Excel to develop an easy-to-use interface that allowed them to interrogate the data without having to look through rows and columns of numbers. I was really pleased that the products we supplied not only enabled them to immediately identify changes in public spending that support their campaign, but that the data has enabled them to speed up their campaign without having to make costly and slow FOI requests to many organisations across the country.

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