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March 2nd, 2016

The Australian Centre for Social Innovation: the Family by Family (FbF) project

The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) is a not-for-profit working with the South Australian government to address problems such as social deprivation. Its FbF programme puts together families facing difficult challenges and families who have addressed similar problems, so that they can learn from each other’s experiences. The results have been positive and FbF is being rolled out in New South Wales and elsewhere in Australia.

The initiative

In 2009 the South Australian government established The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) and committed AUD6 million over three years to fund its operations. During its first two years, TACSI conducted a range of bold experiments and built a team to develop and test a radical approach to innovation powered by people.

High among TACSI's priorities has been its work in the area of families and child protection, which was one of its first projects. It arose from a request by the South Australian government to help cut the number of families needing crisis services and to help keep more children out of the child protection system.

TACSI worked with families to co-design a new programme to help them make the changes they wanted to make in their own lives. They found families who had been through tough times and connected them with families who wanted things to change. It is a programme that reflects as much professional knowledge as any programme, but it is all focused on the users' perspectives and needs.

The programme - “Family by Family” (FbF) - has a number of benefits. By tapping into families it ensures that support is available 24/7 as opposed to nine to five on a working day. And it is also extremely efficient - one professional family coach works with 15 “sharing families”, who in turn work with 40 “seeking families”, reaching up to 100 children at risk.

They use a process they call prototyping, which involves trying out ideas by testing them with real families until they discover what works. They listen to the families - the adults and the children - about what worked for them and what didn't. ‘“But by creating with families rather than creating for families, we've all worked together to develop something that truly works for families'”. [1]

The challenge

Like any region, the state of South Australia has low-income families that need the help of social care. The South Australian government wanted to help reduce the number of families needing crisis services, and to help keep as many children as possible out of the child protection system. What it was looking for was fresh thinking on the subject.

The public impact

TACSI's chairman, Nicholas Gruen, and his colleagues “can point to the positive impact of FbF as they seek to persuade other government departments to adopt a similar bottom-up approach to innovation. ‘We can present increasingly strong evidence that  expanding this programme will lower costs and improve the life chances of some of the most vulnerable people in society,' he says. ‘Not   many investments can make this claim'". [2]

An evaluation of TACSI's FbF programme found it had a 90 percent success rate in improving family life, and “for every dollar governments spend on FbF, they stand to save seven”. [3] Furthermore, it keeps children out of state care and other child protection and crisis services.

Stakeholder engagement

FbF is a TACSI initiative. TACSI is an independent not-for-profit, which is fully funded by the state government. The main government stakeholders are Mike Rann, the South Australian premier and the relevant state departments, such as Families South Australia. The TACSI chairman, Nicholas Gruen, and its CEO, Carolyn Curtis, are closely involved, along with many of TACSI's staff.

The other stakeholders are the sharing families and the seeking families, who are working together to improve their lives within FbF.

Political commitment

The funding from government shows a strong level of political commitment, both to TACSI and to the Family to Family initiative. In 2009, the South Australian committed AUD6 million over three years to fund TACSI. Support from the South Australian government was crucial in developing the organization's proof of concept for its methods.

Public confidence

There is little evidence available regarding the confidence levels of the general public in TACSI's FbF programme. Indeed, most South Australian families who are not in contact with social services are probably not aware that this programme exists.

However, among families who have engaged with FbF - either voluntarily or following a referral by Families South Australia (FSA) - confidence levels are mixed. Some referred families were initially dubious about the initiative, taking part only because social services required it of them (‘“Families SA told us we had to do it so we were both just like ‘ugh, let's hurry up and do this'”). [4]

As the programme progressed, though, the participants' confidence grew. “‘At the time, doing them [an exercise in defining family goals] it was like ‘let's do them because that's what we have to do' but then at the next meeting… they were helpful'.” In future, FbF aims to build initial confidence by providing more information about the programme to social workers, who can in turn better inform families at the referral stage.

Clarity of objectives

The overall objective of FbF is – as stated in The initiative above – to “cut the number of families needing crisis services and to help keep more children out of the child protection system”. The method of resolving the problems of socially deprived families through prototyping is innovative and was not clearly defined at the outset. “Instead of beginning with a predetermined outcome or established programme, we asked: what would be a good result for people? To answer that, we spent time with families, learning what motivates them, what excites them, what works for them". [5]

Strength of evidence

FbF is a pioneering scheme, but it has been gradually implemented with the use of pilot studies to provide some initial evidence of success. It was initiated over a 12 month period in Southern Australia. The scheme worked with families to develop a model that would be most successful in helping them make and implement change. FbF has now extended to three sites in Adelaide, and Western Sydney, with a long term aim of implementing the scheme over the whole of Australia.


TACSI’s state government funding meant that it was sufficiently well financed to respond effectively to the brief, a response that eventually evolved into FbF. TACSI had engaged in social services projects before and its staff were experienced in the disciplines of ethnography, design and prototyping, for example, which were used in the pilot phase of the project.


TACSI is a well-run organisation, led by its chairman, Nicholas Gruen, and its CEO, Carolyn Curtis. It has a team of 27 members with an annual spending in budget of approximately AUD4 million.

To address the lack of service design and co-production skills in Australia, TACSI recruited internationally to get its first projects of the ground.

Its methodology is to work by understanding the experiences of people living who encounter many social challenges in order to identify the ways to address them.  Then TACSI develops new programmes and services, and works with the end-users of those services to refine the approach. This prototyping methodology was applied to the definition of FbF.


TASCI initiatives take innovative approaches that are then measured to see if they are successful, and these are taken into account and used to adapt policies. ‘“We practise what we preach - we learn by doing, and test out our ideas and assumptions in our own real projects. Theory and practice go hand in hand'". [6]

The metrics that it uses to measure the success of FbF is the impact on families that use the service and financial savings of government. TACSI estimates the success rate of FbF at 90 percent, in that: “Our early evaluation suggests that 90 percent of families achieve their goals". [7] From a financial, rather than a social point of view, it estimates that the programme saves seven dollars of government money for every dollar invested in it. The money that it saves is money that would be expended on crisis management and child protection services.


It is a strong example of alignment since there was strong support from the government, citizens and professionals in designing FbF. The South Australian government was involved in both the funding of TACSI and was the original client of FbF.

TACSI's work is guided by a belief that co-production, where citizens and professionals work together to co-design and co-deliver projects, holds the key to solving social challenges. This shows that all the actors are aligned to each other towards the common goal. This level of collaboration operates between TACSI staff and between the different families involved in sharing their experiences and using them to solve problems and overcome challenges.

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