The introduction of Violence Reduction Units (VRUs) in 2019 represented a paradigm shift in the UK-government’s approach to reducing and preventing serious violence. Carl Binns discusses the importance of ‘thinking in systems’ and leading across sectors when implementing a public health approach to violence.
In 2020 I completed a MSc in Public Management and Leadership at the University of Birmingham. My dissertation topic explored the extent to which Violence Reduction Units (VRUs) are able to implement a ‘whole systems approach’ to the issue of serious violence, focusing on the West Midlands as a case study. This blog provides an overview of my key findings, as well as some recommendations to inform future policy development in this area.
In August 2019, the Home Office announced the awarding of funding; £35million, to eighteen police force areas across England and Wales for the establishment of Violence Reduction Units (VRUs). Their introduction followed a steep rise in serious youth violence across the country. In the West Midlands alone, between April 2019 and March 2020 there were 3,437 knife related offences. More broadly, violence with injury increased by 7%. (ONS, 2020) These multi-agency units were to be made up of a range of key agencies responsible for tackling and preventing violence and included representatives from health and education sectors, communities, local government and the police.
The national and local policy landscape
Working collaboratively to tackle complex social issues like serious violence is neither new, nor innovative in and of itself. As early as 2003, partners in the West Midlands recognised the importance of a local multi-agency response to serious violence following a high-profile double-murder in Birmingham that year. The Birmingham Reducing Gang Violence Strategic Group was established in response, aiming to combine police enforcement activity with targeted prevention work via a multi- agency partnership between the voluntary and community sector.
It was a number of years later before central government, perhaps for the first time, began to prioritise resources and strategic intent around the issue of youth violence at a national level, with the introduction of the Tackling Gangs and Knives Action Programme (2008) and subsequent Guns Gangs and Knives Programme (GGNP) in that same period. (2011) The GGNP marked a step-change in central government policy in the wake of the summer riots of 2011 and brought with it a dedicated ‘Ending Gangs and Youth Violence’ (EGYV) team and the investment of £10 million into 33 priority areas in relation to levels of demand around violence and gangs. (BRAP, 2012) As a policy initiative, the programme was not too dissimilar from the later introduction of VRUs, which also included ring-fenced funding dispersed across the country in relation to need.
This prioritisation of violence at a national level paid dividends and violence began to fall across the country. Knife related offences reduced steeply in the West Midlands between 2011 and 2015 before rising again in 2016. (ONS, 2020) This rise, both coincided with the end of the EGYV programme and acted as a catalyst for the creation of the Gangs and Violence Commission; a community-led partnership which undertook ground-breaking research to reach the voices of those most affected by violence.
Complex and wicked problems are rarely solved, but instead rise and fall in prominence amongst a plethora of equally complex social problems, from mental health, to homelessness and obesity.
These early policy responses to serious violence brought together an assortment of agencies and stakeholders with a common purpose. The strength of partnership and unity is evident in the work they were able to support and initiate. However, much of this early work took place in spite of the ‘system’ within which it was created rather than as a result of it. The cyclical nature of central government policy intent is evident in the string of impactful yet short-lived programmes of activity they have introduced. Complex and wicked problems are rarely solved, but instead rise and fall in prominence amongst a plethora of equally complex social problems, from mental health, to homelessness and obesity. The public policy system in the UK must be able to withstand and flex in response to this instability.
The West Midlands VRU has adopted a public health approach which brings with it a tradition of ‘integrative leadership’ and by its nature requires the organisation of a broad range of disciplines, agencies, and communities with a common goal. Centralised leadership around a specific issue, no matter how ill-defined, affords local policymakers the opportunity to home in on key issues and priorities, and take action quickly. Unconstrained funding, although released to local areas on an annual basis, enables organisations to commission services more intuitively, in response to need, and without the pressure of addressing a multitude of other competing service demands. VRUs then, can take the collaborative efforts of local partners and stakeholders a step further. With a political mandate, and direct access to the purse-strings, they are able to function as a vehicle for translating strong multi-agency leadership into practice.
Through a series of interviews with systems leaders from across a range of key sectors, the following key themes were drawn out. Together, these demonstrate the potentiality of VRUs in changing the way the system is able to tackle the issue of serious violence.
Overcoming the basics
VRUs are uniquely placed to support local organisations and practitioners in ‘overcoming the basics’, by making advice, guidance and information more accessible and taking central responsibility for convening key partners. Whether functioning as the ‘glue’ which connects otherwise disparate organisational priorities around violence, or as a ‘mirror’, encouraging organisations to consider their own practice and ways of working, VRUs can provide the key building blocks that form the foundations of an effective approach to violence prevention.
De-mystifying the public health approach
The public health approach to violence has at times confused as much as it has divided opinion amongst practitioners. Yet when stripped back to its core, the principles underpinning it can be found in many other evidence-based approaches across a range of different sectors. One key example of this is the SARA policing model; scanning, analysis, response, assessment which upholds data and evidence as integral to policy development and the effective targeting of resources. (COP, 2020) VRUs can help reduce the gap between theory and practice by testing and trialling interventions and strategies and clearly communicating findings.
Recognising the complexity of the system
Complexity theory has its roots in the work of computer scientist John Holland and describes the relationship between a large number of overlapping agents. Recognising complexity is one thing, navigating through it, is entirely another thing. VRUs because of the specificity of their mandate, can help other organisations draw connections and identify gaps within services. VRUs have the freedom to step away from the operational realities that can at times blinker professionals working incredibly hard to safeguard young people, enabling a more encompassing view of risk factors and protective factors.
Empowering others to view violence as their business
VRUs can help create a sense of shared responsibility around violence prevention and reduction activity. Much like the pioneering approach to identifying signs of domestic violence via hair salons, VRUs can provide the tools and means for all within society to act. Access to toolkits, guidance and advice can encourage new ways of working, and catalyse an intent for change into tangible action in the most unlikely of places. This nods to concepts of distributed leadership, and advocates for a movement away from top-down hierarchies to greater professional autonomy and community involvement.
Building a shared and compelling narrative
Timmins (2015) describes systems leadership as an act of persuasion. Humans are emotive beings that are stirred to action by stories that document the challenges and successes of the past and create a sense of urgency about issues of the future. Similarly, effective collaboration is often developed through understanding. In developing meaningful and sustainable relationships with communities and partners, VRUs are able to effectively weave data and evidence together with human stories to engage, convene and mobilise partners and stakeholders in violence prevention activity. This is perhaps the first and most critical stage of building trust and confidence amongst partners.
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to change the ways in which we live, work, and exist together as a society, stark reminders of another serious global public health issue are served in the too frequent reported fatalities of young people across the UK. VRUs, in their form and function, have the potential to engender real and long-lasting change within a complex violence prevention system. They must continue to foster and facilitate partnership working to deliver a safer world for future generations.
For more information on the work of the Violence Reduction Unit, please visit the West Midlands VRU website at: https://westmidlands-vru.org/
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BRAP (2012) ‘Stuck: Current approaches to the design and delivery of interventions to address gang-related violence in Birmingham. A research Report’, Available at: https://02a08475-bd52-4f44-99b0-28d4310ac347.filesusr.com/ugd/27aa99_dae6c57ddb334d2d87d2997e54770555.pdf?index=true
ONS (2020) ‘Crime in England and Wales Police Force Area Data Tables’ Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/datasets/policeforceareadatatables
Meadows, D. (2008) Thinking in Systems. 2nd edn. Edited by Diana Wright, London: Earthscan
Holland, J. F. (2005) ‘Studying Complex Adaptive Systems’, Jrl Syst Sci & Complex, 19, pp. 1-8
Timmins, N. (2015) ‘The Kings Fund: The practice of system leadership- Being comfortable with chaos’