I first learnt about the policy for Integrated Service Providers (ISPs) when I was a final year undergraduate through a group presentation. I had largely agreed with the group’s take that the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) was going in the right direction in consolidating youth at-risk services island-wide, although at that time I was already comparing ISP with Hong Kong’s Integrated Children and Youth Service Centres (ICYSCs). ICYSCs are formed as one-stop centres providing a range of services for children and youth, targeted at different needs in the service boundary. But of course, since it wasn’t really going to be tested in the exam, I didn’t give ISP much further thought.
I guess it was better for me as a newbie social worker, and my team that I didn’t think so much. My team was preparing the proposal bid for ISP when I joined and even as a small fry I knew that it was a high stakes proposal. I got that message clearly when I was discouraged from sharing information/resources with other organizations who are likely putting up the bid as well, until after we had (hopefully) been awarded the ISP.
Well, that’s fair competition right? Yes, right. If I were the team lead, I probably would not have done things differently, because losing the ISP bid meant that the entire team’s relevance in the organization would be thrown into question. And for the organization, it would mean a loss in both funding and the reputation as a quality service provider for youth work. At the same time, I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that there was something wrong in this culture of putting social service agencies into competition with each other to ‘provide services to benefit the community’ (NCSS). Below are some thoughts from (I must qualify) a 2 years’ experience worth of ISP.
Ways That ISP Has ‘Worked’
The suite of programmes run by ISPs are remedial interventions for youths who have surfaced a problem, like high school absenteeism or criminal offense. Remedial interventions rank high on the urgency scale, and so it makes sense for MSF to focus resources on boosting the quality of these services. The consolidation of services to 9 service providers allows stakeholders that channel referrals for these services to know clearly which ISP to refer a youth to. Such clarity is always great, especially when a youth requires urgent intervention.
Secondly, a major stakeholder is the schools that the children and youth are in. Our team invested time to build relationships with school personnel and figure out the school culture. This was because we knew that such collaborative relationships are essential to achieve the best outcomes for the youths, but also that ISP gave us a direct mandate/legitimacy to engage with the schools. Through these relationships, we were able to introduce other preventive youth programmes that expanded our reach to youths.
How Is It ‘Integrated’, Though?
From MSF’s stated aims, the integration in ISP is the aggregation of youth at-risk services in the 9 appointed ISPs for better service delivery in the youth sector. Well… aggregation of services is not the same as integration. Integration connotes a combination of different elements to form a unified whole. Within these programmes, the only possible integration I can think of is the MSF-influenced emphasis on using a cognitive-behavioural approach for casework and groupwork. This can be understood as the approach has extensive empirical support and regarded as superior to other psychosocial treatments. However, I wonder if such an emphasis on intrapersonal change might become blinkers for social workers, taking our attention off the wider sociocultural milieu that might warrant our professional expertise to influence as well. For example, if we understand the delinquent actions of a youth as the only way he/she knows how to get success and validation, we might begin to think about how the other school/home/wider societal contexts that the youth is in can be more affirming. Oftentimes, it is because youths constantly ‘fail’ in these contexts that they seek out alternative ways to feel successful. Thus, a cognitive-behavioural emphasis might not fully meet the needs of the youth.
Each ISP has their own unique range of developmental and preventive programmes that complement the remedial programmes, but unlike Hong Kong’s ICYSCs these may not come under one centre or service boundary. Of course, there may be other organizations running programmes for youths of lower risk in the same service boundary. Such specialization can be advantageous, to the extent that ISPs can coordinate and collaborate with these organizations especially with regards to aftercare when youths ‘graduate’ from the programmes. I wonder if social service agencies see their services in context of the services that other organizations provide for the same target group. And is the default to seek integration/collaboration for the best interests of the target group, or is it to see the other agency more as a competitor because of organizational interests? I really do hope that when MSF reviews the policy this year, more thought can be given to how to support the entire youth sector in increasing the integration of youth services across the developmental-preventive-remedial spectrum. The results may not be easily measurable because it is always hard to measure a problem that is prevented. Yet this can help youths receive support earlier, before they are classified ‘high-risk’ and issues become more entrenched.
Perceptions From Fellow Youth Workers
While ISPs and Hong Kong’s ICYSCs cannot be compared directly, opinions from the social workers may be helpful in improving the policy for ISPs. I suspect that they may be similar. Lee (2003)’s survey conducted 8 years after ICYSCs were formed revealed that while the workers largely perceived that their interventions were above average in effectiveness, they also felt constrained by the lack of human and financial resources. Further, while they appeared to support the concept of service integration where there is flexibility in deploying social workers to meet the different assessed needs of the youths, 59% of them felt that it was not practical given the current resources.
A major theme in the reasons given for why the model was impractical was that there was lack of direction given by the government/mother organization/team supervisor on how to implement service integration. ISPs do not face this because there isn’t a directive to integrate services targeting different needs at present, but the presence of this issue within ICYSCs after 8 years is quite telling of the difficulty in doing so. This may be the next challenge for the youth work sector, in cooperation with the government, to figure out what service integration across the different organizations doing youth work looks like in Singapore. This may require a coordinated effort to support preventive and developmental youth work with more resources, while encouraging organizations within the same service boundary to dialogue on how they can collectively serve the best interests of the youths.
So, this is my unsolicited take on ISPs and a bit of my still-forming thoughts on the social service sector in Singapore. Would really appreciate thoughts/comments on what I have written- especially if it is to point out something that I didn’t consider!