Sagkeeng CFS Block funding and accountability

This analysis was produced by IFSD to support ongoing research in First Nations child and family services. IFSD's work is undertaken through a contract with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). The views and analysis do not necessarily reflect the views of the AFN.

Since 2019, Manitoba child and family services agencies have been operating under block funding, i.e., single envelope funding. From the outset, the block was underfunded. For many agencies in the province, the block has a negative connotation because of its association to reduced funding.  However, Sagkeeng Child and Family Services (SCFS) embraced the challenge of working with the block.  The agency had to change the dynamic of its spending to meet the parameters of the block approach.  Its efforts enhanced flexibility in decision-making and accountability to its First Nations.

The lessons from SCFS’s experience with the provincial block are relevant as funding approach reforms for the federal First Nations Child and Family Services Program are being negotiated. In a federal context, should a block approach be adopted it would be expected that the resources in a block would be commensurate to agency mandates, i.e., not underfunded as in the case of Manitoba.

The block approach:

  1. Means autonomy as a service provider.
  2. Enables allocations to meet service delivery needs.
  3. Requires accountable planning.

Changing the dynamic of spending in SCFS required action on three fronts:

  1. Making tough internal decisions on performing versus non-performing activities;
  2. Revisiting practice and (re)educating staff to focus on preventive services rather than removals;
  3. Building accountability into planning. 

“My objective as an agency is to be completely autonomous, so as to operate as if our own laws are already in place.”

Tough internal decisions

Manitoba’s block funding incentivized agencies to reduce their caseload because fewer cases of children in care meant lower expenditures for maintenance payments, protection staff, etc.  SCFS carefully reviewed its internal services and activities and made difficult decisions to cut non-essential services.  The management team worked to determine which services and activities were unused or non-performing and they were eliminated.

As this exercise was happening, SCFS spent time educating caregivers, e.g., about changes to their rates and services, and with leadership.  SCFS needed its community to understand and support its approach of working within its parameters to make it possible. 

For established agencies or other organizations, managing a block will be easier from SCFS’s perspective because they understand their approach to service delivery, needs, and issues.  For newer agencies a block risks being harder to manage as their approach to practice and history of service delivery is not well-established. 

Revisiting practice

With the block funding, SCFS had to shift the ‘mindset’ of practice from placing children in care to manage liability to accepting the risk of supporting children in their families.  While supporting children and families through intensive prevention services was a way to keep children out of care, it also meant lower maintenance expenses.  This meant that resources could be redeployed to focus on supports and services to keep children with their families.  SCFS used the incentive of the block, i.e., to work within a fixed budget, to use its resources to focus on prevention services.

Caseload composition at the agency has shifted. There are more protection cases that lead to more work with families, continuous supports and services, but fewer children placed in out of home care.  The approach means doing more to reduce the need for removal and addressing safety concerns for children.  The agency differentiates between a risk and an immediate safety concern.  When the concern is immediate, the child is removed. If there is a risk, that means further action is taken but not necessarily a removal to support the child and their family.     

SCFS changed the dynamic of its spending with the block approach.  Using the block’s flexibility to allocate resources to meet needs, SCFS could make decisions like hiring their own therapist.  They treated this as a reasonable expense to support children and families in contact with their agency. By controlling their resource allocation, they improved their approach to practice.  SCFS used the block to move money where it makes the most difference for children and families. 

Accountable planning

A block funding approach means the recipient takes on care and control in service delivery.  While the provider benefits from the flexibility of applying funds where they are needed, they are also accountable for working within the fixed budget. 

During their planning exercise for block funding, SCFS decided to retain 2% of their budget for unanticipated situations.  The decision was prudent as it provided SCFS with a cushion that it controlled for unanticipated situations.  For instance, There continue to be children with specialized support needs with costs that stress the agency’s budget.  Fortunately, the agency’s retained funds could be applied to manage the circumstance.  The situation, however, is not indefinitely sustainable.  From the outset, the provincial block was underfunded.  While SCFS has leveraged the flexibility of the structure, it remains accountable for working with insufficient resources. SCFS has had to seek resources elsewhere to sustain its practice. 

As an agency serving First Nations in and outside of community, i.e., on- and off-reserve, SCFS receives both provincial and federal funding.  Provincial funding under the block approach was focused on protection and prevention services for children and families in need of support.  The agency’s federal funding had different uses depending on the source, e.g., First Nations child and family services Program, Jordan’s Principle, etc.  Funds are managed separately for transparency, accountability, and ease of reporting on use. 

What did SCFS learn from the block funding approach?

  1. Changing a funding approach takes time, commitment, and good internal information.
  2. Ensure your management team is strong, competent, and supported by your First Nation.
  3. Build and manage your own contingency fund.
  4. Accept that changes to your service model may be needed and can be achieved.
  5. Establish a training unit to support staff to change their approach to practice.
  6. Accept that tough decisions will be required. Use your own information on practice and the needs of your children and families to make them.