In 2006, Eileen Munro, the author of the Information Commissioner’s report into the children’s database, asked: “When looking for a needle in a haystack, is it necessary to keep building bigger haystacks?” The point was worth making then and, unfortunately, it needs to be restated now.
Children’s services across England have, in recent years, fallen prey to numerous improvement plans that have focused almost exclusively on the need for compliance by social workers to a set of thresholds that, as resources have diminished, have been set ever higher.
Despite good intentions, this approach has not solved problems, but entrenched them. Funding pressures have resulted in many councils taking an axe to preventive and early-help services, thus reducing the focus on families. The result has been an all-or-nothing service offer: either children are embroiled in statutory services and formal processes, or they get no help.
The orthodoxy around improvement has been blind to the people involved in making any change happen. We have to understand the motivational characteristics of people who enter the helping professions. Our survey work classifies them as “pioneers” – individuals whose motivations leave them predisposed to incentives that reinforce their overwhelming moral desire to help people directly.
However, these pioneers respond negatively to overly process-orientated actions that are designed to satisfy the same moral outcome, but do not visibly offer the same level of direct action.
Many can find it difficult to make consistently sound judgments within the operating and economic structures set down by their employers in deciding who gets – and who doesn’t get – services, irrespective of the benefit that such structures ultimately seek to achieve.
This is demonstrably different to other public-service professionals. For example, one locality study we have undertaken showed that 74% of children’s services workers identified as pioneers. In contrast, the police in the same locality registered 25%.
It is this type of insight that should drive a new approach to improvement. We need to understand and work with this motivation to do two things. First, even in austerity, councils need to redouble their efforts and invest to strengthen their early-help offer; there has to be an alternative that people at the gateway to statutory services can have faith in. Second, councils need to demonstrate to practitioners the folly of admitting cases into the formal social care system when they do not really belong there, particularly if the motivation is “better safe than sorry”.
The challenges that children’s services face are as much the result of our failed approaches to improvement as they are a failure of practice. If we’re big enough to admit that, then we’ve got every chance of getting it right for the future.