Earlier this month I read a short paper at the BASPCAN Congress at Swansea University. The subject was "Lessons from the Business Literature". In the paper I tried to show the relevance of some big ideas in the business literature for child protection.
As usual when I talk on this subject, I felt that I had not got my message across very well. Part of the trouble is that there is a huge hurdle to cross - many people who work in children's services have a low opinion of management and ideas from business. And well they might, in a world where "management" often equates to burdensome procedures, silly performance indicators and poorly designed IT systems.
My argument is that this is "managerialism", which I believe is a misapplication of business knowledge. On the other hand there are some big ideas in the business literature which are much closer to the values and aspirations of child protection social work than may at first seem obvious. In the remainder of this post I want to look at some of them.
Back in July I mentioned the concept of Kaizen in a post about learning lessons. This is the idea of continuous improvement as a route to quality. Those who do the work are encouraged and rewarded for identifying quality problems in systems and procedures and given permission to suggest improvements. The emphasis is on small scale and frequent improvements, not large scale discontinuous change. Cumulatively this can have a very great impact, as Toyota demonstrated when it applied this approach to its manufacturing in the 1960s.
The need for a continuous improvement methodology in child protection services can hardly be doubted. The work is complex and our knowledge of child abuse and neglect is only partial. Social workers and other professionals are dealing with a rapidly changing external environment and need to expand their understading and knowledge at every opportunity. We also know that however good we think our procedures are, they contain "error traps" which can lead to tragic results. So having ways of systematically learning from experience is not a luxury, it is a necessity. And maltreated children have a right to expect that the services they receive are not just good enough but the best possible.
Closely associated with Kaizen is another concept which was also developed in Japanese manufacturing industry. Lean is the deceptively simple idea that we need to devote our energies to those business and professional processes which "add-value" rather than to those which don't. Put at its simplest this means that resources should be directed so far as possible only to those activities which are strictly necessary to satisfy the needs we are trying to meet. In child protection terms this means activities which either prevent child maltreatment or which rescue children from it and meet their resulting needs; not administration, paper-work, recording or meetings.
In the mid 20th century Japanese manufacturing companies realised that they were wasting time and resources on non-value-adding activities such as administration, in-process inventory and re-work. They developed an abhorrence of waste and gradually moved towards a situation in which all changes to the production system were vetted for their contribution to establishing a truly lean environment. In child protection work in Britain we appear to have moved in the opposite direction by developing ever more complex procedures and time consuming recording and IT systems. The amount of time that front-line staff are engaged in administration appears to have increased dramatically. Indeed it is hard to find any evidence that the impact of changes such as new procedures, recording and assessment systems on the ability of front-line staff to practice effectively have ever been evaluated.
Becoming lean would involve child protection services rigorously re-assessing where value is added and where it is not. Procedures, recording systems and administration need to be re-designed to maximise the time available for direct value-adding work with families and children.
Another theme I tried to develop in my Swansea paper always fills me with trepidation. There is no surer recipe for upsetting an audience of public sector welfare professionals than the mention of the word "marketing". But I believe we need much more market focus in child protection. It seems to me incredible that services are organised, delivered and re-organised with only passing reference to vital facts such as what is the prevalence and incidence of child abuse and neglect and what are the needs and wants of maltreated children. The only serious attempt at discovering the true nature and extent of the problem in Britain was the research led by Pat Cawson at the NSPCC in the late 1990s. She used marketing research techniques to discover the prevalence of child abuse and neglect among a sample of young adults; had they been abused as children, how often, what was the nature of the abuse and what did they do about it?
I was pleased to hear recently that the NSPCC is planning to repeat the prevalence study, but once every ten or so years is not frequently enough. Children's Services throughout the country need regular and frequent survey data on the changing nature and extent of the problem they are tasked to respond to. And the information should not just be national; we need local surveys too. Inevitably public money is required to fund this type of research. Without it we will continue to provide services based on guess work, speculation and uninformed opinion, rather than a true understanding of the needs and wants of abused and neglected children. Whether you like the phraseology or not, they are the "target market".
Market focus, continuous improvement and "leaness" are not hollow management slogans. They are solid, rigorous approaches which have resulted in huge advances in both commercial manufacturing and services. To practice these approaches is not easy; it requires substantial shifts in culture. Fundamental is the idea of a learning organisation; an organisation in which all employees are empowered to learn more about the needs they are seeking to meet and to bring about better ways of meeting them. Bureaucracies driven by what are often illogical and confused public policies (of the Every Child Matters variety), and which seek to proceduralise the work through a tick box culture, will never meet the complex needs of vulnerable children.