Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Future of the NSPCC

The NSPCC (The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) has been in the news this week. The Guardian has an interview with the Society’s Chief Executive and also reports on the publication of new All Babies Count research.

Andrew Flanagan, the former TV executive who now heads the NSPCC, explains his new strategy for the Society. Instead of spreading its resources thinly by providing a range of services, he believes that in future the emphasis should be on selectively testing out new ways of working and developing new policies on child protection, with the aim of persuading government and the children’s services establishment to adopt them if they prove successful. Flanagan speaks of the NSPCC aiming to become “an incubator for social polices”.

This is not an entirely new approach - I can remember people talking about it at the NSPCC in the early naughties – and clearly it has some merits. But it is not without its difficulties. A significant one is that it will take a great deal of ingenuity to persuade the public that they should contribute money to a ‘think tank’ rather than to a good old fashioned provider of services. Being able to say “we helped x thousand children last year” has a reassuringly tangible ring to it. Saying “we tested some experimental services which didn’t work very well” is probably not a donation winner. However, some medical research charities have been very successful in Britain and perhaps there are models there that the NSPCC can emulate. But I suspect that the public have greater faith in medical research than in social ‘science’. And the demonstrable benefits of new drugs and treatments are a lot easier to understand and communicate than the all-too-often ephemeral outcomes of social experimentation.

Another difficulty that this new approach faces is that some of the services provided by the NSPCC are not suitable for absorption into state provision. On-line or telephone counselling services for children, such as ChildLine, need to be able to give assurances of confidentiality which, even if they were forthcoming from statutory services, would be unlikely to be trusted by children and young people. In similar vein, one of the really valuable things about the counselling services that the NSPCC has provided in schools is that these are services that are not part of the school establishment. Children know they will be treated differently by a voluntary sector service provider and welcome the opportunity to share their concerns and anxieties outside the formal bureaucracy of the school.

But perhaps the most important difficulty with the 'think tank' model is that there has never been a shortage of people in Britain ready to propose new ways of working in child protection. In the 1970s and 1980s researchers identified different forms of abuse and ways in which it can occur. Experts and civil servants proposed new procedures to deal with these challenges. Then, in the 1990s inspectors suggested that services needed to be refocused to take more account of children's needs. To ensure that this happened various frameworks and checklists were developed. In the early 2000s the Government and the children's services establishment became preoccupied with information sharing and the potential contribution of IT. Procedures and checklists were brought together to create IT systems which did not work.

Arguably the cumulative effect of many of these changes has been that child protection services in Britain have become ever less professional and more stressed. Children are in danger of being processed rather than helped. Depressingly, child deaths and critical service failures persist. And those people who deliver the services remain as confused as ever about what they should be doing and why.

The problem here is one of 'top-down' rather than 'bottom-up'. It is so tempting to allocate service development to a technocratic elite, working in ideal laboratory conditions, and to allocate service provision to a much larger group of 'doers', working in the real world. But the effect of this division of labour is seldom as productive as it first promises to be. The demonstration models developed by the technocrats often do not resonate with the humble service deliverers. Resentment and complaints of blue-skies thinking fill the air. Reforms and new ways of working are formally adopted, only to be subverted and remodeled into traditional practices at the earliest opportunity. Organisations do not learn; members of staff learn to see off innovations and to subvert change.   

Andrew Flanagan tells the Guardian that he wants the NSPCC "... to become a nimble, instinctive risk-taking champion for children: defying the government and the charity establishment when required, rather than always seeking to join hands with it." I have no problem with the NSPCC being more willing to challenge Government and to be more assertive, but I do not believe that what we require is an ivory tower think tank. The real challenge of achieving high quality in child protection services will not, in my view, be met in this way. Rather what is required are ways of creating the conditions in which those actually doing the work are enabled and involved daily in taking responsibility for service improvement, resulting in continuous developments based on first hand knowledge of where the service fails its users.