Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Listen to children and young people and give people who directly provide child protection services a stronger voice

Although I tend to be sceptical about ‘expert’ groups and the guidance of the great and the good in the children’s services establishment, I have to admit that I found quite a lot to agree with in the Guardian’s article reporting a discussion between some heads of children’s charities, employers organisations, the Children’s Commissioner and some other equally important people.

When I say ‘quite a lot’ I mean in particular two of the seven conclusions – the other five seemed lacklustre in comparison.

The two I strongly support are:

“Ensuring that the voices of children and young people are heard in order to plan services that really work for them”

“Greater opportunities for staff to influence services and raise concerns” 

Let me just say why these seem to me to be key.

Firstly it has always seemed mind boggling to me that somehow we acquiesce in providing services for vulnerable children and young people (who are sometimes very hard to help) without taking any systematic account of how those children and young people experience the services, what their needs and wants are, and what their ideas are for service development and improvement. It’s as if the most important people in the whole process don’t count!

I think a national project would be the best way forward. People who really know how to talk to children and young people could be retained to have rolling discussions with a representative group who have experienced children’s services. That would not be prohibitively expensive and the results would be invaluable. They could be used to plan services by every local authority in the country.

Secondly there is an urgent need to involve systematically those who do the work in recognising, discussing, analysing and understanding what goes right and what goes wrong in the provision of services.

Talking about error is something that everybody needs to be encouraged to do and to be rewarded for. There needs to be a widespread expectation that everyone from the bottom to the top of the organisation will engage in this. The most effective way of improving child protection is by learning creatively from mistakes that are routinely made in the provision of services. In order to learn in this way it is necessary to create a real and lasting commitment to developing cultures in which people are not just allowed to talk about errors and failings, and to learn from them, but are positively encouraged and rewarded for doing so. Without open, honest frank and widespread discussion of how things go wrong, how will they ever be put right?

Sadly we know that a culture of blame and fear exists throughout the sector and that members of staff are often frightened to ask questions or to raise issues. Whistleblowers, raising important and genuine concerns about safety, have sometimes been treated very badly.

The other side of the coin is quality. The most effective suggestions for service improvements often come from people who directly provide the services. That is because they actually understand what happens, whereas those higher up the management hierarchy do not.

Continuous improvement approaches, in which small suggestions for improvement are constantly collected, analysed and acted upon, can have dramatic effects on service quality, because lots of small changes add up to huge improvements in the longer term.