Thursday, 21 January 2016

Risk and Innovation – sloppy drafting, sloppy thinking?

There is a very sloppy paragraph at the top of page 7 of the UK government’s recent document (Children’s social care reform: a vision for change January 2016)

It blithely states:

“But we see far less genuine innovation in children’s social care than in comparable services, with most areas feeling unable to take measured risks in the interests of children for fear of falling foul of prescribed approaches. This must change.”

With only a little thought, this paragraph unravels as you read it! What do they mean by ‘genuine innovation’ (presumably to be contrasted with innovations which are not genuine, whatever they might be)? What are these 'comparable services' and how have they innovated? And what do they mean by ‘measured risks’ (how are they measured and by whom)? Then there’s the issue of to whom the risk applies (those taking it or those on the receiving end of services). Shockingly that's not made clear. Finally there is the implicit claim that innovation requires risk taking, which is by no means self-evident and is probably not even true because there are many examples of how innovation actually reduces risk - for example new rules on the number of lifeboats ships carried after the sinking of the Titanic.

Just as there are ‘urban myths’, so there are ‘policy myths’. This paragraph has all the hallmarks of policy mythology - slippery arguments and sweeping statements for which there is no evidence but which superficially sound plausible and which could have big implications. The extent to which the paragraph can do damage is already becoming apparent. Children and Young People Now’s headline proclaims: “DfE to encourage children’s social care providers to ‘take risks’”.

And the magazine goes on to report that there are already discussions taking place with Ofsted about what kinds of risks people can take. The Chief Social Worker for children and families has apparently stressed on Twitter that they are only concerned with measured risks, not just any risks. But we are not given any guidance about how to recognise a 'measured risk' if we saw one; or how to measure it.

For my part I wonder if some people know very much about risk taking and innovation. I only hope that nobody makes the crass mistake of thinking that in order to be ‘innovative’ (and so please the government) you need to put the welfare and safety of a child at risk. That would be really stupid.