Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Human factors thinking in child protection - cheaper and quicker than blue skies research

NSPCC Scotland’s Matt Forde, writing in The Herald, makes the astute observation that if inquiries into child protection failures worked, the problem of preventing child abuse and neglect would have been solved by now. He says: “Dozens of cases, over more than four decades, cite familiar problems – professionals not talking to each other, not putting the picture together and missing opportunities to act.”

Matt goes on to recommended increased spending on research into the causes and consequences of abuse and neglect – undoubtedly a very worthy cause – but my conclusion from his premise is somewhat different. 

If inquiries into the causes of disasters have not worked, we need to think of better ways of gaining an understanding of why things go wrong. That’s exactly what they realised in civil aviation in the 1980s and since then they have practiced human factors thinking [*] which helps all kinds of employees – not just pilots – to recognise how and why mistakes happen in the workplace and what can be done to put them right.

Human factors thinking is not about blue skies research. It is based on a number of simple skills, stemming from the insights of the psychology of human error, which are practiced daily by everybody involved in a safety critical activity, like child protection. 

It ain’t rocket science and it’s a lot cheaper and quicker than conducting huge studies into the causes and effects of abuse. And we could all be doing it, as they do in other industries, if only the leaders of the children’s sector and their political rulers would open their minds and see the sense of it.

* See Flin et al Safety at the Sharp End: a guide to non-technical skills Farnham, Ashgate, 2008 - for a very readable introduction.