Thursday, 23 November 2017

'Tabula Rasa' – or a blank slate - for child protection

I have always been a fan of ‘thought experiments’. They seem to be ideal ways of addressing difficult problems without having to conduct arduous, time-consuming and expensive research. Just the thing for lazy people like me!

Not that Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger were lazy.

When he was a teenager Einstein conducted a thought experiment that involved imagining what it would be like to travel along close to a beam of light at about the same speed. Working out the consequences of this visualisation helped him later to formulate his Special Theory of Relativity. [1]

In 1935, Schrödinger, an Austrian physicist, devised a thought experiment in which a cat inside a box turns out to be both alive and dead, without contravening the laws of subatomic physics. Schrödinger used this to illustrate apparent problems with the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. [2] As Niels Bohr, the leading exponent of the Copenhagen interpretation, once said: “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood a single word.”

So, thought experimentation has an impressive record of helping us to deal with difficult problems. Let’s try to apply it to the problem of how to design organisations which deliver child protection services.

My thought experiment goes like this.

Suppose we are taken away in an alien spacecraft to a distant planet not unlike earth, where they have very similar problems of child abuse and neglect, but no child protection services. Also let us suppose that the aliens wipe our minds of all our specific detailed knowledge of earthly child protection services, but leave the rest of our knowledge intact. That means that when the chief alien asks us to advise the planet on how to create an organisation to protect maltreated children we are starting with a blank slate, a tabula rasa as John Locke [3] would have called it. What do we advise?

Perhaps the first thing we would say is that because the nature and extent of child abuse and neglect is not fully understood, any organisation created to deal with it would need to be an organisation committed to learning more and more about the complex issues it was dealing with as time went by. Such an organisation would need to be a learning organisation [4], intensely research focused and constantly collecting and analysing information about the nature and extent of the problems it sought to cure. We would expect the organisation to be appropriately focused on understanding the needs of abused and neglected children and on ways to make them safer.

The second thing we might say is that any organisation which attempted to perform such a challenging task would need to be an organisation which was committed to constant self-improvement. The task of protecting maltreated children is dauntingly difficult. Only an organisation which constantly improved would be up to the job. It would not be sufficient just to have the occasional big leap forward when something major had gone wrong, or when somebody came up with a new idea. Rather it would be essential for child protection organisations to foster improvement all the time, on a daily basis.

Clearly safety is at the heart of child protection – it is all about safeguarding children and making them safe. Another way of putting that is that the services are safety critical. So, any organisation seeking to protect children would need to develop the most effective mechanisms for becoming safer and safer. It would need to follow the best practice of other safety critical industries. It would need to learn more and more about safety and how to make services safer. It would need to create and sustain a culture in which it was easy to identify safety problems and to analyse and understand them; and to come-up with ideas about how they could be addressed. That would mean creating the conditions in which all employees were able to talk openly about the things that go wrong and to learn from their mistakes.

Focus would be another factor that we would need to address in our design. We do not really understand the size and nature of the problems we are dealing with and we know that we have to keep improving our organisations to achieve higher quality and greater safety. But we also know that resources are limited. It would therefore be vital that any child protection organisation did all in its power to ensure that as much as possible of the available resource was directed at protecting and safeguarding children, and to learning how to do it better; not doing other things which are not essential.

There are, perhaps, two separate components of this issue of focus. The first concerns eliminating wasteful practices, while the second concerns devising systems which flow smoothly and efficiently. Wasteful practices might include unnecessary meetings or travel and, especially, superfluous bureaucracy. Making services flow means designing services in order to avoid unnecessary queues of people or backlogs of paperwork and administration or diaries packed with conflicting appointments. Bottlenecks, such as cases waiting for management decisions or delays in allocating resources, should be eliminated wherever possible.

Finally, our reflections would need to turn to the kind of people we need to deliver our services. Obviously, we would need highly knowledgeable people with a mixture of experience and new blood. A stable staff group would be essential, in order to retain the learning and expertise that other features of the design would produce. The people we would employ would have to be resilient, because dealing with child abuse and neglect is obviously very emotionally demanding. Sometimes they would have to be able to tolerate high levels of stress and pressure. In order to ensure this, we would have to select people very carefully and to make sure that once we got the right people we kept them. The culture of our organisation would therefore have to be nurturing and supportive.

Hopefully after a feedback session, the chief alien would be pleased with the recommendations we had to offer. To summarise we are proposing services which are:
  • user-focused and committed to learning more and more about the needs of children the complex issue of child abuse and neglect
  • improvement-focused with a commitment to constantly improving safety and quality; this requires an open and tolerant culture in which everybody can talk freely about the things which go wrong
  • lean, by which I mean focused on only doing those things which are essential to achieving our objective of protecting children and not wasting resources or allowing unnecessary obstacles to be put in the way of smoothly delivering timely services
  • nurturing and supportive to staff, recognising the demanding nature of the job

It is perhaps at this point where my thought experiment turns into something more akin to fantasy fiction. The chief alien suddenly waves a Jedi light sword above our heads and the memories of the child protection organisations which we knew so well on earth are suddenly returned.

Do we bask in quiet satisfaction that the organisational design we have just created, on the tabula rasa, matches the reality of our earthly organisations?

I somehow think not.


[1] See Einstein, A. Autobiographical Notes, (translated and edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp) Open Court Publishing Company, 1991.

[3] See Locke, J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 1st ed. London: Thomas Bassett, 1690.

[4] Senge, P. et. al. (1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization