Innovation, Opportunities and Egos: How do we Deliver New Approaches for Child Welfare?

26th Apr 2016

In the past few weeks the government has released details of the latest innovation funding it hopes will drive change in the way social care for children is delivered, managed and commissioned.

At the same time, I saw that an NHS Trust has been commissioned to take over the running of a children’s service in Trafford under what was described as a section 75 agreement. An interesting development, which I will keep my eye on.

The innovation fund of £200 million follows on from a previous, similar, push a few years ago and some of this money is clearly identified to ensure successful ideas from that period can be evolved still further.

But this offer from government goes further in its vision as to who is allowed to innovate and get involved in what has mainly been the domain of our local authorities. The document clearly lays out an expectation that the private and third sectors should be engaged along with multiple authorities encouraged to work across boundaries to deliver services in a new, innovative way.

Now I am hugely relieved at this clear message that some of us who operate in the private sector are to be allowed to add our intellect to a professional arena, which is desperately in need of change.

I have had many conversations recently with safeguarding professionals from the public sector services, the charitable sectors, private businesses and the key inspectorates. The conclusion all have come to is the system is broken. Yes, it’s totally broken.

Yes, the system contains some amazing professionals, both practitioners and leaders; yes, it does in the main safeguard children in an appropriate fashion, but not always by any means; and yes, it is trying hard to hold its self together under unprecedented stress from various quarters. But I have the view, as do a lot of other professionals, that the structures and tensions those structures create are preventing the whole system approach, which is so desperately needed.

Most of us who have experience of safeguarding children have lived with the phrase ‘safeguarding is everyone’s business’. Well it is, but for many years I have been convinced that the ‘everyone’ needs to be connected seamlessly and at present they are not connected.

The individual structures and visions within services that safeguard (and do much else) are preventing effective and efficient delivery of safeguarding practice by all.

Every week I hear arguments that a service can’t possibly deliver what is being requested by its partners because of this apparently good reason or the other.

I sat at a board meeting recently where one commissioned service was pulling away from a multi-agency setting because the commissioners clearly didn’t understand safeguarding children and thought the service which was in place wasn’t delivering their expectations. The anger in the room was more than tangible, it was overtly articulated by the chair.

As I sat there I did think to myself where was the voice of the child in this ridiculous argument? The answer was that it was lost and the commissioners had their conversation wrongly tuned.

I served for 31 years in the public sector in the UK and abroad and can be very sure that the public sector and local authorities do not have the monopoly on good ideas, intellectual thinking and innovation. There are some outstanding innovators around in the sectors, but adding to that mix from outside must be good for the debate for change and the design and delivery of new ways for doing things for children and families, whatever their additional needs.

My own companies and those who work with me are just as passionate, and maybe more so, to safeguard and promote the welfare of children as those who serve in the public sector.

We have built a reputation for innovation and creativity and we are widely respected for it. We do it not to become rich, but to deliver continual service improvement and uplift in safeguarding practice.

I for one want to get involved in the government’s scheme and know we have something to offer. There is one troubling issue that seems to be the elephant in a lot of rooms: who is going to make senior leaders across the local authorities open their minds to innovation and change from outside their own castle?

It is definitely not the fertile landscape senior ministers might hope is there.

Innovation is defined as ‘a new method, idea, product, etc’ and by its very nature sometimes doesn’t come with an enormous academically robust evidence base! Innovation and the delivery of it requires dynamic, brave leadership with the right experience to support the decisions which will transform practice.

What performance measures does government intend to use to match those who continually fail to deliver; with those who refuse to engage in modern innovative conversations; with those outside of their particular domains or sphere of thinking?

Do we need legislation to ensure those who wish to innovate can challenge those who can’t change or see the need for change? Maybe we do maybe not.

Section 81 of the localism Act 2011 allows challenge to local authorities locally concerning the delivery of services. It isn’t widely used and is pretty toothless. It also isn’t relevant in these discussions as the private sector are not deemed as a relevant authority.

However we do it, we need to create a conversation and the innovation to support it, to deliver major changes in the way services for children and families are delivered across the professions. Multi-agency and partnership working has taken us so far, but continues on occasions to fail those we need to protect with dire consequences which seem to bring on a regurgitation of the same recommendations and excuses. How many times do we need to hear about learning the lessons when they are the same ones?

I believe we need to innovate in terms of service delivery and practice standards, but I truly believe we need to go much further.

We need to innovate to deliver a wholesale change to the delivery model, structures and professional boundaries we are constrained by nationally at present when we are trying to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.