The change to children’s services is a seismic shift for councils. But political, managerial, financial, structural and cultural change will count for nothing unless outcomes for children are improved.
The Children Act Change for Children programme is founded on the five outcomes and the ambition, as Every Child Matters puts it, “to improve those outcomes for all children and to narrow the gap in outcomes between those who do well and those who do not”.
There is a danger that this focus on outcomes may be lost because:
We are witnessing the formation and nurturing of the necessary partnerships, the reconfiguration of services and budgets and the creation of new multi-disciplinary working. But this must not become an inward-looking process at the very time when the change must be driven by outward-facing and relentless analysis of, and response, to the needs identified in the community.
In the Improvement and Development Agency’s new update for children’s services, Show Me How I Matter – Part 3, we said that “integration of services must be planned, conceived and managed through a serious understanding of, and communication with, the local children’s sector and children, young people, families and carers themselves”. Otherwise, system changes will not make a difference to the lives of local people.
As well as managing change, local authorities are in danger of sinking under the weight of performance indicators. The regulatory framework is necessarily complex to do justice to the broad ambition of the Children Act. But for the joint review arrangements there are about 360 indicators. This makes it easier to lose sight of key and high-leverage indicators. Some even produce perverse incentives. We all need to work with the regulators to ensure the focus is on those indicators that really matter.
Despite the challenges we need to keep our faith in the changes. A core notion of children’s services is that of early support and intervention – preventing the need for subsequent intervention. But such a shift of resource needs time for the enhanced mainstream provision to impact on a reduction in more specialist support. So how do we get early progress?
Perhaps we can include in our thinking the results-based accountability (RBA) of Mark Friedman (www.raguide.org). RBA is a “disciplined way of thinking and taking action that communities can use to improve the lives of children, families and communities”. It starts with ends (well-being for children, families and the community) and works backward, step-by-step, to means. It is founded on the aspirations of, and for, children and young people and is predicated on a direct engagement with local people at the level of a local estate.
RBA has an emphasis on plain and inclusive language. It also focuses on the responsibility and accountability of partnerships and on the use of data rooted in the community.
It has an essential emphasis on “turning the curve” – those early, sometimes 1 per cent changes that start the process of improvement and provide the drive and motivation for further change. It is a counterpoint to the potential preoccupation with structural change and bureaucracy.
Show Me How I Matter – Part 3 is available for download from the IDeA Knowledge website at www.idea.gov.uk/children