As the Munro report proposes freeing up councils to try new approaches to child protection, Donald Forrester warns that evaluation is the key to ensuring these would not waste money
The Munro report is potentially the most exciting and important development in child and family social work since the Seebohm report of 1968. Professor Eileen Munro has identified the pernicious impact of the centralised bureaucracy and managerialism that has brought social work to its knees over the past 15 years.
One of the most radical elements of Munro’s vision is the call for local authorities to be freed up to develop ways of delivering services that work for them – a move that is refreshing and could revolutionise children’s services.
But there is a fundamental element missing from the report: the role of research in ensuring that local innovations work.
The most prominent example of local innovation in children’s services, which Munro highlights in great detail, is Hackney’s Reclaim Social Work model. This model has effected a change from individual social workers holding a caseload to social work units holding cases.
These units include someone dedicated to dealing with all the administration relating to a case as well as advanced “consultant” social workers working alongside social workers and family therapists.
But one of the key features of the Hackney approach is that the council has actively encouraged evaluation. This has included the evaluation carried out by Munro but also robust independent research which we are currently undertaking at the Tilda Goldberg Centre at the University of Bedfordshire.
This involves gathering a range of evidence about the nature of the model and its impact on practice and the outcomes for children and families.
The fact that Hackney is keen to be widely evaluated indicates the importance it places on ensuring that what social workers do works. The failure to identify this crucial role for research is a major limitation of the Munro report.
Munro’s call for each local authority to “review and redesign the ways in which child and family social work is delivered” is a welcome appeal for innovation and experimentation.
But history tells us that not all experiments work. Even a method that works in one place may not work in another. Local evaluations of approaches are therefore essential as they are rolled out in different local authorities.
It is rigorous research that enables us to be clear about what services we are delivering and the impact they are having, and it is rigorous research that will allow social work to learn and disseminate what works.
The danger of localism without evaluation is that councils will develop new approaches that do not work – or even make services worse – but they will not know until it is too late. If this happens we as a profession will have turned an opportunity to transform social work for the better into a disaster for children and families.
Local authorities spend a far smaller proportion of their budgets on research than the health service or private companies – 0.3% of the money we spend on social services is spent on research compared with 5.3% in health.
Local authorities must build in the costs of research and evaluation into every service they commission and provide.
If we are serious about encouraging local experimentation, we need to be equally serious about rigorous evaluation. To experiment without evaluation is unethical and likely to waste scarce resources.
Opening our innovations to expert scrutiny – as Hackney has done – is the only way to ensure that local changes result in excellent services for the children and families we work with.
Professor Donald Forrester is director of the Tilda Goldberg Centre for social work and social care research at the University of Bedfordshire
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