‘Outcomes, outcomes, outcomes’: how Dorset is reinvigorating social work

A feature sponsored by Dorset County Council

Happy family moments - young girl having fun in the city

At Dorset County Council, we are on a five-year journey to transform the way we deliver social work. We want to create a culture where great social work can thrive, backed up by strong universal services and driven by a focus on early help.

Our challenge – reflecting the national picture – was that social work had become too bureaucratic, too process-led and too task-driven. It was not enough about improving lives.

So we have set out to reconnect social workers what matters and what works: working directly with families, building relationships and making a difference.

The council is being bold and brave by developing and implementing a common outcomes framework for all our services.

Everything we do is now linked to four cross cutting outcomes for local people: safe, healthy, independent and prosperous – ‘SHIP’.

Based on ‘outcomes-based accountability’, developed by Mark Friedman, (US author of Trying Hard is Not Good Enough), this approach is about driving innovative thinking to make a real difference to individuals and whole communities.

As Dorset’s chief executive, Debbie Ward, explains, “Our mantra is about uniting around outcomes not services. So, each director is now taking on the role of an ‘outcome champion’, which goes beyond narrow service priorities.”

We know social work is not an island, which is why our Forward Together for Children transformation programme takes a ‘whole system’ approach to change.

Our recent Ofsted inspection of children’s social care recognised our vision and the improvement journey we are on, led by our strong senior leadership team with its emphasis on early help and partnership working.

So, what does ‘good’ social work look like for Dorset? We need to demonstrate consistent and measurable outcomes for children and families and the quality of frontline social work practice and management support to deliver these outcomes.

We want to create an environment and culture that allows and encourages:

  • a passion to make a difference
  • innovation
  • initiative
  • reflection
  • challenge
  • accountability
Social workers with Andy Gill of Reinvigorating Social Work

Social workers with Andy Gill of Reinvigorating Social Work

We are working to deliver good outcomes through our tailored ‘Reinvigorating Social Work’ (RSW) programme.

This is an outcome-focused model of social work practice, supported by training and development, that places a high value on relationship building between children and their social workers and ‘getting it right for the child first time’.

The RSW approach was originally developed by Core Assets in four local authorities and independently evaluated with encouraging results (Cordis Bright, 2013; Research in Practice, 2015).

We believe the application of outcomes-based accountability to social work practice gives a clear and consistent framework for planning, doing and reviewing direct work with children and families.

At the heart of Reinvigorating Social Work are ‘6 killer questions’:

  1. What is the overall outcome for the child we are trying to achieve? (What does ‘good’ look like?)
  2. How will we know we have got there? (What are the key success measures linked to the overall outcome?)
  3. How are we doing on the most important measures? (What is helping and hindering progress?)
  4. What could work to make a difference?
  5. Who are the key people who could help?
  6. What do we propose to do together? (For example, a four-point action plan, including low-cost or no-cost ideas? How will we capture evidence of impact?)

Reinvigorating Social Work is enabled through evidence-informed practice. It includes strengths-based approaches and the application of techniques such as motivational interviewing. It encourages and enhances the existing abilities of social workers to build positive relationships, improve direct work skills, work more autonomously and take greater responsibility for their professional practice. This in offers a new and exciting model for delivering social work that we in Dorset will use to attract and keep great social workers into the future.

Janet Cull, social worker in the Purbeck team, says: “RSW is about remembering what good social work looks like and giving it a voice.” 

Reflective practice and supervision

Reinvigorating Social Work includes a learning and knowledge transfer programme, which we intend all social workers in Dorset to take part in. We will use training, coaching and action-learning methods to support on-the-job skills development. Reflective practice and supervision will be at the heart of improving practice. We will also include our partners in outcome-focused planning and direct work, develop social worker forums and a programme of user engagement to help us hear and respond to the voice of the child and measure quality and impact.

We believe that the benefits of our approach are: reduced demand for social care intervention; improved quality of direct work; increased efficiency; reduction in costs; reduced number of children in care; creation of the conditions for continuous improvement and a learning organisation.
Two girls leaning on a fence post
Our first cohort of social workers and frontline managers are half way through the RSW programme and is already leading to changes and improvements in practice. Social workers and their managers are helping to co-design the future programme.

As Zoe Yabsley from the Weymouth team says, “investing in social workers to give them time to reflect and think differently has been invaluable”.


To demonstrate making a difference we have learnt from Leeds City Council and implemented an ‘obsessions tracker’ with a supporting ‘report card’ or scorecard that has 10 of the most important outcome-related performance measures for children’s social care on one side of A4 (we are obsessing about less!).

Social workers and their managers are helping us to better understand the ‘causes and forces’ at work driving poor outcomes and, more importantly, what we could do to improve practice and performance. We are also taking the data trends down to team level and using the ‘turning the curve’ exercise to develop team action plans.

As Sara Tough, director of children’s services at Dorset County Council, explains, “Our Forward Together programme and Reinvigorating Social Work is about releasing potential in our staff to think and behave differently in order to make more of a difference.”

You can find opportunities to join our children’s social work team in Dorset on this page.

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