“Our change journey is unlikely to ever end. We are constantly reviewing, adjusting, making iterative changes and then doing the hard work to embed them into business as usual.”
Hampshire’s children’s services was rated outstanding by Ofsted in 2019, but the development and transformation of their service continues, as Steph How, area director (east) and strategic and operational lead for transformation, is proud to explain.
Steph says that Hampshire’s senior leadership team is “acutely aware that delivering high quality services for children and families means systems and processes must always change and evolve, without destabilising services or practitioners”.
‘You cannot stand still’
She adds: “Even when your services are judged to be outstanding, you cannot stand still or resist further change – you must continue to adapt and respond to an ever-changing landscape.”
This has become a guiding principle for the Transforming Social Care programme in Hampshire – which began in 2014 after a successful bid for innovation grant funding from the government.
“We knew, like many authorities, we had processes and systems that led to too many children in care long term,” says Steph. “When we looked at the reasons for that, we realised the systems we had in place did not help social workers to prioritise reunification options throughout the child’s journey. We needed to build the foundation for reunification before the child even comes into care, and that’s about our culture just as much as our processes.”
Senior leaders were also conscious that Hampshire needed a unique model of social work that would support practitioners when undertaking direct work with children and families.
‘A system that worked for us and for children and families’
Steph says a social work framework also helps create a sense of identity and purpose for everyone, helping practitioners understand what they are working to achieve.
“We did a lot of research and found lots of models on the market, but we couldn’t find one that we felt met all the needs of Hampshire. We knew we needed each element to be flexible and adaptable. We needed a system that worked for us and for the children and families in Hampshire, not us working to fit into a model.”
So, the ‘Hampshire Approach’ was constructed. It draws on a lot of the existing evidence base about successful models of social work but is blended and adapted to local needs.
Steph says: “It’s a strengths- and relationship-based approach. It introduces other specialist practitioners into social work teams, such as intensive family support workers, children’s mental health practitioners, substance misue staff and domestic violence practitioners.
“We were very clear that we didn’t want it to be prescriptive and to hand out a manual to practitioners. It’s a set of principles that each practitioner applies to their work. We then provide the support, tools and the training to all of our teams to be able to implement the approach. It’s lovely to be in meetings and hear practitioners engaged in intense discussions on how to apply the principles in individual cases.”
Redressing social work’s power imbalance
Steph says the ‘Hampshire Approach’ is also about correcting the power imbalance inherent in social work.
“It never ceases to amaze me that I can knock on the door of someone’s house, enter that house, look in their fridge and ask personal questions about how they live their life – often without question. The Hampshire Approach is about shifting that power imbalance, using relationship-based work to give the family more ownership and control over the changes they need to make.”
Sarah Plummer is a member of the Children’s Services Transformation Practice, a team of change professionals from a range of backgrounds, who work with their operational colleagues to design and implement their transformation projects.
“What is refreshing about working in Hampshire is that the main driver for change is improving outcomes for children, not cost savings. Our leadership has always been clear that we’re here to make sure families get the right help at the right time, we want to keep and return more children safely to their own homes, and help children in care to thrive. If we do that right, we’ll be a more efficient and effective organisation and reduce costs – but that isn’t our main driver.”
We know cutting corners doesn’t work.”
Consequently, the approach to change has included extensive collaboration and consultation with frontline workers.
Staff consulted at every stage
Sarah says her job was to ask the right questions, collect feedback from staff and work with them to generate ideas through workshops and groups. A system was simultaneously put in place to collect iterative feedback throughout implementation, to ensure staff were constantly sense-checking changes and testing for unintended consequences.
Similarly, staff were consulted at every stage to ensure the changes were also having a positive impact on them – not just their work and outcomes, but also their work-life balance and ability to do their roles successfully.
Sarah cites a current example of the work they are doing to create a ‘family plan’ – a single plan that goes with a family on their journey through social care services.
“We had a group of 30 practitioners who helped us design and test it. They took it back to their colleagues and worked with different teams and at different levels to understand all the challenges. That group then presented the findings to Stuart Ashley, the deputy director for children’s services. In this way, social workers could see, very clearly, how their ideas were directly influencing Hampshire’s change journey.”
Through this process it became clear early on that the changes would need to be more encompassing than initially envisaged in the bid for innovation funding, and this has now been extended to areas such as placements and contact arrangements.
“When we were finalising the Transforming Social Care plan, we told the senior leadership team it would take years to implement the kind of systemic change they wanted. They accepted that and signed up to it. That was really important,” Sarah comments.
Stability of leadership
Steph says that the workforce and leadership team in charge of the change management process are still led by the same people seven years on.
“That’s something to celebrate because it signifies a real stability and long-term commitment to change.”
She also points out that because Sarah and her consultant colleagues do not have a social work background, they provided a valuable different lens for managers, leaders and social workers to view the system anew.
“All of them [the consultants] really immersed themselves in the business. They engaged and worked hard to understand the pressures, but they also challenged us on the way we do things. It’s not often you have the opportunity to work that way and I feel that I have personally grown immensely as a leader and manager from working with Sarah and her team.”
Hampshire children’s services has had significant support from the wider county council to invest in staff, ensuring that practitioners are able to flourish and that children and families receive the right support at the right time from the right professionals. Steph points to the recruitment of 53 intensive and specialist roles, initially established with investment funding.
“I knew that these roles would be deemed to be successful if we felt we couldn’t do without them and that’s exactly what’s happened. Every single one of those practitioners is now permanent.”
Social workers’ excitement
While Hampshire works to create processes that are constantly evolving and responding to need, both Steph and Sarah can see a time in the not-too-distant future when this will lead to services not having to be reactive. Instead, they will continue being more proactive, identifying at-risk families and supporting them before they reach crisis point.
But for Steph, one of the most rewarding elements of the Transforming Children’s Social Care programme so far has been seeing the engagement from social workers.
“I do feel that there is real excitement amongst them about what we are doing. Yes, there’s a lot that is challenging [for social workers] and that’s right and proper – we need to have high expectations of our services. But I think they also feel safe and confident enough to challenge us which is really important.”
You can also find out more about the Hampshire Approach.