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Blog: Harriet Janetta on driving Service Improvement

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WillisPalmer’s Head of Operations, Harriet Janetta says social workers are the organisation’s greatest asset when turning a service around.

Over the course of my career, I have had the privilege of working within a number of local authorities where they have been rated as inadequate within their Ofsted inspection. I was employed to help improve practice and drive through systemic change.  I say this was a privilege because these periods presented incredible opportunities to really make a difference to working practices and achieving improved outcomes for children and families. They for me were the most exciting and rewarding periods of my social work career.

Change within services does not occur overnight and is highly reliant on having strong leadership. So often children’s services are rated as inadequate due to high turnover of social workers. Creating a stable workforce, however, is not an easy task and requires time and a significant change in culture. Too many organisations begin with the premise that somehow social workers are to blame, the questions asked tend to be about “who” rather than “what” or “how”.  This inevitably leads to individuals becoming defensive in their practice, creativity and improvements slow down and the organisation becomes stifled. Managers need to promote ideas and a learning environment. Mistakes happen this is human nature, but it is the ability to learn from these errors that distinguishes a good/outstanding authority from an inadequate one.

Ofsted places great importance on having good management information to help understand performance. Having the information is just the start of the process, it is the use of that data that is significant and how this informs learning and improvements.  A clear quality assurance process is essential which incorporates regular case audits. These are not a one-off activity, to be effective they need to be repeated to evidence progress. The audits should be collated and analysed and information shared across the services.  The aim is always to improve services and develop organisational learning. They provide the clarity for social workers to understand and take ownership of the changes required to improve practice.

Service improvement will not be achieved without the buy-in from the social workers, they are the organisation’s greatest asset and making them an integral part of this process enables them to grow and develop in line with the organisation.

Findings from the data and audits need to then inform training for social workers and managers. Again, this is not a tick box exercise but an ongoing process that needs to be supported by observations in practice to be effective.  Social workers need to be given the tools to do the job and a good leader will facilitate this happening. They need to understand the direction of travel and what the organisation wants to achieve, therefore they should be involved in the development of performance, service and strategic plans.

Fundamental to all service improvement is the voice of the child and the voice of parents and partner agencies. For this to be meaningful will depend on the quality of the relationships and a stable, skilled workforce is essential to achieving this. The ability to work in partnership is a skill that I think is sadly lacking. There are pockets of good practice where this has been successful but too often organisations work in a silo culture where collaboration to create change is rare. In my experience, this has become more entrenched the harder that austerity measures have hit. The fact is, however, that without collaboration it is easy to see a time when local authority children’s services cease to exist.

Integrated frontline delivery between social workers, partner agencies, parents and young people, sustained by a shared language and shared process underpinned by joint planning and commissioning with pooled budgets is the only way forward. An organisation that works as a whole, respects and values the views of everyone and works in collaboration has the greater ability to achieve lasting change than one that is insular.

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