TWO: Creating the conditions for innovation to flourish

This chapter outlines some of the features, dynamics and constraints that characterise the social work and social care context in the UK, particularly within the field of extra-familial risks and harms. This discussion draws on a categorisation of ‘foundational contextual domains’ of innovation within which individual components may operate as barriers or enablers, depending on the degree to which they have been taken into account in planning and operationalisation. Individual innovation journeys may be particularly affected by one, several or all components within these foundational contextual domains. The chapter is structured with reference to our six-stage modelling of the innovation journey, which elaborates phases of: (1) mobilising; (2) developing; (3) designing; (4) integrating; (5) growing; and (6) wider system change. Within each stage, we consider ethical and practical principles for planning and implementing social care innovation. These should help an innovation to mobilise, flourish and sustain through its different stages, particularly in new systems and interventions at the interface between children’s social care, the multidisciplinary safeguarding field, third sector organisations and the transitional boundary to adult services with respect to young people in later adolescence.

Introduction

In essence, innovation refers to new approaches that transform existing systems, interventions or paradigms in pursuit of new ways of thinking and acting that are better in some way than what went before. Within this simple definition are embedded a number of ethical and practical considerations that need to be addressed if the right system conditions are to be created that will enable innovation to flourish in a particular context. In this chapter, we discuss some of the features, dynamics and constraints that characterise the social work and social care context in the UK, particularly within the field of adolescent safeguarding. This discussion draws on a categorisation of ‘foundational contextual domains’ of innovation within which individual components may operate as barriers or enablers (see Figure 2.1). This categorisation was constructed through a framework analysis (Goldsmith, 2021) conducted in the first year of the Innovate Project, which integrated findings from a critical synthesis review of the literature with a thematic analysis of interviews with 20 expert informants – policy makers, academics, strategic leaders or practice leads in the social care field in the UK (see Lefevre et al, forthcoming). Each component might impede or facilitate the process of innovation, depending on the degree to which it has been taken into account in planning and operationalisation. Individual innovation journeys may be particularly affected by one, several or all components within these foundational contextual domains.

A radial diagram illustrates the foundational contextual domains of innovation.
Figure 2.1:

Components of the foundational contextual domains that may facilitate or impede innovation

The following discussion of how these domains and their individual components influence the innovation process is structured with reference to our six-stage modelling of the innovation journey, which elaborates phases of: (1) mobilising; (2) designing; (3) developing; (4) integrating; (5) growing; and (6) wider system change. This trajectory model was developed through the Innovate Project’s knowledge synthesis of ten frameworks from the social innovation canon that have been drawn upon with some frequency within social care innovation projects and their evaluations (see Lefevre et al, 2022). Within each stage, we consider the ethical principles for planning and implementing social care innovation that we have previously outlined (Hampson et al, 2021), and raise questions for those funding and leading innovation initiatives to consider as part of project planning and review.

Considerations at different stages of the innovation journey

Getting ready to innovate

In the first stage of innovation – ‘mobilisation’ – organisations and networks begin to consider together the possibilities that a different way of operating might offer them. If innovation represents striving for something that works better than what went before, key questions are ‘Better for whom?’ and ‘How?’. Answers to these questions will differ based on the views, status and lived experiences of those involved in system or service design, delivery or receipt. These individual positions and perspectives will shape why people might think a new approach is needed, what they hope an innovation might achieve and the parameters by which they judge its success. Young people and families, for example, commonly want interventions and systems that centre their concerns, are easy to access and treat them with care and respect. Practitioners are likely to be drawn towards new ideas or practice models that deepen understandings of specific dynamics of risks and harms, help them engage with families more productively, and offer the possibility of enhancing a young person’s safety and well-being. While some service and system leaders may similarly be captured by a promising new design, others might be driven to innovate because a critical regulatory inspection means that ‘staying still’ is not an option.

For those holding the purse strings, money may create significant push and pull factors for innovation too. Many system leaders in our study mentioned the creative freedom that additional ring-fenced finance gave them in the change process, as it enabled them to cover their start-up costs while still meeting existing statutory responsibilities. This is particularly important with radical innovations like Contextual Safeguarding, which are disruptive of existing systems. In the initial design and pilot of Contextual Safeguarding in Hackney, for example, the substantial funding received from the Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme meant that the local authority could maintain its standard approach to child safeguarding for all children in the borough while it developed a parallel approach to addressing risks and harms in young people’s peer groups and environments – which was particularly disruptive and expensive because it necessitated the introduction of entirely new information technology (IT) systems, multi-agency processes and practice tools (Lefevre et al, 2020).

Our interviews with expert informants in the first year of the Innovate Project, however, indicated that service leaders might be driven to try out a new practice method or system that is projected to be cheaper to deliver if they are unable to meet existing service responsibilities and outcome indicators within existing resources and capacity (Lefevre et al, forthcoming). It is important to note in such scenarios, however, that ‘cheaper’ does not necessarily mean ‘cost-effective’ (Suh and Holmes, 2022). A more expensive approach to service delivery might well offer value for money if it results in better outcomes for children and young people in the medium to longer term. Transitional Safeguarding, for example, has not tended to attract dedicated funding, yet cost savings across different systems and the human life course forms one of the major arguments for its inception (Holmes and Smale, 2018). Yet, if organisations and systems are unable to sustain new approaches within existing resources, they may not be viable to deliver in the longer term:

‘The other thing is that innovation funding quite often is for one year, for two years, and there’s a danger that, you know, you set up this great innovation project and then when the funding goes, you simply can’t mainstream it because the money’s not there. It’s not because the will’s not there; it’s because you haven’t got the money there across the whole system.’ (Strategic service leader)

Hence, from inception, innovation planning should consider motivations for change, how and by whom aspired outcomes are to be judged, and the future sustainability of designs. These factors affect any subsequent analysis of whether innovation is the right way forward or whether more modest forms of continuous improvement (Keathley et al, 2013) or the better implementation of existing systems would be more appropriate (see Figure 2.2). Involving key stakeholders (for example, young people, parents, local communities and practitioners) in a meaningful way is as necessary as engaging those with experience of innovation design and implementation to lead or coordinate the introduction of a new approach (Sebba, 2017). The lived experiences of these stakeholders enhance both the practicality and trustworthiness of an innovation proposal (Hampson et al, 2021). Co-production processes can generate shared understandings of the nature of social problems, their potential solutions, the outcomes by which innovation success might be judged and the system capacity and capabilities that would be needed to achieve this. They can also lead to rich vision and shared commitment, which increases the strength and legitimacy of the case for change. In turn, this will be more persuasive in securing emotional and financial buy-in from key members of the ‘authorising environment’ (Moore, 2013), which includes senior managers, political leaders, commissioners and funders, and other local agency and community partners. Their support is crucial if any additional resourcing or strategic support is needed when the innovation experiences challenges along the way, as it invariably does. Indeed, as we found in our case-study sites, the lack of buy-in from strategic leaders was one of the biggest factors overall for those initiatives that struggled at various stages in their journey, even where there was strong and directional middle management in place.

A chart illustrates stage 1 and the contributing factors to it. The chart comprises a central circle surrounded by 6 boxes labelled with the contributing factors, pointing to the circle.
Figure 2.2:

Stage 1: mobilising for innovation

Design and delivery in the local context

While our trajectory model of the six stages of innovation provides a directional map for the innovation journey, it is primarily indicative (representing phases, aims and considerations commonly seen within successful innovation practice) rather than prescriptive (a formula or manual for achieving success). Innovation is not a ‘pipeline whereby ideas, resources, and the full range of prescribed activities [can] be fed in at one end, and aspired outcomes [will] flow out at the other’ (Lefevre et al, 2022: 10). Rather, it is highly context dependent, affected by the domains and components set out in Figure 2.1. It is essential that the second – ‘design’ – stage of innovation (see Figure 2.3) begins with an audit of what capacity there already is in the system, including where there are sufficient numbers of people with the right sort of knowledge and skills, before specific aspects of design are considered. These factors will lie at the heart of the development of the ‘theory of change’ – a logic model that maps out how and why innovators think that a particular set of activities, design features and operational capabilities will result in identified goals being achieved within that specific context (Mulgan, 2019). It matters at both a practical and ethical level who generates the initial hypothesis for the theory of change and the process by which it is explored and concretised into a coherent plan. This is important because the problem that the innovation is intended to solve needs to be understood from the perspective of all those whom it most affects (Lankelly Chase Foundation, 2017).

A chart illustrates stage 2 and the contributing factors to it. The chart comprises a central circle surrounded by 6 boxes labelled with the contributing factors, pointing to the circle.
Figure 2.3:

Stage 2: designing the innovation

The journey through the stages may not be unidirectional. As illustrated by developments in the Transitional Safeguarding sites discussed in Chapter Three, an iterative revisiting of innovation phases is not uncommon and should perhaps even be expected, particularly between the stages of design and delivery, when new system features and tools are being piloted (see Figure 2.4). Relating this to the ‘readiness’ and operational capacity components set out in Figure 2.1, innovation processes may, and invariably do, take much longer than expected to reach full delivery and become embedded (Sebba et al, 2017; FitzSimons and McCracken, 2020).

A chart illustrates stage 3 and the contributing factors to it. The chart comprises a central circle surrounded by 6 boxes labelled with the contributing factors, pointing to the circle.
Figure 2.4:

Stage 3: developing and piloting the innovation

This recursive, looping process will be particularly the case for entirely new innovations, as was the case with the Hackney pilot of Contextual Safeguarding, where, following Firmin’s (2017) initial theorisation that the contexts of risk themselves needed to be addressed if extra-familial harms affecting young people were to be ameliorated, all system components, tools, procedures, relationships and practices needed to be envisaged from scratch. Some two years into the Hackney pilot, the theoretical refinement of the Contextual Safeguarding framework elaborated two levels at which systems needed to address extra-familial harm: (1) incorporating contextual thinking about extra-familial relationships, networks and locations into individual work with children and families; and (2) developing practices, systems and structures that identify, assess and intervene within the contexts in which harm occurs (Firmin and Lloyd, 2020).

Hackney had responded to this refinement by incorporating the first level into its standard children’s social care offer while creating a specialist service of dedicated and highly skilled youth practitioners to encompass responsibilities at the second level. Stakeholders had hoped to have reached the integration stage of innovation after four years. However, when the second stage of evaluation was completed in the fifth year (Lefevre et al, 2023), this revealed that non-specialist staff in children’s social care were not building up enough experience in working with situations of extra-familial harm to feel confident and skilled in building relationships with young people or addressing unsafe contexts, even though they were better able to recognise, assess and address risks with individual young people. The chosen design had, in fact, unexpectedly embedded a situation that sustained rather than addressed this skills disparity and that lacked long-term viability without additional ring-fenced resources.

As a result, Hackney needed to return to the design phase to fundamentally rethink the distribution of roles, tasks and responsibilities within children’s services and at its interface with the interagency system (see Figure 2.5, originally published in Lefevre et al, 2023, p. 24). Our evaluation report concluded that ‘this state of affairs does not reflect any lack of work or commitment on the part of Hackney’; rather, ‘Given that the Contextual Safeguarding project constituted a highly ambitious programme of radical innovation, involving substantial iterative process change in systems, cultures and practices, then recursive loops of review and redesign should be expected, as with other transformative social innovations’ (Lefevre et al, 2023: 92).

A chart illustrates the 6 stages of innovation and the relation between them. It comprises 6 boxes representing the stages, connected by arrows that indicate their relationship with one another.
Figure 2.5:

The iterative process of innovation as seen in the Hackney pilot

Source: Originally published in Lefevre et al (2023: 24)

In the technology and human design industries, the mantra tends to be one of unharnessed creativity, where you ‘fail often in order to succeed sooner’; such permissiveness allows innovators to generate and test new ideas rapidly on a small scale, focus energy on those that have potential to make an impact, and return iteratively to the design phase if initial attempts do not gain traction in practice (Zuber et al, 2005: 3). However, developing and piloting new initiatives in social care is complex and can be fraught with tension in these highly regulated and bureaucratised environments, where there is a high degree of staff churn, constraints on the public purse and pervasive anxieties about potential harm to very vulnerable children and young people within a wider culture of blame, shame and fear, often fuelled by hostile media reports or interventions by politicians (Brown and Osborne, 2013). This pressure is more likely to create a climate of risk aversion than creativity, and, in turn, as highlighted in Figure 2.1, this becomes a barrier to innovation processes. Staff often experience anxiety about getting innovations ‘wrong’, and managers worry that they might be wasting (or seen to be wasting) public money if they do not ‘get it right’ the first time (Laird et al, 2018). Chapter Five discusses what this anxiety looks like in practice and how it might be addressed.

It was notable in our fieldwork that case-study sites that were able to move readily back and forth between the design, delivery and embedding stages were those that felt more confident in the support of strategic leaders, the interagency network and local politicians when they needed to move in new directions or revise aspirations. Throughout piloting and improving innovations, leaders and managers need to create a climate of curiosity, flexibility, reflexivity and adaptability, in which anxiety is contained and learning through experience is enabled (Baldwin, 2008; McPheat and Butler, 2014; see also Chapter Six). Brown (2015) notes that the development of knowledge about how best to facilitate innovation is impeded by the relative avoidance in the social care sector of publishing accounts of when, why or how innovations have faltered, or have taken much longer than expected. This needs to change, as an enhanced understanding of what causes innovation to struggle, and how it might be scaffolded at pivotal moments, would help to challenge prevailing discourses about failure and success, and build a more conducive environment for innovation.

Integrating and sustaining innovation

Careful attention to implementation-specific issues is important throughout the innovation process but has particular pertinence at the point at which there are sustained efforts to embed a new approach into systems and routine practice (Fixsen et al, 2005). Even at its most basic, delivering a new approach is a complex multi-level task that can be beset with difficulties. This is true of any sector and in any country, but ensuring that a new approach is able to embed as ‘business as usual’ in social care can be a particular challenge given some of the typical complexities of welfare provision in countries dominated by neoliberal policies and discourses:

  • bureaucratisation and high levels of regulation;

  • preoccupation with, and anxieties about, risk;

  • financial constraints amid a policy drive to reduce public spending;

  • high staff turnover and shortages in a climate of accelerating demand;

  • a requirement to engage with, and meet the demands of, multiple stakeholders, including many families with diverse characteristics and complex needs, some of whom are reluctant to engage or actively resist cooperation; and

  • increased competition and the diversification of delivery in line with governmental aims of bringing new providers into the sector, alongside the push to deliver better outcomes (Brown and Osborne, 2012; Sebba, 2017; Jones, 2018; FitzSimons and McCracken, 2020; Jesus and Amaro, forthcoming; Van der Pas and Jansen, forthcoming).

However, while there has been significant investment in the design of innovations in social care, the sector does not routinely draw on implementation science or use evidence-based implementation tools (activities, models or frameworks) to support the change process (Aarons et al, 2011; Kaye et al, 2012). Not acknowledging the importance of implementation-related issues or a lack of planning and preparedness through the different stages of innovation increase the chances that an innovation will be poorly executed, that fidelity to the underpinning model is low, that desired outcomes will not be achieved and that the new approach will not embed and sustain (Aarons and Palinkas, 2007; Fixsen et al, 2009; Blase et al, 2012).

‘Sustainability’ can encompass financial viability, staff morale and energy, narrative momentum, and the ability of leaders to ‘hold their nerve’ during the period before outcomes improve and cost savings are realised. Services will need to put mechanisms in place that make the new approach part of the everyday pattern of practice while having the reflexive mindset that continually collects evidence, generates learning and adapts iteratively. This is challenging to achieve without losing the underpinning principles and values of the innovation, particularly given the ongoing threat of financial, political and staffing constraints. How to sustain an innovation as new staff join who have not been part of the original development process is a significant challenge. In some of our fieldwork sites, the need for an ongoing programme of training in new approaches and continuing attention to building and maintaining a culture that reflects the principles of the approaches had not been anticipated but became necessary due to staff turnover. Similarly, maintaining momentum and commitment when the key individuals that have championed, coordinated or directed the innovation have left the organisation can create significant risks. This was the case in three of our case-study sites, challenging progress at the point when our fieldwork was ending. We would suggest that the integration stage is where the viability of the innovation is truly tested. Succession planning needs to be in place from the start, so that vision, culture, enthusiasm and institutional knowledge do not rest with one or two key individuals without whom sustainability is jeopardised (see Figure 2.6).

A chart illustrates stage 4 and its contributing factors. It comprises a central circle surrounded by 6 boxes labelled with the surrounding factors, pointing to the circle.
Figure 2.6:

Stage 4: integrating the new approach as standard practice

Scaling, spreading and wider system change

Once an approach has been delivered successfully at a modest and local level, it might then be considered for trialling in different sites or scaling up across a larger area (see Figure 2.7). However, there remains an unresolved question as to whether scaling needs to be justified through clear evidence of impact on end-user outcomes (for example, the enhanced safety and well-being of young people) or whether promising smaller, short- to medium-term indicators, such as increased practitioner self-efficacy, efficient service operation and positive qualitative feedback from children, young people and families, are sufficient. Although innovation funding and evaluation expectations usually have short time frames (often one or two years, and very rarely over five), it can take a significant period, sometimes years, to produce the desired outcomes of innovation (Garcia et al, 2019). The typical time frame for an innovation to have significant impact at scale is much longer (Lankelly Chase Foundation, 2017). This adds further weight to arguments for trialling appropriately resourced, promising innovations at scale and at an early stage, as this will provide significantly more knowledge of the transferability and efficacy of an emergent approach across diverse contexts (Mulgan et al, 2007). Nonetheless, a note of caution should be sounded in relation to the risks of a programme that does not ultimately improve service experiences and outcomes for children and young people becoming embedded in wider systems.

A chart illustrates stage 5 and its contributing factors. It comprises a central circle surrounded by 5 boxes labelled with the surrounding factors, pointing to the circle.
Figure 2.7:

Stage 5: growing and spreading the innovation

Mulgan et al (2007) suggest that it is likely to take even longer, perhaps 10–15 years, before an initial idea reaches the point of being reflected in wider systemic change, for example, being incorporated into national policy and practice guidance (see Figure 2.8). This longer timescale is apparent in the three frameworks for practice and service innovation we considered through this project. Transitional Safeguarding was first coined as a term in 2018 (Holmes and Smale, 2018) and remains at a relatively early stage in its trajectory at the time of writing. Trauma-informed Practice was conceptualised in the US in 2001 but only started to appear in the UK children’s social care sector from 2016. Since that time, it has infused a number of new approaches and is now reflected in Scottish policy through a practice toolkit (Scottish Government, 2021), as well as forming part of the principles of ‘the Promise’ made to children and families (The Promise, Scotland, 2020). However, as yet, it has not made any firm inroads into policy in the other countries of the UK.

A chart illustrates stage 6 and its contributing factors. It comprises a central circle surrounded by 6 boxes labelled with the surrounding factors, pointing to the circle.
Figure 2.8:

Stage 6: transforming the wider system

Contextual Safeguarding has had the most rapid trajectory. The original doctoral research by Carlene Firmin that generated the initial ideas was conducted during 2011–15, and its theoretical formulation was published in 2016 (Firmin, 2017; Firmin et al, 2016). The framework received national funding for its first pilot (in Hackney) in 2017 and was being further trialled in nine test sites during 2019–21. By 2023, over 80 local authorities and third sector organisations had engaged with the framework in some form on the basis of its projected promise, and the approach was named within the national practice guidance for Scotland on tackling criminal exploitation with young people (Scottish Government, 2023). Yet, no firm evidence of impact outcomes on young people’s safety is yet ascertainable (Lefevre et al, 2023).

Conclusion

This chapter has outlined system factors, dynamics and capabilities within each of the foundational contextual domains that need to be taken into account in the planning, implementation and review stages if they are to facilitate rather than impede innovation. The diagrams in this chapter provide key points to aid system audit and reflection at each stage. However, drawing on Costello and colleagues’ (2011) integration of Bronfenbrenner’s (2005) ecological systems theory with innovation practice, it can be seen that some factors and processes are more in the control of individuals than others. The personal competencies of practitioners and leaders are influenced by interpersonal relationships within the microsystems of teams and work with families. The operational capabilities, culture and climate of individual organisations (the ‘mesosystem’) are in dialogue with inter-organisational networks (the ‘exosystem’). All practices and local policies are affected by the ‘macrosystem’ of law and public policy (Costello et al, 2011). Innovations aimed at whole-systems change are characterised by particular complexity and distributed power (see Chapter Three).

With respect to Contextual Safeguarding, the aspiration for addressing risks and harms across local and public environments in which young people live their lives can only be realised through interagency commitments at a practical as well as principled level. This requires far-reaching conversations at an early stage about underpinning theorisations of the nature of the problem that innovation is projected to address and about which agencies do, or should, hold responsibilities for particular roles and tasks. With respect to emergent issues, such as extra-familial risks and harms, some of these fundamental issues are not yet resolved. A key principle of Contextual Safeguarding is that the social antecedents of harm must also be addressed; this requires a different approach at a political level to invest in the kind of public welfare measures and early intervention funding that ebbed away in the years of austerity (Billingham and Irwin-Rogers, 2022). While harms like child sexual exploitation have now been categorised within safeguarding procedures, there remains professional uncertainty about the degree to which the welfare needs of young people who are involved in ‘crimes’ like violence and criminal exploitation are prioritised over the prevention of crime and public protection (Lloyd et al, 2023). This can also not be fully resolved at a local level in countries, such as England, until the governance of child safeguarding, law enforcement and youth justice systems becomes better aligned within national systems (Firmin et al, 2022). As we go on to discuss further in Chapters Three and Four, it does often require a wider systemic take-up of an innovation before the promise that it offers can be truly operationalised.

Key chapter insights for policy and practice

  • There are six stages common to innovation journeys in social care: (1) mobilising; (2) designing; (3) developing; (4) integrating; (5) growing; and (6) wider system change.

  • The innovation journey is not necessarily linear, and stages are commonly revisited.

  • Social care should draw more on implementation science and evidence-based implementation tools (activities, models or frameworks) to support the change process.

  • Developing and piloting new initiatives in social care is complex and provokes anxiety because of the high level of vulnerability of service users.

  • Risk aversion can be mediated where strategic leaders, the interagency network and local politicians create a supportive climate where curiosity, flexibility, reflexivity and adaptability are enabled.

  • Innovation may be motivated by a hope that it will enable existing service responsibilities and outcome indicators to be met within existing resources. However, ‘cheaper’ does not necessarily mean ‘value for money’.

  • More accounts are needed of innovations that struggle, as this will build understanding of how to scaffold innovation at pivotal moments.

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