THREE: Recursiveness in early-stage innovation

This chapter considers some of the dynamics and processes that may emerge during the early phases of innovation in social care and related settings, particularly when services are seeking to improve responses to young people affected by extra-familial risks and harms. As an emergent approach aimed at creating more developmentally attuned safeguarding responses for young people in transition to adulthood, Transitional Safeguarding proposes the need for ‘whole-systems’ change. The discussion draws particularly on the Innovate Project’s ethnographic research with two sites that were considering how the principles of Transitional Safeguarding might affect their service configurations. Ideas drawn from complexity theory and the ecocycles model of systems development are used to explore the iterative and recursive character of change processes during the early stages of innovation, including: (1) an initial stage where ideas emerge and resources are mobilised; (2) a phase where work focuses on the ‘maturation’ of ideas and productive struggles; (3) periods where momentum is lost, sometimes permanently; and (4) a potential time where there is renewal and re-engagement with ideas, leading to further iterations.

Introduction

In this chapter, we examine early-stage innovation in the field of extra-familial risks and harms through the lens of Transitional Safeguarding, a framework that envisions ‘whole-systems’ change. As outlined in Chapter One, Transitional Safeguarding is not a prescribed model; rather, it invites innovation based on local needs and the collaboration of a diverse array of local partners, including young people and their communities. While this allows for flexibility and co-production, it can also add particular complexity to innovation projects. We discuss some of the challenges, opportunities and key themes that have emerged for local areas seeking to create more ‘transitionally attuned’ local safeguarding systems. In addition to the insights generated by extensive ethnographic work in our two Transitional Safeguarding case-study sites, the chapter also draws on key informant interviews, reflective discussion groups and journey-mapping interviews with a number of other local areas in our wider community of practice that were also in the process of introducing Transitional Safeguarding.

In our analysis, we argue that the principles of complexity theory and the ecocycles model of development (Holling, 1987; Hurst and Zimmermann, 1994; Lipmanowicz and McCandless, 2013) provide a useful perspective for considering the experiences of our research sites during their early paths of Transitional Safeguarding innovation journeys, as they allow us to consider the decentralised, emergent, iterative and recursive character of change processes, situating them within a long-term view rather than judging them as either ‘successes’ or ‘failures’.

The complexity of whole-systems change

Transitional Safeguarding as a boundary-spanning concept

As outlined in Chapter One, Transitional Safeguarding envisions whole-systems change that is locally configured and involves co-production among a variety of organisations and services across sectors (for example, social care, health, education, housing, youth and criminal justice, and the voluntary sector), and with young people and their communities. ‘Transitional’ refers not only to how young people should be supported into adulthood but also to the need for safeguarding systems to span boundaries between – often siloed – services and systems (Holmes, 2022). A key informant in our research, involved in conceptualising Transitional Safeguarding principles at national levels, outlined how this means that change cannot be limited to parts of a system:

‘It will not work if just one sector responds. So, if you have an initiative that’s based in children’s services and doesn’t involve adult services’ colleagues right the way through, it will not work … there’s no one right way of doing it because every local authority is different. It has different priorities, it has different populations, and they will know their populations best. ... Transitional Safeguarding can be a little bit difficult to grasp because there’s not a, “Well, do this and it’s going to get sorted”. It’s not that straightforward.’ (Key informant)

The complexity of Transitional Safeguarding innovation is linked to its central premise of holism: it is not limited to new services for young adults, to extending existing services for children into early adulthood or to increasing the activities of statutory adult social care services to better respond to extra-familial risks and harms. All these aspects may be part of the ‘whole-system, whole-person, whole-place wellbeing’ transformation (Holmes and Bowyer, 2020) that Transitional Safeguarding seeks to achieve, but they are unlikely to solve issues in isolation.

Current societal challenges wrought by years of public sector austerity, the COVID-19 pandemic and a landscape of political and economic uncertainty in the UK provide a challenging backdrop for Transitional Safeguarding. Among the plethora of issues affecting both children’s and adult social care services in these contexts, questions about whether there is enough political will and momentum to prioritise creating better support and safeguarding systems for young people (see Chapter Five) are particularly live for Transitional Safeguarding. Unlike some other innovations focused on services for children (Department for Education, 2022), to date, Transitional Safeguarding has not attracted any dedicated funding from government sources. These challenges, along with the potentially overwhelming magnitude of the envisioned change, lend further weight to considering early endeavours to adopt the concept through a complexity perspective.

A complexity theory lens

Complexity is a key feature of the risks and harms experienced by young people, and therefore also needs to be a characteristic of responses to these problems (Firmin et al, 2022; Huegler and Ruch, 2022). Recent years have seen calls for public service and systems development to embrace key principles of complexity theory (see, for example, Fish and Hardy, 2015; Rutter et al, 2017; Lowe and French, 2021). Complexity theory focuses on interactions between parts of complex adaptive systems, particularly where these parts are characterised by dispersed and distributed control and power, non-linearity, and unpredictability. Having emerged from a range of fields and disciplines, complexity theory is transdisciplinary and blends diverse ideas and approaches (Gear et al, 2018).

In the context of ‘whole-system change’ innovations like Transitional Safeguarding, the principles of complexity theory offer a focus on the dynamic interactions between diverse and distributed agents and processes, with outcomes being hard or impossible to predict. Individual organisations responding to young people affected by extra-familial risks and harms, the local area ecology of such responses, and the national social policy landscapes directing such work are all examples of complex adaptive systems at different scales that operate in interaction (Lowe and French, 2021). The ways in which adaptive development (and hence innovation) happens in these systems involves recursive processes, that is, successive and interdependent iterations, whereby even small changes in practices can have significant repercussions. Processes of adaptation may include emergent and spontaneous self-organisation, such as the forming of informal groups or alliances that circumvent existing boundaries or hierarchies to promote the proliferation of new ideas. Boundaries in complex systems are socially constructed rather than objectively ‘given’; they connect rather than separate system contexts (Gear et al, 2018). Hence, the boundary spanning of Transitional Safeguarding innovation involves, above all, connection, networking, building and sustaining relationships through processes that can be described as examples of human learning systems (Lowe and French, 2021; see also Chapter Seven).

Our learning about Transitional Safeguarding innovation reveals themes of unpredictable emergence, diverse and distributed power, constructed boundaries as sites of connection, and iterative learning loops. In the following sections, we will use the perspective of recursive ‘ecocycles’ to outline how these processes influence early-stage innovation journeys involving and aiming for ‘whole-system’ change.

An ecocycles perspective

Innovation processes in social care have been described as following cyclical development phases that are not necessarily linear, from the conception of ideas and early exploration through to propagation and, eventually, spreading to systemic change (Hartley, 2006; Mulgan et al, 2007; Murray et al, 2010; Lefevre et al, 2022; see also Chapter Two). Not all stages may be experienced by every innovation endeavour. In this chapter, we turn to a perspective that extends this cyclical model to include the role of recursiveness and feedback loops that characterise change in complex adaptive systems. The idea of ‘ecocycles’ is represented as extending from a circle to an intertwined ‘infinity’ loop symbol. First proposed by Holling (1987) as symbolising four key functions and phases of a complex ecosystem, it was applied by Hurst and Zimmerman (1994) to the complex processes characterising human organisations and their connected environments. The four phases (see Figure 3.1) range through the following processes: (1) the emergence and ‘exploitation’ (effective use) of available resources for growth; (2) consolidation and maturation; (3) ‘creative destruction’ (which may involve actions, inaction or contextual ‘forces’); and (4) renewal, where resources are once again mobilised for a further iteration of the ecocycle. The back loop of creative destruction and renewal does not mean a return to the exact same starting point; instead, it ‘places complex systems in a cycle of continual transformation’ (Hurst and Zimmerman, 1994: 341).

The ecocycles model has become a feature of organisational and project planning, having been popularised by its inclusion as one of 33 ‘liberating structures’ (Lipmanowicz and McCandless, 2013), a repertoire of micro-approaches designed to promote collaborative and co-produced innovation processes. In this chapter, we use the ecocycles lens to trace and map four key phases in the early stages of Transitional Safeguarding development often observed within our case-study sites:

  1. 1.The taking up of Transitional Safeguarding ideas as a phase of (re-)emergence, drawing on previous ideas or initiatives where local innovation leads (whether in formal leadership positions or not) proposed a case for change. Enthusiasm and energy often characterised this phase.
  2. 2.The establishment of initial, and sometimes temporary, practices aimed at connecting professionals from different agencies (through working groups, panels, boards, protocols or hubs) and, in some cases, directly involving young people and community organisations. These practices generated and surfaced productive struggles and debates around the scope, directions and moral imperatives of required change. Such groups and practices were generally perceived not to be the ‘end point’ of Transitional Safeguarding development but rather as milestones on a longer-term journey.
  3. 3.A sense, at times, of stasis, impasse or even of decline and ‘failure’, when the potential for systems change was most likely to be questioned.
  4. 4.Anticipation of, hopefulness about and some indications of renewal, often accompanied by a resigned conviction that the persistence of the issues that Transitional Safeguarding seeks to address would lead to a return to this work at some point in the future.

We will now consider key features of these processes in turn.

Emergence of innovation ideas and making the case for change

Recursiveness is embedded in the very foundation of Transitional Safeguarding, as it both connects with long-standing concerns about the lacking capacity of systems to support young people during transition to adulthood and, concurrently, proposes new ways of framing these issues through the lens of safeguarding. For example, concerns about transitional support for young adults with complex needs (Social Exclusion Unit, 2005) or in the criminal justice system (Barrow Cadbury Commission, 2005) had been raised from the early 2000s. Similarly, our research partners spoke of the concept as naming “something that previously wasn’t named” and referred to examples of “unusual allies … who are doing Transitional Safeguarding, actually, without calling it ‘Transitional Safeguarding’” (innovation lead). Thus, the taking up of Transitional Safeguarding ideas and the decision to embark on innovation in line with this concept represented not just a phase of emergence of new ideas but also a degree of reconnecting with previous ideas and initiatives. Examples in our case-study sites prior to ‘Transitional Safeguarding’ being coined as a term included transitions projects or transitions worker posts in areas with large-scale police-led operations (linked to heightened public awareness) in response to the sexual exploitation of children and vulnerable adults. However, public attention shifting away from these issues had made such initiatives vulnerable to being de-prioritised, manifesting in decreased funding or ‘dormant’ unfilled posts.

The launching of Transitional Safeguarding initiatives created a sense of momentum about possibilities for change. During this phase of (re-)emergence, we noted in our sites evidence of both enthusiasm and ambivalence about the possibility of systems change, paired with a recognition that significant energy was needed in the context of ‘change fatigue’ in public services:

‘It’s about that kind of enthusiasm and energy because … in public services, especially now in the pandemic, you know, people are tired, and people are fed up of instability, and people are fed up of change, and so you’ve got to be really careful about how you approach a change.’ (Innovation lead)

In one site, again, prior to ‘Transitional Safeguarding’ having been coined as a term, work to create more transitionally attuned structures had been prompted by a crisis associated with a large-scale police investigation and subsequent public reports into the sexual exploitation of young people under and over 18. This led to the establishment of a dedicated transitional service. At the time, the energy of this change felt “like a rocket”: “everybody was driving it; everybody wanted it to work; everybody was on the same page” (service manager). Such energy and commitment, while marking enthusiasm for opportunities to effect change, also spoke to the pressures felt by professionals to mitigate the catastrophic consequences that extra-familial risks and harms can have in the lives of young people. In Chapter Five, we explore how such pressures can impact our expectations of what innovations might achieve.

Maturing and consolidating innovation plans and efforts

The initial commitment to innovation was often followed by periods of intensive work by the innovation leads in our various sites to rally support from different parts of local systems. Only in a minority of cases did this involve access to dedicated time or posts. Some areas actively involved young people and grass-roots community organisations, seeking their views on the most pressing issues. This phase of “listening to what young people are saying around what their risks and fears are” (innovation lead) was key for informing work plans and proposals, reflecting the centrality of participative principles within the Transitional Safeguarding concept.

However, these processes of co-production can also involve some tensions and challenges to professional perspectives, notably, that issues young people and grass-roots organisations identify as priorities do not necessarily overlap with what professionals consider to be urgent safeguarding risks. This is particularly relevant in a context that involves the reframing of safeguarding concepts to make them more expansive, inclusive and attentive to structural harms, as Transitional Safeguarding and Contextual Safeguarding have proposed, respectively (Holmes, 2022; Wroe, 2022). Balancing the widening of definitions with maintaining a focus on the acute risks facing young people in the highest situational vulnerability was a central theme for the conceptual work undertaken by sites during this phase:

‘It feels like we’ve got a very broad approach thinking about need, risk and harm, so there’s quite a bit of work around … transitional needs for young adults. So, some of the actions that have come forward have been based on what young people have said … ‘I need to know what services are available to me. Who’s going to help me with my housing? Who’s going to help me with benefits? Who’s going to help me with my mental health needs?’… [This] is really important but … how do we make sure we retain a focus on Transitional Safeguarding for those young adults at the most acute risk of harm, i.e., death, rape, etc, and not just think about generic needs across the board?’ (Head of service)

Debates and “misconception about what Transitional Safeguarding is and what we’re trying to achieve” (innovation lead) were also live in other areas, where workshops and conversations between hitherto disconnected and siloed services and organisations constituted a key part of the Transitional Safeguarding development work:

‘I spent a lot of time explaining to people … this is about system innovation and … supporting young people throughout adulthood and adolescent development … this is about working beyond eligibility. And I think, for our commissioning board, that’s something that was really hard for them to grasp. They couldn’t understand why we would want to do that because, for them … they were like, “Well, we’re already achieving it for these people, and the people that you’re talking about now, they clearly just, they don’t have need” … they’re still very diagnosis led.’ (Innovation lead)

Similarly, in another site, the productive struggles of this phase of work focused on convincing leaders in adult services to realise that existing services were not meeting the needs of young people affected by extra-familial risks and harms. Several individuals leading the introduction of a new system or approach in our research relied on being resourceful and working through relationships rather than strictly adhering to hierarchical structures of communication. In one example, a local area project manager used an interim report from the research team to convince senior leaders in a meeting of the need to address system gaps, describing the result as “push and awakening”.

In the context of the various challenges and struggles that influence the ‘ruling relations’ of innovation practice (Smith, 2005: 51), such as austerity, professional fatigue in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and local crises (see Chapter Five), professionals often focused on the moral purpose and significance of Transitional Safeguarding as “the right thing to do” (innovation lead). In particular, the drive to introduce Transitional Safeguarding was the concern that, without change, young people might come to serious harm, even die (see also Preston-Shoot et al, 2022). Reconciling such moral imperatives with the often slow pace of change in social care demands flexibility, persistence and the tolerance of uncertainty. In one site that had been developing transitionally attuned practice over several years, a service manager outlined the challenges of these balancing acts: in direct work with young people, small “baby steps” of change are often expected and accepted by practitioners, and may even lead to strengthened resolve about the importance of this work. However, where practitioners are confronted with the inflexibility of systems and their seemingly unyielding resistance to change, particularly as part of endeavours to innovate for systems change, this seems much harder to accept or tolerate: “If you’re passionate, and you want it to work and do well, and things aren’t working, the system is … that’s what starts burning you out. It’s not the people I’ve supported, the service user or the family that burns you out; it’s the systems” (service manager).

This interplay between hope and pessimism, described as sometimes amounting to “emotional oscillation” (innovation lead), speaks to the deeply personal impact of this work that we noted across the sites and the heaviness of the task that innovation ‘leaders’ have to bear (see Chapter Five). Where those leading innovation projects are close to practice rather than in strategic positions of authority and power, the need for support and emotionally containing spaces during the challenging, long-term and endurance-demanding efforts to change whole systems and structures is particularly strong. In Chapter Six, we consider how these demands in processes of change may lead to defences at organisational levels, undermining their capacity for transforming systems and practices. Such factors play no small part in the vulnerability of early-stage innovation projects to being derailed.

Declining momentum

Transitional Safeguarding developments in our fieldwork represent examples of early-stage innovation. For some sites embarking on the innovation journey, despite early challenges, progress and overall outlooks were promising: “We’re still on the journey of those conversations … we’re at a position with Transitional Safeguarding where, at board level, we’ve got that ownership and that agreement to the concept, which I think’s quite amazing really” (senior leader). However, in other areas, initial energy and widespread support for the idea of Transitional Safeguarding had been overshadowed by challenges that sometimes seemed insurmountable. The most common ones concerned absent or declining leadership support, changes in staff or priorities among senior leaders, waning support and participation from specific parts of a local system, and a loss of additional resources or funding to support initial work.

Worsened conditions and contexts of work had a significant emotional impact, with expressions during meetings and interviews invoking both notions of fighting and a degree of mourning: “a constant battle, a constant challenge … [which feels] like it’s gone backwards a little bit because compassion fatigue, impact on resources, cost of living, austerity. … I feel like there’s less and less people with that same passion and drive around it” (service manager). In such contexts, even work perceived as very meaningful and successful can seem to be ‘dwindling’ or feel ‘a failure’. Debates around the role of ‘failure’ are common in the overall innovation literature but a less openly discussed subject in social care innovations (Brown, 2015). Conversely, the history of children’s social care in England is overshadowed by narratives of failure. From a linear perspective, ‘failure’ might seem to mark the end of interest in, and engagement with, an idea, increasing the stakes and pressures on professionals to perform success (see Chapter Five).

Difficulties were compounded in areas where one or two people were left ‘in charge’ of endeavours for whole-systems change without sufficient support:

‘It’s mad that you all think there’s only one person that has got this … and without that ownership of our project group, and without people wanting to come to meetings and all that kind of stuff, absolutely you will lose traction, and it won’t be because it’s been deliberate; it will be because … you’re all focused on other things, whilst coming and saying warm words.’ (Innovation lead)

‘I can’t really think of the project as anything else but a failure. And I know that’s maybe a bit harsh, but … in my head, I don’t look back at that project and think, “Wow, we’ve really achieved something fantastic here”. It just feels like it’s kind of failed and it hasn’t achieved anywhere close to what I would hope it would when we were initially doing the project. … It’s not failing because of my lack of attempting to do that; it’s failing because my, the lack of support that I’m being given by people who should really be giving support.’ (Innovation lead)

While staff changes, particularly in the middle ranks of local authority leadership, are not uncommon, in two local areas, these pressures led to the professionals tasked with ‘leading on’ Transitional Safeguarding innovation – without themselves being in a position in the systemic hierarchy to direct or decree change – leaving their posts after instrumental periods of dedicated work. Despite the achievements of their work, which included involving young people and substantial groundwork to boost the case for change in their local areas, at the point of leaving, feelings of frustration, disappointment and a sense of failure dominated.

Renewing momentum

In our research, we found that even those professionals who spoke of feelings of failure or of having been failed by unsupportive cultures or structures did not consider this the end of Transitional Safeguarding developments in their local areas overall. Above all, this was grounded in their conviction that the principles of Transitional Safeguarding remained ethically, morally and practically justified in response to long-standing and persisting issues: “These problems won’t … haven’t gone away; they’ve been there for a long, long time. And do I feel confident they will have gone away in two years’ time, five years’ time? No, not really” (innovation lead). It was also clear that professionals were realistic about being “in … for the long haul” and “about what’s achievable and how long it’s going to take” (innovation lead). In one area, an innovation project lead considered that the recognition that “this isn’t going away” could actually lend weight to an innovation endeavour, as the recurrence of issues served as a reminder that inaction “isn’t an option” (innovation lead). For some, a long-term view provided a sense of hopefulness that, one day in the future, this work would regain priority status and their present efforts would pave the way for a smoother and more informed further iteration:

‘I feel like it’s going to be one of those things that, like, you know, when something gets put in a time capsule, and you think like everyone’s going to absolutely forget about this in two minutes, and then maybe sometime, somewhere, people will realise they’re going to do it, and I’ve already done all this work, and they don’t need to do it again! … And they could maybe take the ideas and run with them.’ (Innovation lead)

In policy and practice contexts where short funding and development cycles, as well as high staff turnover, are becoming increasingly commonplace, there are important questions about how learning and achievements across successive loops of innovation can be preserved. In particular, those involved in co-producing and leading innovations may need to consider how organisations, communities and individuals might be enabled to become collective ‘memory holders’ of such learning. We discuss the role of learning partnerships in innovation in more detail in Chapter Seven.

Conclusion

This chapter has considered some of the dynamics that may occur in early-stage innovation in social care through the lens of our case-study research on Transitional Safeguarding – an emergent framework aimed at whole-systems change. The complexity and potential scale of the transformation implied by the framework, and the absence of fixed models or blueprints for change, require flexibility, patience and persistence from those involved in this work. Using principles of complexity theory and the ecocycles model of systems development and innovation processes, we propose that the experiences of early-stage Transitional Safeguarding development journeys can be considered through a perspective of multidimensional and recursive ‘ecocycle’ loops. Importantly, and as outlined in Figure 3.2, we propose that the loops of different iterations do not (usually) return to the same starting point; rather, each time, the work undertaken influences and enriches the next version of innovation. Similarly, and as outlined by Lefevre et al (2022), this is not a deterministic model: developments may skip a phase or spin off to further refining work or in different directions altogether.

A chart illustrates the multidimensional recursive loops in the innovation ecosystem.
Figure 3.2:

Multidimensional recursive loops in early-stage innovation

The ecocycles perspective (and, with it, the question of how collective memories of previous iterations can be preserved) also draws attention to the significance of innovation as, above all, a practice connected to human learning (Lowe and French, 2021; see also Chapter Seven). This is particularly relevant in a social policy landscape marred both by short-termism and the long-term hollowing-out effects of austerity. Hence, while innovation aimed at whole-systems change should be built on ideas of change that are disruptive, it is also important to recognise the need for emotional containment for leaders and practitioners alike, and for the continuity of relationships and learning within these processes (see Chapters Six and Seven).

Key chapter insights for policy and practice

  • Innovations that aim to transform and change whole systems through participative and co-productive processes, involving a diverse range of actors, are characterised by a complexity that makes their development journeys hard to predict or control centrally.

  • The early stages of such innovations may be characterised by iterative loops of activity and learning, where momentum may fluctuate and include potential phases of decline and reinvigoration.

  • The ‘ecocycles’ perspective offers a helpful lens for understanding the dynamics that may be at play in these phases.

  • While co-produced innovations may offer the potential for transformational and enduring change to create better systems and services, they also pose particular challenges for those in charge of leading or facilitating projects and initiatives.

  • This means that (collective) consideration needs to be given to how those involved in innovation endeavours can be appropriately supported and how learning across cycles can be sustained and preserved.

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