EIGHT: Implications of this study for policy and practice

This final chapter of the book steps back from the detailed scrutiny of different aspects of the fieldwork to consider overarching insights from across the Innovate Project, with reference to: (1) innovation theory and practice in social care; (2) the particular intricacies of developing/introducing new systems and interventions to address extra-familial risks and harms; and (3) critical perspectives on conceptions of childhood, risk, vulnerability and public funding mechanisms. The authors consider the distinctive nature of innovating in the field of adolescent safeguarding, particularly how system capabilities and innovation processes operate at the interface of children’s and adult social care, the multi-agency safeguarding and criminal justice systems, and the voluntary and charitable sector. The chapter identifies the insights that support and align with existing literature and those that offer new insights and ways forward. Implications for innovation practice in other countries with a similar conception of social work, social care and child welfare are considered.

Introduction

This book has considered three interrelated domains: (1) the conditions that facilitate, rather than impede, innovation in social care and related settings; (2) the specific factors and processes relevant to innovation in the field of extra-familial risks and harms; and (3) the characteristics of Contextual Safeguarding, Trauma-informed Practice and Transitional Safeguarding as innovation frameworks, and what they demand in adoption and implementation. In this final chapter, we step back from the detailed scrutiny of different aspects of our fieldwork and the insights it has generated to consider the overarching themes that have emerged across our diverse research sites and wider project activities. We reference those themes that support and align with existing literature and those that offer new insights into innovation practices, suggesting some ways in which innovation in this field might be progressed. However, rather than concluding the book with an itemised list of recommendations of ‘how to innovate in social care’, we refer readers back to Chapter Two, which sets out the foundational contextual domains that may facilitate or impede innovation, and offers insights into how they should be taken into account through the innovation journey. Instead, in this chapter, we offer critical reflections, queries and provocations for innovators and policy makers before summarising some key implications for innovation policy and practice in this field.

While our fieldwork took place in the UK and we have referred many times throughout this book to the UK policy and practice context, many of the more general insights regarding innovation made within this chapter have relevance for practice improvement and system change in other countries in the Global North with a similar conception of social work, social care and child welfare. We specify where we think our insights apply primarily to the UK and couch the whole discussion within the caution offered by our most strongly emphasised point made in this book: context matters when innovating and adopting approaches trialled elsewhere – and it matters whether that be at the local level, cross-nationally or across country borders.

Key questions for social care innovation in the field of extra-familial risks and harms

Is innovation the right way to proceed?

Innovation is a field of activity that involves radically different ways of thinking and acting compared to the status quo but that also needs to balance paradigm and system transformation with ethical concerns in order to mitigate against any potentially negative unforeseen consequences that disrupting services for vulnerable people may entail (Hampson et al, 2021; see also Chapters Five and Six). This is important in social care generally but particularly so in systems and interventions for young people affected by extra-familial risks and harms given the delicate balancing of risk, care, rights, voice and autonomy that is involved (Firmin et al, 2022). As such, innovation is situated in the liminal and interstitial spaces between continuity and change, connection and disruption, and the micro-level of seemingly small changes to everyday practice and the macro-level of large-scale systems change. In complexity theory terms, this position is described as the ‘edge of chaos’ (Hudson, 2000), characterised by maximal creativity and capacity for problem solving.

The critical ‘troubling’ of taken-for-granted assumptions at the start of the innovation journey that can be facilitated by these conditions includes querying not only whether existing practices and systems meet the needs and rights of young people, families and communities but also whether innovation is likely to provide the hoped-for benefits and improvements. Both as a first step before embarking on innovation projects and as an ongoing frame for critical reflexivity, innovators should consider the following questions: ‘Can innovation solve the “problems” it is intended to address?’; and ‘Is it possible for innovation to succeed against the structural “odds” that may impede new practice systems or methods flourishing and sustaining over time?’ (Hampson et al, 2021). As we discussed in Chapters Two, Three and Four, innovation may well be necessary to find new and more effective ways of responding to young people affected by extra-familial risks and harms because current systems often undermine more incremental approaches to practice improvement. In the case of Trauma-informed Practice (see Chapter Four), for example, it transpired that individual practitioners struggled to sustain new learning about this practice framework unless it was reinforced by higher-order system transformation regarding supervision, workloads and emotional containment.

Innovation also provokes and sanctions the unsettling of existing paradigms and the co-production of rights-based, youth-centred, relationship-based ways of seeing and responding to young people (Hampson et al, 2021). As we also noted with our previous evidence review (Firmin et al, 2022), where attempts are made to introduce such new ways of thinking, being and doing by ‘tinkering’ with existing systems, such as through a distributed programme of training, it is much harder for new principles and methods to gain traction; the old patterns, such as responsibilising, individualising and pathologising cultures, are more likely to seep back in, and this undermines the aims of even potentially transformational new frameworks.

It was clear that local innovation, too, is limited in its capacity to address the macro-systems within which it is rooted, such as the social conditions that provoke or intensify contextual risks to young people, for example, poverty, racism and marginalising educational systems (Billingham and Irwin-Rogers, 2022). Perhaps only a more radical dismantling and rebuilding of these wider social structures may be capable of promoting social justice, such as those suggested by contemporary ‘abolitionist’ perspectives in the US, which are focused not only on dismantling but also on radically rebuilding structures to move from surveillance, separation and punishment towards community-embedded support (Dettlaff et al, 2020). It was notable that our Scottish local authority site operated under the devolved government’s policy ‘Promise’ that ‘All children in Scotland’s “care system” will have a good, loving childhood. They will feel loved. They will have their needs met. And they will have their rights upheld’ (The Promise, Scotland, 2020). This ‘ruling relation’ (Smith, 2005: 51) at a policy level had (in our view) enabled Scottish practitioners to much more readily build relational and trauma-informed practices with children and young people, rooted in empathic and critical understandings of their life experiences, social contexts and expressed wishes, than their counterparts in English statutory settings.

The intellectual rigour and emotional stress of the ‘risky’ creative experimentation entailed with frameworks that require adaptation are, of course, not inconsiderable. Innovation requires a capacity for tolerating the uncertainty and potential anxieties brought about by the positions of liminality that the transition from the status quo to newly configured practices, services or systems inevitably involves. With reference to the principles of reflexivity, inquisitiveness and ongoing learning that we have discussed throughout this book, we emphasise again the importance of senior leaders providing system containment and embodying reflexivity. This should better enable staff to ‘sit with “not knowing” and to maintain open-mindedness and curiosity’ in conditions of uncertainty (Huegler and Ruch, 2022: 34).

Is there a good enough fit between model and context?

This unsettling, often disruptive, nature of innovation means that it is not always the best way of responding to an identified practice or system limitation. The anxiety it may provoke (see Chapter Six), the (often costly) operational capabilities it requires (see Chapter Two), its lengthy timescales for implementation and embedding, and the uncertainty of its outcomes (see Chapter Six) are not always well suited to cash-strapped statutory organisations or systems, with high staff turnover and a responsibility towards some of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of society. Perhaps, in these contexts, maintaining continuity is already a major challenge for systems and services, and so incremental improvements that do not stress the system and that enable existing commitments to be maintained might be a better approach. Fieldwork in our trauma-informed sites (see Chapter Four) suggests that it may be possible to move beyond viewing innovation and improvement as binary opposites, and to instead employ more modest, lower-cost processes of practice improvement to scaffold the early stages of development until some evidence of the beneficial nature of a new practice framework emerges; such evidence can then be used to build a case for the increased resources needed for more radical change. From a complexity theory perspective, starting with small-scale initiatives does not preclude the emergence of more widespread change across a system.

There may be a danger that dwelling on whether innovation is the ‘right’ approach could lead to increased risk aversion; new ideas and initiatives may be stifled where the thought of attempting to depart from the status quo is considered too cumbersome and unlikely to lead to ‘real’ change. Acknowledging feelings of ambivalence or even emotional oscillation between pessimism and optimism vis-à-vis an organisation’s or system’s capacity to transform cultures and structures could be particularly important in the early stages of innovation endeavours. The degree to which those leading systems and enacting governance provide a containing and permissive environment within which creativity and defensible risk-taking is possible will be significant here (Lefevre et al, forthcoming). As discussed in Chapters Two and Three, innovation by necessity involves iterative experimentation with recursive learning loops. If these are seen as wasteful of time and money, then the temptation could be to push on regardless of indicators that a new approach is unlikely to yield fruit. Indeed, there will be little encouragement to take the leap into the unknown in the first place.

The ‘dynamic tension’ between ‘fidelity and fit’ must also be carefully considered when innovation models or frameworks are introduced to new settings (Castro et al, 2004: 41). The dominant diffusion approach in social innovation of adopting, with fidelity, manualised models or prescriptive instructions about systems or interventions that were birthed and shown to ‘work’ elsewhere (Rogers, 2003) may seem like a lower-risk approach to evidence-based practice, but the appropriateness of a template model for a new and very different context is not a given (Castro et al, 2004). Transfer of models between countries, particularly cross-continent, is likely to be complex given that policy and legislation governing practice diverge markedly across borders and evidence regarding cross-cultural adaption is fairly sparse (Brown, 2021). However, transfer is also challenging within countries given that there is often substantial demographic, economic and political diversity across regions (Castro et al, 2010). This was a key reason that our Innovate Project selected three frameworks that themselves required innovation and system configuration at a local level; we had deemed it both practical and ethical in the complex and rapidly evolving field of adolescent safeguarding, and in a context of constrained public spending, to ensure that new practice methods and systems were carefully tailored not only to national policy and legislative frameworks but also to local needs, operational capabilities and governance.

Is the groundwork for innovation in place?

Our fieldwork supported what the social innovation literature indicates: triggers and events that stimulate innovation, as well as the conditions that mobilise it, are crucial factors that influence the whole of the innovation journey, including design, embedding and scaling/spreading (Mulgan et al, 2007; Murray et al, 2010). An important dynamic in our sites and other organisations in the wider Learning and Development Network was whether innovation was perceived as forced upon public organisations through the insecurity and inadequacy of funding systems or whether it was seen genuinely as an ‘option’ with the potential to promote social justice agendas. While the very foundations of social care and the idea of innovation are based on ideas of ‘making things better’, it is essential that those involved critically interrogate the basis for such assumptions and any hidden purposes within innovation agendas rather than just ‘performing to conform to narratives of success’ – as we have discussed in Chapter Five of this book. This is particularly the case in contexts of neoliberalism and austerity, such as the UK (Jones, 2018), the Netherlands (Van der Pas and Jansen, forthcoming) and Portugal (Jesus and Amaro, forthcoming), where innovation has at times been criticised as seeking to compensate for the chronic underfunding of existing services or masking an agenda of privatisation. This raises the question as to whether innovation in such circumstances provides the freedom for public services to do things differently, including through radical transformation, or whether it exacerbates quasi-market competition and performance anxiety as well, particularly in countries like the UK, where regulatory oversight, performance rankings and a highly critical public discourse about social work loom large.

Although this was not particularly apparent in our study, it is entirely understandable in such circumstances that organisations, services or local areas may rebadge existing plans for system restructuring or the better implementation of existing frameworks as a way of attracting such resources. More problematic is where the only funding available is for innovation rather than other forms of practice improvement, which tempts services down the road to innovation without the ground having been adequately prepared. If demonstrating the will and capacity to innovate is a required condition, or ruling relation, for local leaders to keep up with the zeitgeist and acquire the resources they need to respond adequately to young people and their families, then there is more risk that performative approaches will dominate and that individual and organisational anxiety and other defences will be heightened.

The foundational contextual domains and their components, which we outlined in Chapter Two, as well as the accompanying set of reflective questions for each stage of the innovation journey provided there, offer a framework for determining whether the necessary conditions are present for innovation to flourish and sustain. We emphasise again that this reflective framework seeks to provide not a pro forma for success that can be replicated across contexts but, rather, a way for organisations and networks to examine what the prevailing conditions are over time and place, and to see how they might be made more optimal in each phase of innovation.

Are the right people on board?

In addition to (and perhaps more so than) the provision of appropriate organisational resources, it is people and their relationships that create a conducive context for innovation. What we observed in our case-study sites corresponded strongly with what has been noted in the literature: innovation is mobilised by those with the creativity and verve to envisage a better future and drive it forward, but they need to work closely with others, such as data specialists and practitioners, to build the evidence for a compelling initial case. Buy-in is then more likely from the authorising environment (Moore, 2013): those senior leaders in local government who have the power and influence to sanction and resource change at each stage of innovation and if/when external conditions change. The imposition of top-down ideas is unlikely to gain traction unless practitioners are fully on board, so ‘cheerleaders’ are then needed to win hearts and minds at every level of the service, particularly at difficult moments when momentum might falter, and to provide the embodied knowledge to translate complex ideas into everyday tools and practices.

Given the interdependent nature and distributed power within social care systems, innovation that is more collaboratively produced, ‘owned’ and shaped is more likely to embed and sustain. Therefore, for new systems and interventions to have the best chance of working well and being responsive to the needs and preferences of those for whom the service is designed, collaboration and co-production with key stakeholders, including young people, families and communities, must be a central feature from the start. It was this final element that we saw to be most challenging for the sites that we worked with. As yet, the involvement of young people, in particular, as well as parents to a certain degree, in innovation design and its review remains at a very limited level – and this is reflected in the wider literature (see, for example, Bovarnick et al, 2018). We do not want to downplay the challenging nature of co-production with young people who could be considered some of the most marginalised within our society; as researchers, we too have struggled at times to achieve the meaningful participation of young people affected by extra-familial risks and harms. However, naming the challenge does not sanction our limitations. Unless and until co-production with young people is recognised as being central to the ethical legitimacy and effectiveness of an innovation and this commitment is concretised in actual time and resources, then it is likely that innovators and researchers will remain stuck in a cycle of, at best, only performatively engaging in participation activities and, at worst, continuing to responsibilise young people for being ‘difficult to engage’ when these activities do not bear fruit.

Collaborative approaches also mitigate against tendencies to place responsibility for the work involved in innovation projects (and the blame for perceived ‘failures’) in single leader figures – some of whom (as we saw) may in fact only have limited positional power within organisational and system hierarchies. If vision, direction, culture, enthusiasm and institutional knowledge rest solely with one or two key individuals, this may jeopardise the sustainability of innovation projects if they leave their role, particularly where this is due to pressures associated with this responsibility. As we highlighted in Chapters Five and Seven, adopting more collaborative approaches to innovation work is also likely to promote more realistic perspectives regarding the political, societal and structural levers and barriers at both national and local levels. With respect to services in the field of extra-familial risks and harms, these include: (1) decades of low prioritisation of universal services for young people, particularly in poorer and more marginalised communities; (2) the eroding of youth work and other more preventative social care infrastructures in many areas through years of austerity; and (3) ambivalent (or sometimes hostile) public attitudes towards some young people, particularly where they have been perceived as ‘antisocial’ or involved in criminality and are seen primarily as presenting a risk to others rather than being at risk of harm themselves (Hanson and Holmes, 2014; Billingham and Irwin-Rogers, 2022).

Given this premise for collaborative approaches and given the unpredictability, distributed power and uncertainty in the complex systems that co-production involves, what, then, should leadership roles entail? Above all, it is incumbent on leaders to create and maintain a climate of curiosity, flexibility, reflexivity and adaptability, in which anxiety is acknowledged and contained, and the importance of learning through experience is foregrounded (Baldwin, 2008; McPheat and Butler, 2014; see also Chapter Five). Such a climate provides permission for a range of positive and negative feelings and views about innovation to come to the fore throughout the process, for energy and hope to rise or flatten, and for productive struggles and challenges to be surfaced and worked with. The capacity to achieve orderly implementation or predictable targets may then become secondary to the ability to navigate complexity and unpredictability given the ‘edge of chaos’ contexts and complex adaptive systems of many innovation projects (see Chapter Three), which may mean that they ‘can only be steered, rather than controlled’ (Smith, 2019: 427), via processes of system stewardship (Lowe and French, 2021).

Are expectations realistic?

We return to the image of ecocycles introduced in Chapter Three to emphasise the organic time frames, slow speed and recursive characteristics that innovation in social care is likely to entail. Developing a realistic understanding of the slow growth of innovation processes and the delicacy of the conditions needed for them to take root may be one of the most important ways of managing expectations. This includes looking forward as well as backwards, taking time for planning, implementing, reviewing and integrating innovations, sanctioning and resourcing iterative development, and allowing innovations the necessary time to embed and flourish before they are expected to produce the intended beneficial outcomes for professionals, young people, families and communities alike. Unfortunately, expectations of commissioners, funders, evaluators, practitioners, leaders and young people and their families and communities may not always be realistic and attuned to these processes and timescales. Despite the fieldwork and analysis phase of our own project having a longer than usual funding time frame (2.5 years), this has not allowed us to see any of the innovation projects in our sites reach a stage where they were considered ‘fully’ embedded and finalised. Adequate time and funding for innovations to unfold and for longitudinal research follow-up should, then, be another priority for the sector.

As we outlined in Chapter Two, innovation involves a multitude of contextual factors, many of which may not be in the control of individuals or even collaborative leader/stewardship collectives, relying as they do, instead, on the intricate interactions between team or family microsystems. The individual elements of these microsystems may include: (1) the capabilities, cultures and climates of organisations and communities (mesosystems); (2) the inter-organisational systems at local levels (exosystems); and (3) the macrosystems of law and policy. This complexity may give rise to a wide range of possible directions and iterations throughout the lifespan of an innovation project. As we discussed in Chapter Three, this may include recursiveness – pausing, potentially faltering and a later return to ideas and activities. Rather than a climate of judgement, shaming, fear and risk aversion, innovators need sanction to retreat to, and potentially recover from, phases of stagnation or decline, along with the permission to end the innovation work if ultimate success looks less likely or the personal or collective cost in terms of emotional labour and other demands becomes too high.

Do the three frameworks result in effective services or systems?

Here, we remind the reader that the intention of this book has not been to provide an evaluation of whether Trauma-informed Practice, Contextual Safeguarding and Transitional Safeguarding might lead to effective services or systems, nor to extend their underpinning theorisations. We have either published that work elsewhere (for example, Huegler and Ruch, 2022; Holmes, 2022; Firmin et al, forthcoming; Lefevre et al, 2023; Lloyd et al, 2023; Peace, forthcoming) or it remains ongoing. Rather, the primary role of the three frameworks in this volume was to provide containers within which situated innovation processes in the six case-study sites could be placed under the microscope. While there is no clear evidence as yet that these three frameworks create improved safety outcomes for young people (see Chapter One), we emphasise again the relative newness of their emergence and how long it can take for innovation projects to embed, change practices and result in improved outcomes at a child level. It is worth noting, however, that sufficient indicators exist of a positive direction of travel such that we encourage readers to not only engage with these frameworks as promising stimulators of practice improvement, organisational change or system innovation in response to extra-familial risks and harms but also to consider the messages and key principles they have the potential to convey and contribute to wider innovation practice and practice improvement in this field.

In none of the six case-study sites did an ‘ideal’ new system configuration emerge that suggested itself as worthy of forming a template for replication elsewhere. Even with Contextual Safeguarding, which offers a ‘toolkit’ of guidance and practice tools and has had the most formal trials, including in Tanzania and Germany (Wroe et al, 2023), it is clear that every new site will still need to interpret the principles of the framework to local needs, resources and partnership arrangements (Firmin and Lloyd, 2022; Lefevre et al, 2023). This is not surprising, as these three frameworks are specifically oriented around the importance of operationalising principles in ways that are tailored to a local context (see Boxes 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3 in Chapter One). We see this flexibility offered by all three frameworks as a positive rather than a shortcoming.

Moreover, we suggest that the three frameworks offer more than conceptual outlines and approaches to be interpreted, shaped and developed into local innovations. Rather, combined, their underlying key principles (shown in Figure 8.1) can also: facilitate innovation journeys that pay sufficient attention to contexts; prioritise the safety of, and relationships among, all involved; and appropriately consider the transitional needs and implications that emanate from the uncertainty and liminality that change processes bring about.

A chart illustrates the principles for innovation to address extra familial harm. It comprises a central circle surrounded by 11 boxes.
Figure 8.1:

Principles to be considered when innovating to address extra-familial risks and harms

Conclusion

This book has described innovation experiences in our research partner sites through the metaphor of ‘journeys’ and has set out the liminal and emergent ‘edge of chaos’ spaces in which many innovation projects may be situated. These characteristics mean that innovations may encounter a range of challenges and contradictions. Complexity theory, psychosocial perspectives and human-centred principles can remind us to consider not only what separates ideas, emotions, systems or lived experiences but also what connects them. Practices that involve professionals across services and hierarchies, as well as young people, families and their communities coming together, exchanging perspectives and trying ‘to walk in each other’s shoes’, seem essential for managing the uncertainty and transitions involved in departing from the status quo towards new ideas, concepts and systems.

Leaders and innovators in social care must prioritise young people’s safety, well-being and rights, and avoid contributing to the adversities plaguing organisations, systems and the communities they seek to support, some of which include high staff turnover, pressure through inspection and ‘performance ranking’ regimes, and the devastating impact of serious harm and deaths of young people – along with the actual or perceived failures of professionals, services, policy makers and communities to prevent these. It is not difficult to appreciate how these issues provide key rationales for innovating in the first place; however, they also highlight how such pressures may lead to innovation that is not always beneficial in its process or outcomes. Institutional ethnography has provided compelling insights into unhelpful or even abusive power structures, discourses and other ruling relations that may mean young people might be constrained, responsibilised, ignored or punished rather than listened to, respected, supported and enabled to flourish in the way that should be expected – and that professionals probably intend to enact, maybe even think they do.

It is important to stress that such principles as rights, youth-centredness, relationality, care, participation, choice, agency and respect require time, commitment, emotional containment and other conducive contextual factors (as summarised in Chapter Two and illustrated through this book). That our research has surfaced many unresolved issues, tensions and perhaps even contradictions in innovation processes, practices and contexts is not just incidental; rather, it is an expression of the complex, challenging and nuanced character of innovation in social care, particularly the field of extra-familial risks and harms. Above all, it points to learning as the main overall framework through which we – both innovators and researchers – can hope to hold on to, and make sense of, this complexity.

Key chapter insights for policy and practice

  • The transformative, often disruptive, nature of innovation means that it is not always the best way of responding to an identified practice or system limitation.

  • Drivers for innovation need to be critically interrogated to identify faulty assumptions and hidden motives and agendas, particularly where potential cost savings or access to additional resources are a draw.

  • Discourses and power relations commonly govern the work of policy makers, system leaders and professionals in non-explicit and unnoticed ways that need to be brought out into the open. Institutional ethnography offers a useful lens for such scrutiny.

  • The risky and uncertain nature of innovation generates organisational and individual defences against anxiety. Psychosocial theories offer a window into understanding these and a framework for developing organisational containment and reflexivity.

  • Such discourses and defences may mean that innovations are developed that prioritise child safeguarding and public protection concerns yet conflict with the rights, perspectives and wider welfare needs of young people. Co-production with young people is essential to ensure the ethical legitimacy and effectiveness of an innovation.

  • Contextual Safeguarding, Trauma-informed Practice and Transitional Safeguarding continue to offer promise, but none of them can yet evidence their effectiveness in addressing extra-familial risks and harms. All three offer frameworks that require interpretation and operationalisation at a local level, enabling services and systems to be tailored for ‘fit’.

  • Policy makers, funders and leaders need to be aware that innovation is time-consuming and resource-intensive, involves repeated cycles of trialling and learning, and generally takes longer than expected. This should be taken into account in funding and evaluation timescales.

  • Figure 8.1:

    Principles to be considered when innovating to address extra-familial risks and harms

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