'Reform' is just a verb

By Chris Wright | 26 October 2017

The word ‘reform’ carries a lot of baggage. It can be overused and undervalued. At worst, for those in frontline public service it’s a euphemism for change that doesn’t necessarily entail improvement.

Will jobs be at risk? Does it mean privatisation? Is it just the new buzzword which creates unnecessary work while everything remains the same? Or is it the unifying concept for everything we are doing to make services better, more human and local, and unlocking capacity in every part of our communities? One of the problems facing everyone trying to improve what we do and how, is explaining what we mean, avoiding jargon and doublespeak.

But words matter much less than ideas and shared goals. Orwell instructs us in his essay on language to ask ourselves simple questions: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

For me, it’s simple: we need to think differently about the society we want to be part of. If we are all on a ship of state, facing choppy waters and trying to reach a destination where every child can be the author of their own life story, our mode of transportation is creaking. The crew and passengers are just about keeping the boat seaworthy day-to-day, but no more than that. Most efforts are spent bailing out water and patching up holes.

We need to change our ship and how we run it. We need a different relationship between citizens and the state, and ‘re-form’ our whole way of providing social welfare so that it is more pleasant to work in and experience, more effective, and a better ‘return on investment’. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - more money isn’t the answer. The status quo needs to change.

We know there’s a problem but why is the solution so elusive?

The statistics and the stories speak for themselves: the ones I experienced 30 years ago as a social worker, the ones I hear from my frontline teams now, and the ones splashed across the headlines. We know that there is huge expense, crisis, and ‘failure demand’: Local Government Association (LGA) analysis showing 75% of councils exceeding their children’s social care budgets by a total of £605m7; Action for Children estimating that there are 140,000 children who 'have needs that are too great for schools, health or other universal services to meet on their own' but don’t meet the threshold for statutory social care; and a stream of damning evidence from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children’s ‘No Good Options’ inquiry.

We are united in our frustration. No one is in any doubt that early intervention saves lives and money, and that crisis care is an expense of treating the symptom not the cause. The problem is that when money is tight – which it always is – it’s rational to cut the supply of the former and meet the demands of the latter. But we could spend the same amount of money so much more constructively, and use it in ways that draws in funding and resource from outside the public sector. In many cases we don’t need legislation or even policy to change to do this, we just need the courage and confidence to battle the constraints of an inflexible system.

What people need doesn’t change

In 1968, the Seebohm report on social services recognised the need for social care to be built around the communities in which children and their families live. It said that a social services department should be made up of combined provision from other departments, across health and social care. We’ve been led by these good intentions ever since, but we have been let down by systems designed for compliance and risk management. Every time we’ve faced a problem we haven’t questioned the system and whether it’s fit-for-purpose, but instead have added another layer of bureaucracy. As a result, we have a children’s social care system far removed from the children and families we are trying to help. The same story could be told in our prison and probation system, and in health.

What people need hasn’t ever changed – having a safe place to live, good people around them, and the tools and skills to make a decent living. From our inception as the Royal Philanthropic Society in 1788 working to support homeless criminalised children, to our work with the Department for Education developing new models of social work today, Catch22 has been consistent in these aims. We piloted a new model of social work for children in need in Crewe which set out to prevent escalating needs, risks and costs. Its innovative staffing and delivery model combined the expertise of social workers with the experience and flexibility of differently qualified frontline staff, including non-social work qualified family practitioners and volunteers, matched with children and families. In the two years since inception, the programme has shown improved outcomes, reduced repeat referrals, and delivered savings on operating costs for the local authority.

This model puts relationships with the family at the heart of the intervention. It combines the experience of a charity, a local authority and a government department into a seamless team, and unlocks community capacity by equipping and enabling volunteers to support the social worker to spend more time with the family. These kinds of practical and simple solutions must be the answer to improving children’s care services. It’s about bringing together and enabling communities to solve the problems at their front door.

Fewer agencies, more personal agency

But the only way to unlock the capacity that exists in society is by taking meaningful action – as an individual, but also as a business, a local authority, a Police and Crime Commissioner, and a school governor. It’s not easy. Doing something different takes courage, at all levels.

In December 2016, we responded to a Home Office telephone call for help one Wednesday evening, to house 70 refugee boys arriving imminently from Calais, with indeterminate needs. We had no choice but to pick up the phone and ask everyone we knew for help to make it happen and the support was immediate – from the Council, to the outdoor education provider PGL offering a site, a retired doctor offering to restore his licence to help the boys, and a private company providing security staff.

Hundreds of families gave their children’s clothes, a local factory had a surplus of 1,000 yoghurts, the local arts centre offered itself as a collection point, the Rotary Club collected money and homeless people in Barnstaple worked with a charity to pack bags of things for the children. When you’re standing there at 3am, all trying to do the same good thing for the children, organisational labels mean nothing. Private, public and charity organisations, the whole community – everyone came together and delivered. We all took responsibility, and the state enabled it to happen.

Reforming also means more agility to test new ideas, backing them quickly if they work, but also recognising when they are not working and trying something else. Confident reformers, anywhere in organisational hierarchies, can ‘test, quit or commit’: learn the right lessons from both failures and successes, and share them in a way that builds self-improving systems.

If I have learned anything in the past 30 years, it’s that Whitehall doesn’t have the monopoly on integrity, charities don’t have the monopoly on compassion, and businesses don’t have the monopoly on efficiency. We must end these artificial silos and come together as whole communities to empower individuals and organisations to solve the social issues that sit on their doorsteps. It’s time to remember ‘reform’ is just the simple verb we learned at school for making things better. It’s not an abstract noun for an even more abstract destination.

Chris Wright is chief executive of Catch22

iMPOWER's essay collection, Shining a Light Volume 2, can be downloaded here. It follows the success of its first collection of children's services essays

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