Changing social care: an inclusive approach

Case study: Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service

The organisation

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) was set up in 2001 under the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. It brings together services previously provided by the Family Court Welfare Service, the Guardian ad Litem Services and the Children’s Division of the Official Solicitor. The aim was to create a new unified service in order to fulfil roles more effectively. CAFCASS is a non-departmental public body for England, accountable to Parliament through the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF). The motivation behind CAFCASS is to look after the interests of children involved in family proceedings. It works with children and their families and then advises the courts on what it considers to be in the children’s best interests.

CAFCASS operates across 10 regional areas in England and has 105 offices with approximately 2,000 staff. The budget for CAFCASS is £107 million. CAFCASS dedicates £1 million of its budget to support more than 160 different projects provided by its partnership organisations. It also funds a variety of private- and voluntary-run services such as contact centres and mediation groups.

The improvement

As with all of our case study organisations, the main aim of the improvement initiative for CAFCASS was to become more service user focused. Also similar to our other case study organisations, the improvements at CAFCASS were not structured so as to have a definite endpoint; rather they were implemented as part of a system of continual adaptation and development. The improvements focused on the organisation as a whole with a special focus on the North-East (NE) region following some general concerns about the quality of front-line practice. Building from the bottom up (i.e. staff initiated), the NE region pioneered a new way of structuring staff to ensure that front-line practitioners had access to better supervision to enable them to best serve the children who are referred to them. As a service for children, CAFCASS is also continually aiming to increase the involvement of children and youth, such as the establishment of a children’s board or inviting children to sit on hiring committees.

The following sections review the information gleaned from our director interview with CAFCASS, focusing on our three key themes: (1) leadership and purpose; (2) employee involvement; and (3) stakeholder involvement. Each theme comprises a series of sub-themes and we provide relevant examples from CAFCASS as illustrations. We conclude our case study with a summary of CAFCASS’s efforts at evaluating its improvement programme. Refer to the knowledge review, practice review and analytical report, 'Improving social and health care services', for a full review of the themes.

1 Leadership and purpose

A key theme that emerged from our knowledge review was that effective leadership, namely an inspiring and resourceful executive director, was central to successful implementation of change. This leader must be able to harness the support of employees by empowering them and spreading the passion of their vision. A clear sense of direction for the organisation was critical.

Leaders need to establish a clear sense of purpose and ideology to enable change and improvement

Following some worrying inspection results, CAFCASS wanted to improve front-line practice to enable more child-focused services and ensure their provision was targeted at making a difference in each child’s life. At the same time, staff in the NE region felt a major restructuring of their roles could facilitate improved practice. The NE director was keen to spearhead the effort to ensure delivery of the highest quality service for children.

Leaders create the conditions to enable change and improvement

Helping children and youth is at the core of CAFCASS’s services. As such, leaders need to ensure that children are not simply passive recipients of services, but rather actively engaged in driving the character and direction of the organisation as a whole. To facilitate this shift in thinking, for example, a children’s board was recently created to ensure that the views of young people – the driving force behind the organisation’s purpose and ideology – are represented at the highest level. Another rather simpler part of creating the conditions to enable change and improvement focuses on accessibility. To this end, the regional director and the business manager situate themselves in a different regional office on a weekly basis to ensure that all staff receive adequate face time.

Respond to issues, but do not compromise on direction

In CAFCASS NE, a standstill budget made the organisation examine its internal management structures and try to come up with a workable budget that did not comprise the organisation’s ultimate purpose. The senior team questioned whether these budgetary constraints were a ‘threat or an opportunity’. The organisation used its staff members to help come up with a solution that satisfied the joint needs of cutting costs and making services more ‘child-centric’.

Communicate underlying purpose and ensure actions are consistent with this purpose

CAFCASS was one of two of our case study organisations that used staff consultations to initiate a two-way communication process about change and improvement. Some of its methods included:

In CAFCASS NE, the consultation involved whiteboard exercises where staff were asked to identify needed changes as well as what the ‘non-negotiables’ were. This exercise was used to better understand what the group’s core values were and how its work connected (or should connect better) to these values, as well as to differentiate between what practices needed changing and what practices should be ‘protected’ – setting the parameters for any changes. The leaders sifted through all of the information they gathered during the consultation and then fed it back to all staff. Notes from these meetings were circulated for comment among the practitioners. The NE regional director then took the proposals garnered from the consultation exercise to the corporate director: We tabled it: proposal, consultation, feedback, and [the corporate director] wrote to people in region. [She] thanked everyone [and told them] “this is what we’re going to do”. [There was] dialogue along the way.

While CAFCASS NE reported general success with its chosen methods of communication and consultation, these methods were not foolproof. CAFCASS believes that the reason the consultation process was so successful in the NE region is because it was with a small group of 100 to 150 personnel. While its next plan is to move forward on a national scale, CAFCASS feels that implementing changes is easier when ‘organisations break themselves up into smaller groups’. This comment is in line with a belief in the complexity of large systems.

Stakeholders need to be on board with the underlying purpose

Across the case study organisations – including CAFCASS – a range of examples were shared about effectively engaging people:

CAFCASS NE had extensive consultation sessions with members of staff and engaged with employees en masse during extensive brainstorming sessions. Feedback and key messages from these meetings was reported back to all employees and plans for the future were developed using the evidence from these staff engagement exercises.

2 Employee involvement

As previously mentioned, one of the key changes and improvements – staff restructuring – in the NE region was very much staff initiated. Good practice in involving employees in change and improvement programmes builds on their expertise in terms of how they do their respective jobs. Effective involvement also means ensuring that employees have ownership of the changes and improvements.

Engage employees – give them responsibility

We have already described in depth the consultation process used in the NE region. One additional example from CAFCASS also illustrates how it engaged with its employees. To help facilitate change and advise the NE director, a practice advisory group was created comprised of staff from all functions. The organisation has plans to transfer this advisory group into an online panel where ideas can be ‘bounced around’. CAFCASS plans to dedicate some money to pilot these initiatives in the NE region.

Establish a structure that allows engagement

The key element of an organisation’s structure that enables engagement is two-way communication. In some organisations, such as CAFCASS, this is done most effectively with a clear hierarchy to clearly delineate line managers and direct reports, while in other organisations it works best if the boundaries between managers and non-managers are blurred.

Although there was hierarchy in its structure, CAFCASS NE ensured that all staff had a voice and engaged in actions that demonstrated that they listened to what the staff said. Following the consultation exercises with employees, the directors circulated documents encompassing the feedback and explaining how it would contribute to the next stage. The consultation exercise in CAFCASS NE was effective on a number of levels. Not only did it lead to the organisation embodying a more child-focused purpose, but it also gave the initiatives some steam nationally. That is, because it was built from the ‘bottom –up’, the directors felt they could ‘justify the changes’ more effectively to senior management, funders and other key stakeholders.

Further, in CAFCASS NE, the improvement initiatives actually added a layer of hierarchy to the management structure, but both staff and directors felt it was imperative to them realising their purpose. Above the regional service managers, new heads of services were instated with the explicit responsibility of running many of the non-service oriented parts of the business including budgetary control, stakeholder engagement and meeting attendance. These new roles freed up the senior managers to provide more support for the front-line staff in the form of direct care supervision. While there was acknowledgement among some of the senior managers that they were, in a sense, losing some of their responsibilities with the new structure, they also acknowledged that from a child-centred perspective, this change was necessary and would ultimately lead to a better service and more engaged frontline employees.

Work with resistance

The term ‘resistance’ is often viewed as destructive and unhelpful to improvements. The case study organisations, however, demonstrated how resistance could be beneficial to the improvement process. The regional director of CAFCASS NE learned over time ‘where the blockages will be. I know where I need to work hard to garner support’. He further stated, ‘If every two ideas out of ten works – I’m happy.’ The directors also acknowledged that resistance of the ultimate child-centred focus of the organisation and its service delivery was not acceptable and that confronting the behaviour was key to the success of engaging the majority of employees. The corporate director commented: ‘One of the significant things I have to do in order to keep the 80 per cent of supportive staff on board is confront those engaged in unacceptable practice.’

Give staff support to adjust and adapt to improvements

Organisational improvement initiatives often result in a reshaping or reclassification of staff duties and roles. In CAFCASS NE, the directors encouraged staff members to consider the impact of their service on children when appraising their delivery, helping them to see how the underlying purpose worked in their day-to-day roles and where improvements could be made.

3 Stakeholder involvement

In CAFCASS, as with all of our case study organisations, the people who use services and high-quality service delivery were at the heart of the improvements. This section will review some of our findings on effective stakeholder involvement from CAFCASS.

People who use services should be at the heart of change and improvements

CAFCASS is beginning to be more progressive in terms of its user involvement. Most recently it initiated a children’s board of 12 9-to-18-year-olds following the success of some other key strategies including inviting a user (a young person) to speak at national and regional conferences and having a young person on its hiring committees. Members of the children’s board have been used for hiring purposes, informing the process of writing job descriptions, commenting and critiquing on practice tools and inputting into materials used to express children’s views in courts. As a result of the growing awareness of the importance of engaging directly with children and young people, a new grade of staff was created with six new appointees in the NE region. These new posts required expansion of the current skills set in direct work with children and thus required CAFCASS to look beyond its regular skill set when hiring (e.g. one new staff member has a degree in play and drama). Thus, CAFCASS is practicing significant user involvement through its approaches to the participation of young people in the delivery of services.

Organisations need to work in and with the communities they serve

In addition to people who use services, our case study organisations identified other community members as key stakeholders for their organisations. Whether it was engaging with board members, government officials or local judges, organisations recognised the need to work within their communities and, in some cases, adapt to community-level changes on a continual basis.

Improvements in CAFCASS NE highlighted the way in which working with key stakeholders in the wider community could be essential to the success of improvements within the organisation. Improvements made by CAFCASS NE were generated from extensive employee involvement exercises. Due to the nature of the organisation’s work representing children in the court system, however, achieving successful implementation required more than just support from staff. Following internal agreement in the NE region about the direction and shape of the improvements, external support had to be negotiated locally, primarily with different members of the judiciary. As the corporate director stated, ‘[There] isn’t judicial consensus about what is good for a child’: as a family court service, garnering the support of local judges was crucial. This engagement by some of the judiciary has given credibility to the improvements on a wider scale. For example, one of the local judges has been spreading the word about the changes in CAFCASS NE to other members of the judiciary and has sparked their interest. Regardless of this success, however, CAFCASS NE did experience difficulties influencing some of the judges in its area and, according to the CAFCASS regional director, it was necessary to ‘know you’re right and just keep at it’.

Evaluating improvement

Due to the importance of evaluation for social care organisations (e.g. as a result of  funding requirements), we believed it was important to document the different types of evaluative methods used in our case study organisations. The improvements within CAFCASS were ongoing and therefore the evaluations were not simply one-off in nature. According to the CAFCASS corporate director,  ‘This isn’t just an exercise that begins and ends. It is a constant dynamic.’

In CAFCASS NE, the approach is to evaluate everything and to triangulate with other measurables including finances and budgets. The organisation hopes to demonstrate that its new programme of work leads to no more than 1:12 manager to front-line staff ratios, sufficient front-line supervision and improved service quality. CAFCASS NE suggests that, ‘If we are able to get feedback that demonstrates to practitioners that it is successful, then it takes the fear out of change.’ Each of the new pilot programmes in the NE region has a mini-evaluation built into it that is conducted by the practitioner. The main question to be answered with the evaluation is, ‘How was my performance affected or improved by the new working?’, with particular attention to the impact it made on a child’s life. The organisation is looking to broaden its evaluation to include comment and feedback from partner agencies. It believes this information will go a long way in demonstrating to staff the high value that others place on their work with children and families.

CAFCASS also put in place user-directed feedback. It has a computer-based feedback programme that children are invited to use at the end of their service. In the NE region, practitioners now come equipped with laptops to facilitate the completion of this user feedback. The organisation’s use of the programme is higher than anywhere else in the country.