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Innovation in Children’s Services – Coram Insight Report March 2021

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March 2021

The Coram Innovation Incubator (CII)

Coram-I Insight Report: National Innovation Survey of Children’s Services: EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Background

Recognising the imperative to respond to the increasingly complex climate facing children’s services, between December 2020 and January 2021, Coram-i carried out the first National Innovation Survey of Children’s Services. Distributed to all children’s services departments and a range of organisations working alongside them, the survey sought to assess the extent to which the sector is able to innovate to solve key challenges, and further, to understand the nature of any barriers to innovation. Although by no means exhaustive, the forty one responses (from a mixture of local authorities, independent fostering agencies (IFAs), voluntary adoption agencies (VAAs) and charities) provide an important insight into the current innovation landscape, the practical ways the sector is surmounting key obstacles, as well as indicating how we might collectively move forward with the game-changing innovations which can transform the future of the sector and address key challenges affecting children and young people.

Key findings

The biggest challenges facing the sector: Adolescent mental health emerged as the biggest issue for almost all (84%) local authorities, followed by placement sufficiency, adolescent safeguarding and youth crime. Taken together, these represent a complex cluster of interrelated issues affecting older children where a “business as usual” approach is considered inadequate to meet the scale of challenge.

Engagement in Innovation: Encouragingly all organisations reported being engaged in innovation at some level, but only a minority – 39% – operated at the level of radical innovation needed to achieve a stepped change in outcomes. This finding is significant in light of the scale and complexity of challenges facing children’s services – low level or tactical approaches to innovation are unlikely to suffice.

Innovation Resources: Just half of local authorities and charities reported having dedicated internal innovation resources in their organisation, whilst most IFAs and VAAs said they did not. Alongside this finding, almost three times as many local authorities claimed that their organisation invested in game-changing innovation as did their IFA counterparts. This is a significant finding and raises questions about market conditions for innovation; that is to say, given that demand is greater than supply, is the imperative for innovation lessened ?

Barriers to innovation: Lack of resources (in terms of funding as well as appropriately skilled people) was consistently reported by the majority of respondents as the major barrier to innovation. Capability and risk-aversion (arising from a stringent regulatory environment as well as the political cycle) were also reported as hampering innovation. Importantly, culture was not seen as a significant barrier. Respondents were asked what factors might encourage their service to invest in radical innovation. External seed funding was cited by almost half of respondents as a key driver of radical innovation, with 20% looking to join with others, and a further 20% indicating that they sought evidence of efficacy before committing to a programme of radical innovation.

Reflections and Implications

There is a strong appetite to innovate across the children’s services sector, as evidenced by the level of engagement in innovation, the examples of innovative practice reported, and, the fact that organisational cultures were consistently reported as enabling innovation. The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly accelerated innovation in remote service delivery, but is also serving as a catalyst for broader, deeper innovation. Harnessing this wind of change is an important opportunity for the sector.

In doing so, we must work to remove the barriers which stifle the discovery of the game-changing innovations needed to address the complex challenges facing the sector. And we need to “twin track” the pursuit of new solutions whilst enabling business as usual to operate without interference or diversion of focus or resources.

Seed funding is clearly one very important barrier to further innovation, yet commercial providers continue to report excessive profits which could be redirected to address this barrier – could there be a case for Independent Fostering Agencies ring-fencing 5% of their profits for a ‘ventures fund’ to drive the radical innovation the sector needs?

The need to draw upon evidence before committing to new programmes was indicated; those taking part in What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care evidence-based projects, like Social Work in Schools, have found such new approaches promising. However, we must set our sights beyond an incremental approach. There must be a sustainable resourcing model to support the longevity of innovative projects- including those that are more radical- to provide reassurance to service providers, and thus license experimentation with novel solutions. Impactful service improvement will follow when we combine evidence-based approaches with more radical innovation.

And finally, with the pandemic severely impacting young people, it is unsurprising that services see issues relating to adolescents as the most pressing. Given the unique challenges facing this cohort of young people, perhaps the time has come for an ‘Adolescents’ Commissioner’ to champion the needs and progress of our tweens and teens?

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