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InfoQ Homepage Articles Making a Difference: a Case Study of Change in the Public Sector

Making a Difference: a Case Study of Change in the Public Sector


When Tracy Jelfs joined Monmouthshire Council as Head of Children’s Services in April 2014, the department had recently undergone a major restructuring and had seen several new leaders arrive and leave in swift succession. Not least of her difficulties was that, in such circumstances, the very idea of ‘change’ or ‘transformation’ elicited cynicism and even outright hostility.

The service was struggling, with performance indicators dropping, including several critical ones. Just 2 weeks after Tracy took over, an inspection revealed serious concerns. The Service was warned it would face a surprise inspection again shortly – something that everyone knew was often a precursor to being placed in ‘special measures’. The idea of a looming and public rebuke added extra pressure to everyone – from frontline staff to senior managers.

Within the council itself, Children’s Services had a poor reputation, both as a department consistently ‘over-spending’ and also anecdotally as ‘that bunch of moaners’. Unsurprisingly, staff responded with their own hostility towards managers, leaders and other departments whom they felt ‘never listened and don’t get it’.

These complex pressures reaped predictable results, not only in a generally low morale, but also in high levels of absenteeism and a constantly churning workforce with a heavy reliance on agency staff. This in itself fed a vicious circle of poor performance, since the likelihood of agency staff moving posts frequently led to poor stability and reduced outcomes for the children and young people they were working with.

In spite of hard work and deep commitment, the uncomfortable truth was that the Service was often failing children and young people. Rather than focusing on improving their lives and keeping them safe, the department had become overly concerned with box-ticking, on complying with regulation, and avoiding blame. For a group of people who had entered social work driven by a desire to make a positive difference, the loss of this central purpose was in many ways the most painful experience of all.

Getting Help

Tracy had previously been introduced to Dr Paul Thomas and Andy McCann of consultancy co-operative DNA Definitive. She knew that ‘consultants’ would be viewed with suspicion – and she already suspected that many problems could be resolved directly by the teams – so she wasn’t looking for some grand master-plan from external experts. But she recognised that objective analysis and evidence was likely to bolster her case for some of the hard decisions she wanted to implement – especially when it came to looking at system-wide issues.

Having run up against frequent bureaucratic blocks already, Tracy knew that not all of the barriers were internal to Children’s Services. But she was also keen not to give an impression of defensiveness, as if she were blaming other departments for the problems. With the help of DNA, Tracy could take the first steps towards shifting the perception of Children’s Services as ‘over-spending’ to what she knew to be the reality of ‘under-resourced’. Within just a few days, DNA were able to show the Council how much blocks in HR, finance or IT were contributing to poor performance, as well as how frequently ‘waste’ was the inevitable result of the existing way of working.

In the next few months, DNA would also offer a useful sounding board for ideas. As Tracy said, “We didn’t need solutions, but it helped to have an opportunity to step away from the detail to remember the bigger picture of what we were changing and why. Instead of some huge Gantt chart, I kept a simple diary of progress and phone calls with Andy and Paul. Together, those two things kept me focused in a way no plan or strategy document would have done”.

Make it Real

To completely turn around poor performance exacerbated by a low-trust culture is a big task. Tracy wisely started with what she felt would be some quick wins. She was determined that any ideas had to be implemented incredibly quickly – because delay in delivering meaningful change would reduce the staff’s faith even further.

The first changes involved making staff feel valued once more. At the most basic level, staff often didn’t feel safe. While their work was sometimes supported by police involvement, a low level of risk had come to seem the norm. Tracy ordered working mobile phones for all frontline staff who would be going out on visits – something that had not been provided before – along with personal alarms and the budget to help staff who needed extra support.

In one case, a social worker was being personally threatened and her car followed. Authorising the worker to hire a car and change it frequently was the first step; promising to underwrite legal costs to take out an injunction was another. An individual – exhausted – who might have been likely to leave the service, was given a 6-week sabbatical, and chose to spend it updating vital policies and procedures to remove a regular source of frustration.

At the same time, the team worked on more general collaboration. There was a general sense that social workers were committed to a single particular team with little interest in how their work impacted on other teams in Children’s Services, let alone across other services. It was highlighted by the way teams were split across 2 buildings. Determined to end the divide, Tracy and her team managed to move everyone into the same building within 8 weeks. A far cry from the usual glacial pace associated with such projects, it gave staff faith that senior leadership and council bureaucracy were committed to overcoming challenges.

Tracy needed to challenge the idea that ‘no-one listens’ or ‘nothing ever gets done’, so that she could get staff to focus on making their own improvements. She committed herself to a fast resolution of anything that anyone complained about: the office was too hot? New fans by the next day. Not enough chairs for a weekly meeting? Order sent out that afternoon. Fewer visits because time taken up with preparing for court cases, or paperwork, or reporting systems? It was time to tackle the issues that were stopping social workers focusing on the outcomes that really mattered.

What to Stop

“We were busy being busy,” Tracy commented. Staff were working long hours and still being criticised for failing to do the paperwork well enough. The actual work that counted – helping children – often felt as if it came lower down the priority list than filing receipts for expenses or wrestling with an obsolete IT system.

Since the team were trying to restore trust, an immediate change was to reduce the necessity to ask for permission for trivial expenses. Previously, social workers needed to fill in paperwork and ask for permission before offering a young person the bus fare to go to an interview, or repaying a family who needed to make a particular visit. Instead, some workers carried around a small cash float, keeping a note of any expenses. The only question that had to be answered was “will this help improve the outcome for a child or young person?”

As Tracy very sensibly remarked, “At the end of the day, any senior manager who’s asked for permission ends up agreeing with the social worker’s recommendation. The team manager and the worker know the details so we have to trust the social worker’s and manager’s judgement in any case. Since that’s the result, what’s the point of asking? Now we try to keep every decision as close to the child as possible.”

The autonomy was soon extended to cover expenditure on external placements - a level of trust that would have seemed radical a few months before, but by then seemed natural. Previously social workers had submitted monthly reports to a meeting, chaired by Tracy, which had been checked by a team including service managers and finance. Tracy cancelled the meetings completely. Despite initial nervousness, within three months it was agreed that costs were being as effectively controlled as before, but without the additional time the meetings took and additional reports that staff needed to prepare for the meeting. Staff could spend more time working with children and less on excessive report writing.

Financial reporting was not the only administration to become lighter-weight and less controlled. Previously a series of ‘nested and aligned’ plans had been reframed from department to service to team – taking weeks to write, review and update, they were almost never consulted or remembered. They were replaced with a single plan for the year across the service.

Listening seriously to social workers’ complaints has meant adding posts or changing job roles. The team now have a permanent administrator to chase documentation surrounding adoption and other such legal cases. Another role has been changed to ensure the team meet the requirements of the judiciary for court procedures and can attend hearings to free up managers and support social workers in the Court environment. Both have ended up realising a major saving in time and cost for the system overall.

IT Systems at the Heart of Change

One of the most complained about parts of social workers’ duties involved the IT systems. It was reviled for being unreliable – often losing laboriously typed reports, failing to match up records and not able to handle many of the requirements, meaning that social workers had to run parallel spreadsheets or manual counting systems. Yet given the amount of time and money that had been spent on delivering it, any change was seen as a very low priority for the Council’s overall IT roadmap.

But to Tracy it was an imperative part of improving the Service. After all, this was something frequently complained about; something that demonstrably wasted social workers’ time – it had to be a priority. In an almost textbook case of how user requirements should be generated, the new system was designed by the frontline practitioners themselves, working with the IT team and performance measurement team to work out how to automate all performance indicators and reports. The system covered both children’s and adults’ services, where similar problems had been experienced. The social workers tested the system, providing constant feedback throughout development – not as a user group, but as part of a true product ownership team.

The result has been astonishingly fast development, with the system due to be launched in August 2015, with plans for a phase 2 already in place, and with a capability for new modules to be added on as practice develops. Tablets for social workers have been trialled, allowing for remote working and making it easier to comply with regulatory reports and best practice. Social workers feel a sense of genuine ownership and responsibility for the new system – removing the type of grumbling complaints that used to greet the introduction of any new tool.

Visible Signs

If teams divided into two buildings had symbolised a fractured department, few changes were as symbolic as the one Tracy made in her first week. Previously, senior leaders sat not only in a different building, but in a different town nearly 20 miles away. Breaking with tradition, Tracy moved into the new building alongside the social workers. There, she sits in the open plan team room. If particular confidential work requires privacy, Tracy books a meeting room for the specific task only. It means Tracy is demonstrably available to listen to problems, resolve difficulties and share her own plans and ideas at an early stage to ensure any changes does not seem to be imposed from on high.

At the same time she ran weekly catch-ups where she listened to how people were feeling. From a ‘moan and groan session’, the meetings have gradually evolved into a time to connect and inspire one another with plans and ideas. Other senior council leaders have been invited to attend as well as speakers from other services who might have useful information to share or forge connections which could prove vital in coordinating responses in the future. Some of the nominations for speakers are provided by the leadership group, others are provided by staff.

Determined to never again hear the excuse or complaint ‘no-one tells me anything’, Tracy and the team ensured that all training, policies, documentation – everything – appeared in a single place and were kept up-to-date on a website that is specific for Children’s Services and is separate from the main intranet. This website became the ‘virtual catch-up’ and paper copies of policies were phased out completely as the team became accustomed to trusting that all information would be readily and reliably available in one place. Any member of the staff group can add information to this site and it is genuinely jointly owned, rather than controlled by senior management. It has developed along with the needs of the service.

From a previously rather rigid hierarchy with low morale at the lower levels, a more nurturing and relaxed culture has emerged. The team as a whole try to increase opportunities for fun and humour, adding competitions and quizzes into finance or policy updates. The weekly meeting is a time to celebrate successes – sharing compliments that have come in about a particular social worker or piece of work, and congratulating individuals on significant events or achievements. Other team members or service managers are beginning to take it in turns to run the meetings, allowing Tracy to step back. A sign of the cultural shift is staff discussing what’s working and what’s not - and making the necessary adjustments without seeking approval.

Embedding Culture for the Future

Monmouthshire Council and the senior leaders knew that building on the improvements required investment in the future of Children’s Services. One example was the decision to provide play therapy training for all frontline staff in order to help engage children more effectively – putting resources behind something connected to staffs’ core purpose. Other training sessions are planned to help staff mentor one another and specifically deal with trauma and risk – a way of reducing stress and helping social workers stay in frontline jobs without burnout.

An increased awareness of the importance of permanent, committed staff has also meant significant changes to how they recruit social workers. Rather than the traditional application and interview, the team now interview a group in a half day series of exercises. From playing games to prioritisation exercises, the sessions give the interviewing panel a chance to get a much better idea of how individuals work in a team and relate to others. It is a much better way of uncovering exactly the traits the team now values so highly – collaboration, autonomy and resilience, alongside formal skills and qualifications. Not only do the team believe it results in a better decision, but those interviewing appreciate the clear focus on culture in Monmouthshire Children’s Services and are excited by it.

The rest of the team often comment on how they wouldn’t go back to ‘the old ways’. None of them are under any illusions that change has finished. By definition, Children’s Services has to constantly respond to changes in legislation, best practice and the shifting pressures on the community it serves. But there is a sense that resilience can be built into the culture – an ability to welcome change rather than resisting it, and to trust in being valued and valuable.

The Results

While the KPIs have seen a 74% improvement in one year and anecdotally the teams were happier and better connected to their purpose, the big challenge was the follow up inspection from the Care and Social Services Inspectorate for Wales.

This took place in November 2014 – 8 months after Tracy had been appointed. While the Inspectorate identified plenty of areas that could improve further, they acknowledged the huge strides the team had made – especially in improved morale, communication and focus.

Without in any way suggesting their job was done, Children’s Services as a whole could thoroughly congratulate themselves on how much they’d achieved in such a short time. In fact, during the first week of the inspection Children’s Services were invited to attend an awards ceremony and won the category of Innovation- Doing Things Differently in the All Wales Continuous Improvement Awards 2014

Other organisations can take courage from the speed with which a department was able to improve results and achieve significant cultural change – all under exceptionally difficult circumstances and in a highly regulated environment without vast budgets or support. As Tracy Jelfs briskly concluded her session at Spark the Change, “If we can do it, so can you.”

About the Author

Helen Walton is co-founder of Gamevy, an employee-owned tech start-up with no bosses. They also run Spark the Change - a conference designed to help other companies consider management innovation and radical methods of working. Spark the Change runs in London and Toronto - follow @SparkConf. Helen is a marketer who has worked on brands in make-up, skincare, fine art publishing and financial services. She is also a professional writer with eclectic interests, meaning she has authored several books on Agile Software Management, as well as puppet and radio plays... She's always happy to debate these topics or anything else on twitter @helenislovely.

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