Improving social care systems and practices for safeguarding young people at complex risk: what promotes and sustains innovation?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sussex
Department Name: Sch of Education and Social Work


A key challenge for children's social care is how to improve service experiences and outcomes for some of the most vulnerable members of our society in the face of complex social problems, increased demand for services, greater public accountability and pressure on public spending. Incremental improvement to traditional service systems and structures is not always sufficient to address intractable issues, such as child sexual exploitation, which are resistant to any clear-cut, unidimensional or standardised remedies. Innovation is increasingly being mooted as a way of fundamentally rethinking the nature of such practice problems and transforming (often radically) the ways that services are structured and delivered. This incurs substantial investment of resource, but not enough is yet understood about the conditions, factors and processes that will allow innovation to flourish and sustain over time and to be diffused effectively. Opportunities to address gaps and deficiencies in social care provision, therefore, are not being maximised and it cannot be assumed that social investment provides best value for money.

Our four year collaborative project will address this gap in knowledge, providing invaluable insight into the stages of innovation over time, and identifying what practice or system innovations require to maximise their potential for addressing service objectives, improving experiences and outcomes for young people and families, and achieving value for money. The processes of innovation can only be studied in context, so we will investigate how six social care organisations or networks across the UK have innovated in practice services or systems to address the 'complex safeguarding' risks that vulnerable young people face at the intersection of their family, peer, social and environmental contexts, such as exploitation and gang association. More specifically, we will scrutinise how the six sites have interpreted and operationalised one of three flexible conceptual frameworks which allow for nuanced and situated innovation to address complex safeguarding risks: Trauma-Informed Practice, Contextual Safeguarding or Transitional Safeguarding. The detailed scrutiny of our multi-method case study design will enable us to uncover the various stages of innovation in real time, within organisations and systems, and in their varied cultural, geographical and regulatory contexts. Existing theories of innovation will be tested and scrutinised critically alongside theories of organisational development and change management, and systemic and psychosocial theories, to create new cross-disciplinary understandings which could then have relevance to wider innovation practice. Any evidence of improved outcomes, positive service user experience and cost-efficiency associated with these innovations will be established. Circles of engagement and influence with a wider group of social care organisations, in the UK and overseas, will allow emergent findings to be tested in more diverse contexts, and to generate and capture impact.

Our project will inform the development of future innovation, both in complex safeguarding and in social care and public services more broadly. Our findings will lead to the development of a critical sociology of complex safeguarding and a practice model that: collaborates with young people and families as partners; supports practitioners and services in assessing and addressing peer, environmental, individual and familial risks; ensures the impact of trauma on young people and practitioners is understood and mitigated; and respects young people's support and protection needs alongside their rights to autonomy, privacy, and voice. A comprehensive programme of engagement, knowledge exchange and impact generation with communities of practice, engagement and interest will diffuse findings and provide evidence of benefit to stakeholders.

Planned Impact

This project will build cross-disciplinary critical understandings of how, why and where innovation happens in social care, identifying the conditions, factors and processes which lead to innovative ideas being conceived, implemented, tested, sustained, scaled, and spread, within and across organisations and systems. Understanding will be enhanced of the facilitators, capabilities, inhibitors and barriers to innovations which address the challenges of complex safeguarding risks in adolescence, particularly new intervention methods, services or systems which operationalise the approaches of Trauma-Informed Practice, Contextual Safeguarding and Transitional Safeguarding. Any evidence of improved outcomes for service users, positive service user experience and cost-efficiency associated with these innovations will also be revealed through this.

The new knowledge and related outputs produced through the project will indirectly benefit vulnerable young people and their families, who should see improvements in both their experience of practice interventions and the outcomes of their involvement with services. Commissioners and service providers within social care, and across other agencies within the multidisciplinary safeguarding system will benefit directly through information about whether the innovative methods, services and systems merit take-up, scaling and spreading. This will enable them to make evidence-informed decisions about whether and how they might support and diffuse innovations over time and in context, in the face of complex social problems, increased demand for services, greater public accountability and pressure on public spending. The critical sociology of complex safeguarding that will be constructed will benefit academic and professional understanding of the intractable issues which straddle disciplinary and organisational boundaries and are resistant to clear-cut, unidimensional or standardised solutions. The new knowledge will facilitate innovation and new cross-disciplinary academic understandings in the field of adolescent risk and complex safeguarding, enabling a re-visioning and transformation of practice methods, services and systems. The resources produced for the social care field, including learning tools and a new practice framework or model, will directly benefit practitioners and organisations; they will be able to improve single- and multi-agency responses and develop coordinated approaches to addressing complex safeguarding risks and needs. The opportunities for situated and reflexive learning, provided by our communities of practice, engagement and influence, will promote diffusion of new understandings widely and rapidly across the sector, spreading the field of influence.

The new knowledge will have direct relevance for policy makers (Social Care Wales, Scottish Social Services Council, Dept. for Education, Northern Ireland Social Care Council), sector leaders (ADCS, SCIE, the What Works Centre in Children's Social Care), innovation experts, think tanks and funders (e.g. InnovateUK, NESTA, Public Health England, Impetus-PEF, the Institute for Govt., the Big Lottery Fund), practice networks (Local Safeguarding Children's Boards, Principal Social Workers' Network, RiP Partners Network, the Coalition of Care & Support Providers in Scotland, the Improvement Network: Northern Ireland), service user groups (e.g. Become, Coram, the Family Rights Group, Young Minds, Catch 22), and other public services (e.g. youth justice, police, housing, probation, child and adolescent mental health services, sexual health, and education). Whilst the new knowledge was created in the UK, and has specific relevance for that geographical and cultural setting, the circles of engagement and influence with our international partners will enable us to test the transferability of new understandings for benefiting academic study and professional multi-disciplinary practice and service delivery internationally.


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