For decades, social workers have said the children’s social care system does not prioritise relationships with children and families, or enable social workers to do their best work. Many practitioners are doing brilliant work — but this seems to be in spite of the system, not because of it. So, how can real system change be achieved in children’s social care, so that services prioritise relationships and empower practitioners?

Crescendo is an approach influenced by the Buurtzorg community nursing model in the Netherlands, focused on supporting local authorities to implement small changes to reduce bureaucracy and, at a whole service level, increase time spent with families. The team are working with Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth, and Warrington local authority to understand how system change can happen in their local contexts.

1) Unlock social workers’ potential by supporting them to make the small changes they see day-to-day, that could make a big difference to the amount of time they spend and the relationships they build with children and families. These are things that are within the local authorities’ power, that could make the system more enabling.

2) Build on those small changes and what we have learnt about each local authority to co-design a different way of working with teams and leaders. This involves designing and implementing a local blueprint for wider change; to create a system that would allow more time to be spent with children and families, and enable social workers to do their best work.

Creating systems together that prioritise relationships

In Tower Hamlets, Crescendo are working with two statutory teams; in Wandsworth, with Evolve – a specialist missing and exploitation team; and in Warrington with the whole of the children’s social care service. In all three local authorities, Crescendo started by setting a vision for the service with leaders and practitioners. The local authorities are now in the process of making small changes that will help both practitioners and leaders live that vision.

After this phase, Crescendo will bring practitioners and leaders together in a sensemaking exercise, to explore their experiences of making changes in their local authorities. This will help them to collectively understand the system they work within. It will also expose the systemic barriers preventing practitioners from building relationships with children and families, and living the vision they have defined.

Following this, Crescendo will support leaders and practitioners to create a plan for change – ‘a local blueprint’. This will outline experiments that could break down these systemic barriers over time, and the changes to structures, processes and cultures needed to create the enabling conditions for continuous learning. Here, Crescendo will draw on the Human Learning Systems approach to public management, which is currently being pioneered by over 50 organisations around the world.

Doing change ‘with’ not ‘to’

Crescendo’s aim is to place practitioners – who know how to make a real difference for children and families – at the heart of creating change. To do this we are committed to:

Ensuring any local blueprint is not a static model, but a plan for continuous learning and change. In complex environments, like children’s social care, we cannot reliably say that if we do x, y will happen. The local blueprint will outline experiments that could break down system barriers, and identify the structures, processes and cultures needed to enable continuous learning.

Ensuring the local blueprint will be focused on the barriers that practitioners feel most acutely. By starting with small changes and building on those to design experiments, we can ensure that any plan for doing things differently is centred around what could make a real difference to practitioners’ relationships with children and families.

Ensuring the local blueprint is grown from the unique context and culture of each local authority. Many of the barriers faced by practitioners will be the same across local authorities. But ‘lifting and shifting’ a model to address these barriers doesn’t work. Any plan for change needs to be developed based on each local authority’s context; to account for the starting point of each local authority and the specific cultural context that practitioners are working in. Crescendo will bring experience from other local authorities who have successfully made progress against these barriers, but will support each local authority to develop a plan for change that can work for them and their unique context.

Ensuring the local blueprint can be owned by staff at different levels of the local authority; from practitioners to senior management. By working with both practitioners and leaders, we have begun to build trust and experience in working together to make change – so change feels ‘done with’, not ‘done to’. Building on these small changes and working with both practitioners and leaders to design experiments can nurture true co-ownership and collective focus. Ultimately this will encourage sustainable and long-lasting change.

Crescendo is led by Michaela Berry, Katie Rose and Ryan Wise. The initiative is on a truly exciting journey to understand how the children’s social care system can work to prioritise relationships between practitioners, children and families.