In this blog Richard Devine gives a summary of an article by Juan Usubillaga, Clive Diaz & Donald Forrester.

How are policies implemented in children’s services? Developing an initial programme theory to evaluate the implementation of the new Child Sexual Exploitation guidance in Wales

A wealth of policy, guidance and law in social work guides frontline practice. Remarkably, there has been little research looking at implementing new policies in children and families’ social work in the UK.

This is crucial because no matter how well-intentioned, rigorously researched, or evidenced-based a policy is, it depends upon frontline staff to implement it effectively for it to achieve its desired outcomes. Outside the field of social work, researchers have explored methods for evaluating the implementation of policy. One way to assess implementation success is to consider outcomes, such as acceptability, appropriateness, fidelity, and feasibility. There are also other factors to consider, which can be summarised in three broad categories:

Contextual factorsThe availability of resources, funding, staffing levels, inspections
Organisational factorsOrganisational climate and culture, including lines of communication, the attitude of staff to change and innovation, leadership
Individual factorsPersonal interest in the policy, self-confidence to implement the changes, understanding and knowledge of the policy

Our study marks one of the first of its kind to examine the implementation of a new policy within children’s social care. We looked at Safeguarding Children from Child Sexual Exploitation guidance in Wales. We were interested in how and why the guidance is or is not put into practice.

To improve outcomes for children and families, we must think about how best to translate evidence-based guidance into tangible changes in frontline practice that correspond with the guidance.

In our study, we interviewed 23 managers and child protection practitioners about their experiences implementing the guidance. Here is what we found:

Firstly, practitioners discussed the importance of multi-agency working to develop a shared understanding of good practice and expectations.

Secondly, despite the guidance applying nationally throughout Wales, each Local Authority (LA) approached the implementation of the guidance differently. For example, in one LA, senior managers created a task and finish group involving several managers. In another LA, it was the managers themselves who were responsible for cascading the information down to practitioners.

Those that took the lead tended to be those who were personally interested in Child Sexual Exploitation. Though this is positive, it highlights how dependent the implementation of national guidance is on the work of individual practitioners to drive it forward.

Third, and related to the second point, practitioners emphasised that how the changes in policy and guidance are communicated makes a big difference. Given that the guidance is over one hundred pages long, we think that consideration must be given to providing time for frontline practitioners to read the document, or for guidance to be made available in digestible and accessible ways.

Fourth, practitioners mentioned the importance of having a supportive culture to help fully understand and embed the guidance.

Fifth, and somewhat strikingly, most interviewees were not aware of the guidance. Of those that did know about the guidance, some thought it already chimed with pre-existing practice and therefore didn’t see that it offered anything new.

Sixth, the national guidance in some LAs conflicted with local policy. For example, the national guidance recommended not using tools. However, in one LA they had recently developed a tool, which they were heavily invested in implementing.

So, taking together the research on implementation and the findings from this study, what do we take away?

The most important finding can be summarised in two words: communication matters!

Communication between the developers of national guidance and those responsible for implementing it at the local level mitigates the risk of significant divergences in practice between different Local Authorities. Communication between senior management and frontline staff about the guidance helps to facilitate the effective dissemination of the guidance across the organisation. Frontline staff should be presented with guidance in a way that accommodates their busy and stressful role, especially when it’s complex or lengthy. And communication between agencies is crucial to ensuring that different organisations have a shared understanding.

A second key finding is that we need to focus more on how we can support policies to be implemented. Social work is awash with new policies, guidance, and procedures, yet we have spent little time exploring how we can help make sure these make a difference. We think that our findings will be fruitful for anyone interested in analysing or improving the way policy guidance, or indeed any type of guidance, is delivered for the people it intends to positively impact.