We need solutions! Or do we…?

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I’ve been reading a lot recently about the need for new ideas and solutions to problems in social services – it is a fact that we can’t get away from.

However, the challenges we are facing in social services are those which require an understanding of a multitude of aspects of people’s lives and society as a whole. Our social systems and structures are increasingly complex which often means that it is difficult to define the ‘problem’ or the ‘issue’ at hand – so how possible, then, is it to come up with a solution?

I am reminded of this when writing a document in collaboration with the I&I team. A colleague commented on what was written by saying “we shouldn’t write ‘solutions’ – it implies that there is one ‘answer – a ‘holy grail’ to be found”. It got me to thinking – are we, in social services, sitting waiting on someone else to come up with the answers?

In reality, the context we work in requires the capability to continually address issues by developing and redeveloping practices which keep the person (and their outcomes) at the centre. This is a process led view which inevitably poses a way of thinking which is flexible and which iteratively addresses problems that naturally ‘live’ and ‘change’ continuously [1]. It becomes less about recognising fixed solutions and more about creating spaces in which responses can be explored that will lead to better outcomes.

If we take this proposition to its conclusion, if we really are saying that there is no ‘answer’ or ‘right way’ then we have to think about whether or not ‘scale’ of our ideas or innovations is achievable. Scaling up can be described as, “the practice of introducing proven interventions into new settings with the goal of producing similarly positive side effects in larger, more diverse populations” [2].  Perhaps it makes more sense, in our complex context, to then work on ‘scaling’ our processes and approaches to innovation?

For instance, there may be elements of a response like process, tools, leadership style etc. that are needed to help embed new ideas. However thought needs to be put into this ‘re-potting’ of one idea in one context to another, what will work in that environment and what may not?  It’s my emerging view that ‘context is king’ and I have the suspicion that perhaps in the context of social services, it is locally tailored responses that reflect and draw upon the assets of the local community that will be the future. We can borrow ideas from other places, but nearly always the component developments will need to be specifically located in the local area.

However, I’m happy to be wrong. Are there good examples of social innovations that maintain their substance across contexts? What makes these innovations the same or different from place to place?

[1] Christiansen J and Bunt L (2012) Innovation in Policy: allowing for creativity, social complexity and uncertainty in public governance. Nesta: mindlab

[2] McDonald S K, Keesler, V A, Kauffman NJ and Schneider B (2006) Scaling up exemplary interventions, Educational Researcher, 35.

So who designs and what are we designing for?

Before you read this post you may find it useful to read – What do we mean by design?

So who designs? Everyone of course!

“Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” Simon (1996).

Design and social work and care professionals, to a certain extent, approach the design of situations in a similar manner. Donald Schon (1994) explained that many professionals work using spontaneous and largely unthinking actions that go hand in hand with a more conscious approach. This spontaneity Schon describes as ‘knowing in our action’ and a conscious approach ‘reflection-in-action’, or ‘knowledge in action’ – depending upon whether a person applies their sensemaking or theoretical knowledge (or both) to a situation.

Schon found that professionals tend to reflect-in-action when dealing with ‘situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and value conflict’ and use their training and experiences of similar situations to respond. He also points out that reflective practice, whilst widespread, suffers from a lack of acceptance in many professional circles due to the perception that professionalism is identified with technical expertise (in whichever guise), and that reflection-in-action is not considered a form of ‘professional knowing’. And the negative aspect of this practice can be that professionals can think in rather specialised, narrow view, and can become selectively inattentive to particular phenomenon that do not fit with their categories of practice.

And what are we designing for?

Philips Design believes Western societies are moving from industrial economies to experience, knowledge and transformation economies. An overview of these categories and an explanation are provided in the image below (Brand and Rocchi 2011).

Economic pradigmsFrom a design perspective some designers roles are changing as they engage with these new economic paradigms. A role that tended to be solely focused upon the making of things in the industrial economy, to one that is emerging as a facilitator, researcher, co-creator, communicator, strategist, capability builder and entrepreneur (Yee J et al. 2009). This has resulted in a challenge for designers in terms of how they are educated and trained ( Forlizzi and Lebbon 2002), and in some instances has resulted in designers becoming involved with human-centered methodologies (Badke-Schaub et al.), rather than being solely focused on the making of things. In such cases design can be said to be designing for experiences, the transfer knowledge and the transformation of how people contribute to society.

Thinking about how the social services designs for people, I would guess that most people from this sector would identify more readily with the experience, knowledge and transformation economies. It could be said that aspects of an outcomes focused approach (Scottish Executive 2006), when designing systems, services, knowledge and interactions, align with human-centered designerly approaches.

So, if designers that apply human-centered design approaches and the social services workforce are both designing their working practice around and for individual empowerment and collective issues that affect communities, what skills, knowledge and benefits can these professions contribute to support this ambition?

Through these posts I aim to explore the application of design in the social care sector to think about synergies and differences between approaches and practice. Importantly I want to reflect on the outcomes of these approaches to the individuals and communities who are the focus of such work ,and would like to hear from others interested in this topic area too – so please follow this blog, receive RSS updates, and comment away!

References

Badke-Schaub et al. – http://www.designresearch.nl/PDF/DRN2005_BadkeSchaub.pdf

Brand R, Rocchi S (2011) Rethinking value in a changing landscape, a model for strategic reflection and business transformation, Phillips Design.

Forlizzi J. Lebbon C (2002) From formal to social significance in communication design, Design Issues, Autumn 2002, Vol. 18, No. 4, Pages 3-13.

Schon D (1994) The reflective practitioner, Ashgate Publishing Limited, USA.

Scottish Executive (2006) Transforming Public Services : the next phase of reform, p31.

Simon H (1996) The sciences of the artificial, MIT Press, USA.

Yee J. Tan L. Meredith P (2009) The emergent roles of a designer in the development of an e-learning service, First Nordic Conference on Service Design and Service Innovation, 24th-26th November, Oslo.

What do we mean by design?

I’m afraid it is quite difficult to explain, is something others struggle with, and others ignore the need to define.

Design word cloud

“Design is a particularly fertile and challenging subject for the historian because it occurs at a point of intersection or mediation between different spheres, that is between art and industry, creativity and commerce, manufactures and consumers. It is concerned with style and utility, material and artifact and human desires, the realms of the ideological, the political and the economic. It is involved in the public sector as well as the private sector. It serves the most idealistic and utopian goals and the most negative, destructive impulses of human kind. The task of a design historian is a daunting one requiring as it does a familiarity with a multitude of topics and specialisms.” (Walker 1989).

This fertile ground is illustrated by the use of the word design in the English language. It is used as a noun and a verb, and its use in English vernacular takes on common and descriptive meanings. For example, when referring to the look and desire of something – ‘I like the design of those shoes’, or being used as a preprocessor and therefore having some kind of cultural significance – ‘designer jeans’, ‘designer brands’, ‘designer babies’.

In the field of designer, designers themselves find it difficult to agree on a definition of what design means and so many develop their own interpretations, definitions and meanings of design (Ralph and Wand 2009). Unsurprising really when the breadth of how design is categorised in design libraries ranges from: the history of design, materials, styles, fashions, the evolution of products, systems, environments and structures, theoretical perspectives, design movements, schools and institutions, design from different continents and countries, fashionable or popular designers, design groups, organisations and businesses, conferences, manufacturing companies, brands, journals and magazines, as well as different design fields, subjects and disciplines – which in themselves can be hard to categories or distinguish between in their purley textual, pictorial or a mixture of the two formats.

So with all this confusion it’s a wonder that anyone is able to design at all! Not so suggests one design researcher,

“…definitions serve strategic and tactical purposes in inquiry. They do not settle matters once and for all… Instead, they allow an investigator… to clarify the direction of their work and move ahead with inquiry in a particular thematic direction.” (Buchanan 2001)

However in this instance a perspective of design what resonates with the I&I programme is that:

“Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state. Design, so construed, is the core of all professional training; it is the principal mark that distinguishes the professions from the sciences.” (Simon 1996).

At IRISS our relationship between design and innovation and improvement (I&I) in the social services sector is evolving.

Innovation word cloud

Part of our role is to test and reflect on what design can offer those in contact with social services. The blog posts I am writing will focus upon design, participatory design, visual communication and service design which all take a human centered approach but are rather large an ill defined areas. So to support understanding around the perspectives I am engaging with check out my other post – So who designs and what are we designing for?

References

First image sourced from – http://www.nngroup.com/articles/tag-cloud-examples/

Second image sourced from – http://www.123rf.com/photo_16578812_abstract-word-cloud-for-user-innovation-with-related-tags-and-terms.html

Buchanan R (2001) Design research and the new learning, Design Issues, Autumn, Vol. 17, No. 4, Pages 3-23.

Dilnot C (1984) The state of design history: part I, in Design Issues, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring, pp. 4-23, MIT Press.

Ralph P, Wand Y (2009) A proposal for the formal definition of the design concept, in Design requirements engineering: A ten-year perspective lecture notes in business information processing, Volume 14, 2009, pp 103-136, Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Simon H (1996) The sciences of the artificial, MIT Press.

Walker J (1989) Design history and the history of design, Pluto Press.

What (when, why, where, for whom) works?

This week I have been reviewing the literature on evidence, and its role in informing policy and practice in the context of Scotland’s social services.  Evidence-based approaches have been borrowed from medicine where they have existed for centuries, although they have only been explicitly labelled  ‘evidence-based’ since the early 1990s (Claridge & Fabian, 2005).  This approach to the delivery of services can be defined as “the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individuals” (Sackett, Richardson, Rosenberg, & Haynes, 1997 quoted in Johnson & Austin, 2005, p. 4).  In light of this definition the idea of utilising evidence-based approaches in social services, which has had a presence in UK Government discourse since the mid 1990s, seems logical.  The aim is to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of social services, in order to improve the level of care they are able to provide.  This remains a popular goal given the context of reduced public sector budgets across the UK (The Scottish Government, 2011).  It also accords with the move towards greater and more transparent accountability in the spending of public money, which has been a powerful public sector reform discourse since the 1980s (Munro, 2004).  This has led to the view that policy and commissioning decisions, as well as everyday social service practice, should be based-on, or informed and enriched by, the ‘best’ available evidence.

Again this might seem logical, obvious even.  As Oliver Letwin, Minister for Government Policy, said of evidence-based policy and practice, at the 2013 launch of the What Works Centres:

once you’ve decided that you’re trying to achieve something…it does make abundant sense to try and find out whether the thing you are doing to achieve it has actually shown that it is capable of achieving it, and then to adjust it or remove it if it hasn’t, and reinforce it if it has…this is blindingly obvious stuff and I just feel ashamed, on behalf of not just our country but actually every country in the world almost, that this is regarded as revolutionary.  It ought to be regarded as entirely commonplace.

And yet evidence-based policy and practice remain elusive goals in many social service contexts (Johnson & Austin, 2005, p. 12).  My aim here is to isolate one possible explanation for this apparent difficulty, which is particularly relevant to the social work profession.  For the purposes of this discussion I will use the What Works Centre view of evidence as a product or output upon which to base a judgment or decision, although I am aware that this definition is subject to debate and criticism.

Difficulties in implementing evidence-based approaches may exist due to the presence of hierarchies of research design in the area of evaluation and efficacy research.  These hierarchies tend to prioritize experimental studies, or systematic reviews of existing experimental studies on a particular intervention (Johnson & Austin, 2005; The Social Research Unit at Dartington, 2013).  However, this hierarchy may be problematic if we are trying to encourage the use of evidence in a social work context.  First, from the perspective of evidence-based policy, experimental studies such as Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) can be extremely useful at telling us whether or not an intervention works; i.e. achieves the outcomes we have assessed it against.  However, this research design may be less adept at answering a host of other questions, which need to be answered if a social work intervention is to be rolled-out across services as best practice (Cartwright, 2013).  For instance, we need to understand why this intervention has or has not worked, and to understand in greater detail, how it works.  We also need to understand who the intervention has worked for, when and where?  The who question enables us to identify which client group(s) the intervention has been used with, and the extent to which their characteristics and needs can be viewed as typical across a range of social work clients. Issues of spatiality and temporality are particularly important if we seek to scale-up an intervention.  Put another way, what we are trying to get at is both the causal ingredient – i.e. the thing to which we can attribute the effectiveness of our intervention – and the necessary support factors required for this causal relationship to hold (Otto & Ziegler, 2008; Cartwright, 2013). These support factors could include organisational culture, the individual attributes of the practitioners involved, the practitioner-client dynamics, the availability of the necessary resources and so forth.  RCTs alone cannot provide us with all of this information.  We require a methodological mix of research, capable of providing a more holistic picture, including evidence regarding the transportability of an intervention.  Thus there is a need for greater recognition of the role of other study designs, and indeed of mixed-method evaluations, for successful evidence-based policy in social work.

Greater encouragement of mixed-method approaches may also be helpful in addressing a second concern about the research design hierarchy, which pertains to its impact on evidence-based practice. There may be a disjuncture between the ontological and epistemological positions which underpin experimental methods – that is the views about what kinds of things there are in the world, and how we can come to ‘know’ them – and the ontological, epistemological, professional and value-orientated views of social workers.  In order to make decisions, social workers will draw on, and piece together, a variety of different types of knowledge and evidence (Collins and Daly, 2011).  This will include case notes from a range of professionals, their own observations and previous knowledge and experiences, and service user views.  The interpretive skills of social workers are therefore paramount in making sense of the complex, multi-faceted and, often, incomplete picture they have of a client or situation (Shonkoff, 2000; Otto & Ziegler, 2008).  These are skills that may be more closely aligned with interpretive research traditions, which seek to understand and interpret the actions and meanings of agents, and advocate the existence of multiple truths.  If social workers are to make better use of research-based evidence, it needs to be capable of improving their understanding of complex and fluctuating scenarios.

That is not to suggest that RCTs have no role to play, they do.  They are useful at telling us what works, and we should encourage greater quantitative literacy amongst social workers so that they can read the latest evidence on interventions and reach their own conclusions about them.  However, on their own RCTs may be insufficient to develop evidence-based approaches in social work.  Not only are they unable to provide adequate detail of the conditions needed for causal factors to operate, which is crucial in a social service context which is characterized by diversity and contextual nuance, but such research may also seem ontologically and epistemologically removed from the professional foundations of social work.  For evidence-based approaches to thrive we need practitioners on side.  So, as well as continuing with RCTs which look at what works and encouraging quantitative literacy amongst the social service workforce, we also need to encourage the use of other, and mixed, methodological approaches (Cartwright, 2013). Not only will this make better use of the proficient interpretive skills social workers already have (Nutley et al, 2010, p. 135-6), it will also provide the well-rounded, nuanced evidence that is required for evidence-based approaches to be more valuable in a social work context.

In relation to the Evidence and Innovation Project at Iriss, this discussion suggests that there may be a role for innovation in informing and inspiring new methodological approaches and combinations in order to improve the effectiveness and take-up of evidence-based approaches in a social work context.  It might also be the case that the view of evidence underpinning the ‘What Works’ agenda – i.e. which situates evidence as a product or output upon which to base a decision or judgment – has limitations.  In the context of the Evidence and Innovation Project, it may be important to explore other, broader, and potentially ‘innovative’ understandings of what evidence is and can be used for.  These issues will guide my thinking over the forthcoming weeks and will be returned to in future blog posts.

Jodie Pennacchia
The University of Nottingham
Follow: @jpennacchia

 References

Cartwright, Nancy (2013), Knowing what we are talking about: why evidence doesn’t always travel, Evidence & Policy, 9:1 pp. 97-112.

Claridge, J and Fabian, T (2005), History and Development of evidence-based medicine, World Journal of Surgery, 29:5 pp. 547-553.

Cnaan, R and Dichter, M E (2008), Thoughts on the Use of Knowledge in Social Work Practice, Research on Social Work Practice, 18:4, pp. 278-284.

Collins, C and Daly, E (2011), Decision making and social work in Scotland: The role of evidence and practice wisdom, Glasgow: The Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services.

Johnson, M and Austin, M (2005), Evidence-based Practice in the Social Services: Implications for Organisational Change, University of California, Berkeley.

Munro, E (2004), The impact of audit on social work practice, British Journal of Social Work, 34(8), pp. 1073-1095.

Nutley, S;  Morton, S; Jung, T; Boaz, A (2010), Evidence and policy in six European countries: diverse approaches and common challenges, Evidence & Policy, 6:2, pp. 131-44.

Otto, H and Ziegler, H (2008), The Notion of Causal Impact in Evidence-Based Social Work: An Introduction to the Special Issue on What Works? Research on Social Work Practice, 18:4, pp. 273-276.

Shonkoff, J (2000), Science, Policy, and Practice: Three Cultures in Search of a Shared Mission, Child Development, 71:1, pp. 181-187.

Circles of Care

We welcome guest contributors to this blog. Today’s post comes from Lauren Johnston at STRADA (Scottish Training on Drugs and Alcohol). Lauren’s example highlights an innovation to her sector.

She has outlined how her organisation are supporting others to trial a ‘circles of care’ approach to support. More than that, though, her work also highlights the value of 1). testing things out 2). using knowledge from elsewhere to inform new practice development 3). how taking a strengths based approach can transform the relationships between people being supported and those who provide support – all stuff that is right up our street!

Thanks Lauren for your contribution – looking forward to reading more in September!

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Melting the Iceberg of Scotland’s drug and alcohol problem: Report of the Independent Enquiry (2010) identified the need to develop a whole-population approach as a response to help tackle Scotland’s drug and alcohol problem and to develop a Circle of Care concept.  The concept aims to empower the focus person (service user) by allowing them to explore their needs and identify the support they require from services to help them in their recovery. The focus person also identifies their recovery capital to become part of their Circle of Care. Recovery capital is another term for personal/social assets and can include family, partners, friends, peers, volunteers, community resources. A facilitator, typically a professional, works alongside the focus person supporting them with the process. This style of working requires a shift in power between the professional and service user – where the professional guides and facilitates choices and decision making allowing the focus person to lead.

STRADA are currently developing a Circle of Care approach with a range of statutory and voluntary drug and alcohol organisations across Scotland.  Circle based approaches have a strong evidence base in a range of health and social settings including learning disabilities, sex offending and homelessness.   Currently there is little evidence to suggest that circle based approaches work in the field of substance misuse.  STRADA are therefore coordinating a ‘Proof of Concept’ phase to test the applicability of circle based approaches within this area.

The aims of the ‘Proof of Concept’ phase are in line with the Scottish Government Road to Recovery agenda and Supporting the Development of Scotland’s Alcohol and Drug Workforce statement.  The aims are;

  • to gather sufficient evidence in relation to the delivery of recovery outcomes and the operational and practice coherence to allow Circle of Care to be a validated and accepted approach.
  • to use evidence to help scale up Circle of Care through the medium of workforce development.  This is turn will help to change culture in the workforce and support the development of new skills.

Circle of Care is not an intervention but a different approach to working with people who are affected by substance misuse.  As practitioners, we have identified that the support network of individuals who are in recovery consist largely of professionals and services.  However, it is just as crucial that other members such as family, friends, and peers become part of that network to support the individual re-integrate into the wider community.

Thus far, facilitators have used various techniques and tools to help the focus person identify their recovery capital including ecomaps, genograms and mind-maps.  However, it would be useful to draw upon a tool which has evaluated in a similar setting and has positive outcomes.  Personal Asset Mapping (PAM) and the WITTY app are both useful tools to integrate into Circle of Care to help the focus person identify their recovery capital or social assets.  STRADA intend to discuss this tool with the Co-Production group members and explore the possibility of integrating the tool into the Circle of Care training module which will be available in 2014.

The diagram below highlights exactly where PAM and the WITTY app could be introduced into the Circle of Care process.


The evaluation of the ‘Proof of Concept” phase is underway and a report will be available in September 2013 which will outline the learning and development which has taken place across the 6 host organisations. If you would like further information about Circle of Care or would like to receive newsletters please contact the Circle of Care Coordinator: Lauren Johnston via email; l.johnston@projectstrada.org

Reflecting on thinking and doing

“I don’t know how much you know about innovation, but it’s really just about thinking outside the box…and you work with lots of people and try new things, and maybe you’ll end up inventing something.”                                                                                                                      – Julie

During the summer I caught up with my parents’ young neighbour, 12-year-old Julie. This month Julie starts year eight of state school in Denmark, and she waxed lyrical about making her choice between having an international, innovation or science angle to her formal education during the next three years, and about all the collaboration, work placements and project work these years will bring. This is not the school format I remember, and the conversation with Julie led me to investigate what’s been going on on the other side of the North Sea.

There are obvious links between educating Danish children to “work systematically and creatively with the development of ideas”, as the Ministry for Education describes it, and how the country has operated hitherto: export, invention and drug R&D (think Lego, Vestas windmills, the NovoPen etc.)

This new system is, however, a much more flexible and outward looking approach, which requires considerable systemic change, and requires re-education of the teachers and other adults both inside and outside the education system, as well as creating a culture of innovation and a willingness to work with a constantly evolving curriculum.

Systemic change, adapting to constant change – we are hearing this a lot in Scotland’s social services at the moment. What can we learn from what the Danish teachers and organisations have been through, to build a system which ensures that both the current and future workforce develop competences that match the demands of a rapidly changing world?

In the municipality of Esbjerg, development consultant Pernille Paaby, who leads on the council’s “The Innovative School” programme, has found that focusing on adult learning processes makes a great difference, and especially using structured reflection. In her report “ The innovative organisation – how do we invent it?” she argues that “when the wish is to promote an innovative organisation, we have to look at how adults re-learn”, and “provide opportunity for deeper reflection in our team meetings throughout a development process”.

Paaby highlights Jack Merzirow’s critical reflection theory as a helpful way to alter the meaning schemas which exist for each person.  The simplified model below outlines the key reflection points Paaby recommends:

(Merzirow in Walhlgren (Paaby,2012: 8).

 

To innovate is disruptive to how we think, how we learn and how we work. But remember that you can start small – you don’t have to aim for large-scale systemic change. It is, however, important to reflect upon, and document, what you are going through. Not only because it helps all involved to re-learn but also because it may, later on, become a large scale and systemic.

In the IRISS I&I team we always talk about the importance of capturing the process of transforming new thinking into action. Innovation needs to always do more than be new thinking and must lead to much more experimentation and creation. We want to help people to develop better practice and provide added value (think actual value not Pounds Sterling).

This year we have the opportunity to look very closely at the processes between thought and action as part of the Social Services Lab, Creative Quarter projects and training sessions we will be running later in 2013. Expect us to ask lots of questions to help us document what happens between idea and action. We are doing it to help you ask questions in the future and to hopefully contribute to the innovative workforce of now and the future.

If you would like to share your experiences of introducing new ways of thinking and doing please get in touch.

Julie has decided to go the international route. She is confident that it will allow plenty of thinking outside the box, and most of all she wants to visit other countries.

“To travel is to live”, I said.

“Ha, ha, that’s Hans Christian Andersen”, she replied, “…we learn about old stuff too”.

Rikke

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h https://www.retsinformation.dk/Forms/R0710.aspx?id=132670#B17

http://www.folkeskolen.dk/519014/udvikling-af-en-innovativ-skole-kraever-fokus-paa-voksnes-laereprocesser

http://www.eggeslevmagle-skole.dk/Infoweb/indhold/Linjer%20i%207%20-%209%20klasse%20-%20fremtidens%20skole/Evaluering/Ekstern%20evalueringsrapport%20-%20International%20Linje%20-%20Eggeslevmagle%20Skole.pdf

http://wwwprod.ln.edu.hk/osl/conference2011/output/breakout/4.4%20%5Bref%5DHow%20Critical%20Reflection%20triggers%20Transformative%20Learning%20-%20Mezirow.pdf

Radical vs. Incremental… not that old chestnut?

It is continually recognised that the current economic climate requires new ideas and creativity to maintain and achieve quality support for people using social services. In social services, we are constantly told that ‘more of the same won’t work’, we have to ‘do more with less’ and that what is necessary are ‘ever-more innovative ways of providing social care that both meets the needs of the user and is at a lower cost’ (Christie, 2011[1]).

Right, so we need to innovate then.

But what do we mean by this? Are we expecting the emergence of an army of new social entrepreneurs? Are we expecting people to innovate alongside maintaining the status quo within their own organisations and environments? Some other combination?

For the past day or so, I’ve been struggling against my inner pragmatist to sit, reflect, and write down my thoughts about just two questions:

What is innovation in the social services sector?

What could it be?

Questions, you might think, that would be relatively simple to answer.

It would be easy to rhyme off a number of definitions and dichotomies from leading scholars and practitioners alike. We could get into theoretical debates about the difference between radical and incremental innovation, disruptive and continuous, what makes social innovation ‘social’ (more on that in another blog, I think). But what I’m interested in, really, is what this means practically for people on the ground.  What it means for the practitioners working tirelessly day in and out to support people, for the middle managers who are being pulled in 101 different directions and for us, as an intermediary trying to build the capacity of the workforce so that they can have ideas and create an environment where those ideas can flourish.

One thing we know about innovation is that it is complex, it’s not-linear and it’s messy. It can start with a genius idea from a practitioner, it can start with a problem or policy and it can start with a need. Depending on where and how it starts greatly depends on the ease with which the idea will be implemented in practice (sorry!).  The system that we have set up for social services in Scotland scarcely allows incremental change, never mind radical change (Duffy, 2013 – forthcoming). Therefore I’ve long since thought that radical innovation happens more easily on the fringes of systems – from the ‘outside-in’.

The current policy focus is that which is seeking radical innovation. Everyone gets excited about brand new or emerging ideas, radical projects or interventions that have been thought up that will revolutionise the way we work.  These are all great (excellent, in fact) but they will likely come across a number of difficulties when we get to embed them within the system. When adding new ideas into an existing system it is usual that it will be difficult for that system to yield to what it is the new idea has to offer. Implementing these types of ideas will demand that people who use services, practitioners and those higher up the chain have a perspective which is comfortable with ambiguity and not afraid to get things wrong.  All entirely possible. All very exciting. It’s the ‘how’ that intrigues me.

More recently, thinkers in the area (see for example, Mulgan, 2013[2]) are beginning to highlight that innovation may be more likely to come from connecting the dots between a range of different things, putting commonplace ideas together and making connections between them. Cleaning up a system which incorporates lots of different ideas can be innovative itself without any particularly novel components. These everyday innovations are vital, and we should not lose focus on them. These are the types of innovations that may be more likely to get taken up in practice, but they so rarely get the glory.

At IRISS, we are interested in understanding what works to enable effective implementation of both these approaches. In particular, we are interested in exploring how an idea becomes embedded in practice, how you stop doing what you were doing before, and how you share what went well and what didn’t.

For both types of innovation, though, we know that there is a need to remain outward facing. If ideas are a new mixture of old(ish) elements, it is important to constantly expand our experiences and horizons and expose ourselves to the ‘new’ and ‘different’. There is much that we can learn from what is happening on our doorstep, or round the corner, even, but we aren’t always conscious of what is there as we get caught up in the distraction of our own organisation, lives and situation.

And that is one reason that we have created this blog. It is all too easy for us at IRISS to stay behind the desk, get our heads down and never look up. But we won’t. We know that others are exploring and grappling with key concepts in this field and we want to learn and share our thoughts and ideas as well as hear from others – hear from you. We also know that there are enough of us that want to change and make a difference and we believe that that change is entirely possible.

We hope to use this space to encourage debate, discussion and to greet guest bloggers – so get in touch; we’d love to hear from you.

More soon.

[1] Christie Commission (2011) Commission on the future delivery of public services, Edinburgh: Scottish Government
[2] Mulgan 2013 podcast: http://www.kingsfund.org.uk/audio-video/geoff-mulgan-achieving-more-less-innovators-catalyst)