Developing the new What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care

11 October 2017

At the National Children and Adult Services conference in Bournemouth this morning, the Minister for Children and Families announced the Government’s commissioning of a consortium to develop and incubate a new What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care. We’re delighted that Nesta and its Alliance for Useful Evidence (AUE) will be leading the consortium, with support from the Social Care Institute for Excellence, FutureGov and Traversum.

The Department for Education (DfE) has outlined an ambitious brief for the new What Works Centre(WWC). It will need to operate across a broad canvas – from the point of referral through to support for care leavers. It will need to engage a range of audiences in its work, with a primary focus on children’s social work practitioners and a broader remit to engage all those whose services interact with children’s social care. It is charged with fostering a change in the culture of the children’s social care sector and with making a real difference to practice at the front line.

It will also need to be created and incubated at speed: the Government’s intention is for the Centre to be a fully independent entity by the summer of 2020. Our job as the development team is to manage this start-up process, working alongside a separately commissioned research partner that will synthesise existing insights and strengthen the evidence base through new evaluations and trials
We are excited by this brief. We believe that the creation of the new Centre will need to be rooted in insights drawn from the experience of the best of the existing What Works Centres around how to be an effective force for evidence-informed change. But its creation will also require innovation and creativity.

There is a need for fresh thinking about how to establish an organisation that is fit for the particular challenges of promoting and supporting evidence-informed practice in the children’s social care sector, and about how to use incubation methods to accelerate the startup process for the new entity
We have some compelling sources of insight to help us in our work. We know a lot – from the experience of Nesta and a number of the existing WWCs – about the ways in which Standards of Evidence can help generate and support evidence-informed practice.
AUE has powerful insight – captured through its study on Using Research Evidence, and its Science of Using Science project with the Wellcome Trust, WWC for Wellbeing and EPPI Centre – into what works in getting professionals to use evidence, and we intend to apply this insight in each phase of the new Centre’s development and operation.

More broadly, there are rich lessons to be learnt from the experience of the other Centres in the What Works network – around the importance of a user-driven approach to knowledge mobilisation (i.e. not thinking that ‘if you build it, they will come’), of leadership, and of a adopting an iterative approach in which new organisations should apply ‘test, learn and adapt’ thinking to the development of their products, services and ways of working.

But we know that the worst first step would be to assume that we already have all the answers and that we can just crack on with constructing the new Centre. We need to ‘think slow’ and base our development programme in a deep understanding of the ways in which practitioners at different levels in the sector – whether frontline social workers, supervisors, senior practitioners, practice leaders or Directors of Children’s Services – view and use evidence in relation to the demands of their work.

We will apply a user-centred design approach to develop these insights into social work practice, helping us ensure that the nature and form of the WWC’s evidential resources are configured for ease of use. Our first priority is to listen and learn from frontline professionals, the evidence and research communities, and from the ultimate beneficiaries – children and young people, and their families. Every member of our consortium recognises the importance of making the future Centre a creative, responsive and practical source of support to children’s social care.

So we start as we mean to continue: in listening mode. If you have any observations or insights that could help us make this new initiative a success, we’d love to hear from you. And if you’d like to be kept informed of the progress in developing and establishing the Centre, let us know and we will add you to our contact list so that we can carry on the conversation as this exciting journey unfolds.