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Steps on a journey

In his monthly blog, Michael shares the steps made so far at the What Works Centre

A journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step, followed by several more, faltering steps in quick succession. At the What Works Centre this month we’ve started doing a few small things that I hope add up to a big difference.

Anna Bacchoo joined us three weeks ago as Head of Practice – a single appointment, but one that is really vital to the centre. Anna has a critical role in making sure the voice of practice is represented in everything we do – in making sure our research is as impactful and useful as it is robust, and in helping to bring interventions and innovations developed by social workers themselves to the fore. She’s already started to have an impact and is steering our research agendas.

Speaking of research, as Louise Reid said in her blog last week, we’ve published our first seven research protocols – with more on the way. These reflect a lot of back and forth over the last few weeks and months between researchers and practitioners to get these projects into shape to learn as much as we can across both our Change Projects, our new project evaluating Schwartz Rounds in social care, and our re-analysis of the Education Endowment Foundation’s existing randomised controlled trials.

We’ve also begun contracting our first sector led intervention, commissioning our first external evaluation, and recruiting members to our Evaluation Advisory Panel.These first forays will help to shape what we hope will become business as usual for the centre in the future, as we get into the habit of conducting and commissioning various types of research to help build a clearer picture of what works, alongside practitioners, academics and others.

One step that I’m particularly excited about is our decision to hold a deliberative forum on the use of Machine Learning in children’s social care. The event, which is in London on 27th March, hopes to bring together skeptics and enthusiasts about machine learning, as well as those who are just curious or interested, and to try and chart a middle path between idealistic hopes about what is possible from these approaches and the very real and legitimate concerns about their risks and potential for harm.

These forums have been used elsewhere to help understand what the public and others think about potentially controversial topics, and we’re hoping to use the insights that emerge from this event, and from other discussions, to steer and shape the research we’ll be conducting with local authorities –  to try and work out how well these techniques actually perform compared to the alternatives. Please come along if you can, or get in touch if you can’t.

I’ve written elsewhere about the journey of producing evidence on what works. If we expect to be perfect, we’ll never get started. Instead, we’ve made as much of a start as we can, and will learn by doing, and by listening to as many people as possible. We might stumble, but we’ll try to keep moving forward.