Work on protecting children involves multiple stakeholders in complex decision-making processes that have profound implications for the safety and well-being of vulnerable young people, their families, and child protection workers. Here follow some reflections on the beginnings of our work in this area in Australia; in a later issue, we will share our related efforts in South Africa.
In March 2008, Steve Atkinson of Atkinson-Consulting! in Australia attended our introductory Change Lab course in New Zealand. After the course, Steve observed that this approach might benefit one of his longstanding clients, the Child Protection Program within the Department of Human Services’ North and West Metropolitan Region, which serves approximately one-third of the 30,000 children across the state of Victoria.
Steve and I worked over the course of the next year to develop a way to address the escalating number of children and families cycling through the system and the unproductive and problematic relationships with non-government service providers, courts, and the press, all of which was breeding low morale, a sense of hopelessness, high staff turnover, and increasing bureaucracy. The results of preliminary interviews and diagnostics showed that while there might be some simple ways to alleviate particular symptoms, larger challenges and their causes were deeply rooted in the culture and architecture of the system as a whole—and that these challenges could not be addressed successfully through the approaches that had been used in the past.
In May 2009, Reos and Atkinson-Consulting! facilitated a three-day workshop for 36 government and non-government executives, managers, court representatives, and child protection practitioners. The focus of the workshop was on exploring how those gathered could improve the situation for children and families, as well as the operations and relationships across the system, without increasing costs or changing legislation. The focal question was, “How can the North and West Metropolitan Region’s Child Protection Program, within current legislative and resource parameters, enhance its interventions in the lives of vulnerable children and families and build a highly effective workforce that ensures the well-being of staff?”
We applied Reos’s change lab approach, which helps participants access their systemic and inner knowledge to create a shared understanding of both blind spots and points of potential high leverage in the system as a whole. The participants identified a number of leverage points and formed eight cross-sectoral innovation teams to work on them. These teams then coalesced into four, and two more were added at our September 2009 workshops. Teams are now working on staff well-being, thresholds (the avenues through which children and families enter the system), inclusion of children’s and families’ voices in systemic innovations, communication, new attention to fathers’ participation, and recalibration of relationships with the courts. A Change Lab secretariat was established, and an executive position and one full time project officer are now being recruited to steward the Lab over the coming years. In September 2009 we met and held workshops for approximately 200 leaders from over 20 organisations across the child protection system in order to update newcomers and sketch out the next phase.
Our focus remains the achievement of real changes in the lives of children, families, and staff. While turning around the decades of momentum that have created today’s child protection system is no simple feat, the early results of this work are encouraging. New levels of hope, enthusiasm, and commitment have emerged across the sector, and the energy for structured, systemic, whole-system change is continuing to gain hold. In the next few weeks, we will establish the means to move all innovation teams forward, measuring our progress as we go.