SUPERVISING THE CHILD PROTECTION PROCESS:
A MULTI-DISCIPLINARY INQUIRY
John Cosier and Sara Glennie©
Our experience of training and facilitating improvements in industry and the public sector has convinced us that a key ingredient in catalysing change in large organisations lies in the notion of ownership. Other ingredients are also necessary, but without ownership firmly placed at the fulcrum, a high level of resistance to change can be expected if not actually predicted.
We believe that ownership exists in its ideal state when an individual or group is empowered to give expression to their own sense of knowing about a situation. Such knowing may or may not be defined in terms of a "problem", but in the contexts in which we work, it often is. Knowing must then be exercised and explored in ways that make sense to the individual; not subjected to remote, detached diagnosis by experts. Finally, if change is thought appropriate, the creation of alternative courses of action should be developed which have genuine relevance to the individuals concerned—conditions need to be such that they feel able to "buy in" to understandings of cause and possible solutions. It follows that ownership cannot be given to anyone,: it can only be elicited and developed through active participation in all stages of a planned change process.
The inquiry which forms the basis of our discussion gave us an opportunity to work towards this ideal of ownership through active participation. We are both experienced change agents but we are novice inquirers. We openly report our uneven progress and process towards the stated ideal for two reasons. First, we recognise that the discipline of a public report will continue to serve our own learning. With each review of the experience we eventually shared, we add another layer to our understanding of how powerful co-operative inquiry is in generating the conditions under which participation can flourish. Secondly, we are keen to contribute to the continuing process of co-operative knowing which this edited collection represents. Our experience may help to put some detail on the maps which others are drawing for themselves in this emerging field of research.
The Inquiry Context
The origins of the inquiry, if we are honest, can be traced to time spent in conversation on an oriental carpet at Hawkwood Conference Centre in Gloucestershire. We went there as delegates to Emerging Approaches to Inquiry in September 1990, were touched by the experience in similar ways, and left determined to find a way of giving practical expression to our hitherto cerebral exploration of the potential of co-operative inquiry as a tool for catalysing change in organisations.
The opportunity which emerged (or which we constructed?) was rather more complicated than our conference musings had allowed us to imagine. We eventually worked with six public sector organisations simultaneously!
Sara had been doing some Child Protection training in Northamptonshire. The county's Area Child Protection Committee (ACPC, a multi-agency committee which monitors and develops various aspects of child protection services) was interested in improving the quality of management, professional supervision and support available to workers who have face to face contact with children and families where abuse is a concern. Teachers, Health Visitors, Social Workers, Police Officers, Probation Officers and other specialist workers all have different roles to play in the process of protecting children from abuse. Whatever their role and organisational setting, all workers in this field need professional supervision and support. This is widely acknowledged because there are some characteristics of child protection work which set it apart from other professional tasks, specifically:
1. the high degree of personal and professional anxiety which the work generates in individuals and their organisations and
2. the complex and sensitive nature of inter-agency communication and co-operation which an effective child protection system demands.
The need for competent supervision and support had been acknowledged in Northamptonshire, but little was known, locally or nationally, about how (and if) such needs were being met within the major agencies involved in child protection. Clearly (or so it seemed to us), the situation presented an exciting opportunity to do some preliminary discovery research in an area which had not been well travelled and where there was an identified and agreed need. Furthermore, collaborative inquiry seemed a highly appropriate research tool to use for the purpose. We began to focus on the possibility of facilitating an inquiry group of first line managers from the agencies concerned with child protection locally to explore and describe the management, supervision and support of child protection practitioners. This seemed to be a sensible first step if improvement was on the ACPC's agenda. How could we make it happen?
The absence of an immediate answer focused our attention on the fact that most of our preparatory thought had actually been directed towards the management of the collaborative inquiry process ONCE a group had emerged or had been identified. We were quickly confronted with our naiveté, and our accompanying uncertainty, about how to turn our good idea into a reality. We needed to find ways of sharing it with a group of as yet unidentified people who, from our perspective, lay deep inside a complex and possibly impenetrable system. Our recognition of an opportunity for inquiry turned out to be only a first small step in a long and complicated process of negotiation during which ownership of the idea and the initiative required to progress it passed amongst a number of key individuals and groups. We now recognise that collaborative inquiry, when it doesn't emerge spontaneously from an existing group experience, falls into two major phases, each with its own process and dynamic, each requiring very different skills.
1. Phase One: Enabling it to happen
2. Phase Two: Facilitating the happening
We also recognise that the issue of ownership and participation can be particularly problematic during Phase One. We discuss this more fully below.
In retrospect, one sees a pattern so clearly! At the time, the first phase felt like pushing a great weight up a very long hill whilst the weight itself obscured the view forward. Planning for uncertainties and unknowns, a very imprecise process, seemed all we could do. We now see that our journey closely mirrored that described by Bate and Mangham (1981). Our own derivative model of the planned change process which was eventually initiated provides a useful framework for our subsequent discussion. (Table 1)
—Table One about here—
Having formulated and developed our good idea a bit further, we found ourselves in the ideologically uncomfortable position of having to use any power and influence we could muster to sell an idea which is based on the principles of participation, power-sharing and peer relations!. It felt odd and incongruent, but there did not seem to be any alternative. We started to push.
In order to test the temperature of the water, Sara initiated informal discussions with a Social Services Department Training Officer. She talked about the possibility of using collaborative inquiry to explore ways in which the managerial/supervisory task was currently experienced across agencies. The University of Nottingham's School of Social Studies with which we were both consultants agreed to provide the institutional home to the project. She met with enthusiastic support in principle and the promise of a facilitative link to the Chair of the ACPC, the potential commissioning body. This very easy first step in the negotiation process may not be common. We widened ownership to someone who already knew and respected the University's work in the multi-disciplinary field and who was personally committed to improving the quality of supervision in the county. Our idea gave him a focus and launch pad to progress his own concerns. Our ideal ownership conditions were therefore met at this critical first step.
The subsequent stages were much more testing.
The promised facilitative link led to a meeting some two months later with the then Chair of the ACPC (an Assistant Director of Social Services) and a senior manager from the Social Services Department with special responsibility for Child Protection. On our way to the meeting we rehearsed how to introduce the concept of peer-group inquiry across several totally different agencies, run by two people who, although experienced group facilitators, had never run an inquiry before, and furthermore, one of them had never set foot in the public sector. A contract didn't seem very likely.
The meeting was gratifyingly informal and positively supportive of the ethos of action research which we outlined. The stumbling blocks came when we started to discuss the practicalities of engaging the interest, commitment and participation of a number of agencies with different organisational frameworks, supervisory structures and approaches to staff support and development. How could we convey the aims and intentions of the inquiry sufficiently clearly to find the "right" participants? How could we ensure wide-ranging support for a project which might already be identified as a Social Services initiative? Would that lessen its potential impact? The unanswerable questions continued and we became more and more convinced that we had been too ambitious. The multi-disciplinary approach which we had hoped to adopt, although potentially rich, seemed to be foundering in a sea of practical problems.
What is it that enables some people to take risks? We are still not sure what happened during the meeting to turn the tide of problem-focused discussion. We reflected afterward that the atmosphere seemed to shift when we acknowledged that it was probably too difficult and started collecting our papers as if to withdraw. At that point, the senior manager appeared to literally grab the idea from us and proceeded systematically through the list of problems which he had just constructed to find a solution for each one. He agreed to take our proposal, with a strong recommendation to accept, to the next meeting of the ACPC! Had we transferred ownership? It felt like something significant had happened. We certainly felt that there were more than two of us pushing and our excitement as we left the meeting was tempered only by the realisation that we might actually have to DO IT!
As it happened, we had several more months of negotiation ahead as the Social Services Department tried to establish wider commitment to the initiative. The ACPC meeting had not gone "as smoothly as expected", there were natural concerns about costs, some doubts about whether or not anything useful would be achieved, and a suggestion that research questions could be built in which would suit the needs of the various organisations. An ad-hoc group was to be convened by the senior Social Services Department manager who had enthusiastically championed the idea so far in order to discuss these and other concerns with us before making a decision.
Two months passed. The four person committee assembled as we arrived in a bare green and cream room with plastic stacking chairs. We sat around a central table with a chipped and peeling Formica top which was furnished with aluminium foil pie cases as ash-trays. The mood was tangibly solemn as our champion outlined the issues for discussion. The meeting developed into the first clear paradigm clash: the need to monitor budgets closely and get "value for money" seemed to underscore an already existing preference held by at least two group members for research designs which aim to generate widely generalizable hard data. We could offer no such promises, and emphasised our belief in the usefulness of open peer group exploration of the issues. Outcomes could not be pre-empted. The discussion felt inconclusive and there seemed little detectable shift in attitudes or ownership as we withdrew to allow them to consider their decision.
A further two months of silence followed. We then heard that the ad hoc group, originally empowered to be decision-makers, had been called to report to the next full meeting of the ACPC. Another hurdle!
It is perhaps worth recording our feelings during this period. We have already noted our relative unpreparedness for the protracted Phase One. As it went on, we recognised quite dramatic shifts in our mood and approach. When positive, we were unreservedly excited about the "almost there" inquiry and optimistic about its potential. When negative, we acknowledged considerable anger at "them" for being so apparently mistrusting of our motives and competence, and anger at the "system" which exists primarily to protect children from abuse, but was finding it so achingly difficult to make even the most modest move toward a small piece of research which might yield improvement. Meanwhile our heads reminded us of the inevitable complications of negotiating indirectly with organisations which have differing priorities and complicated systems of communication. A wise colleague who has had much more experience of multi-professional work than either of us, cautioned against impatience. We should recognise how many frames of reference we were trying to encompass within a single project and not underestimate the inherent psychological threat of exposure which such a multi-disciplinary venture risked.
Eight months after we began negotiation, the phone rang. The ACPC had decided to commission the inquiry. Did we have any ideas about how a research group could be effectively recruited?
Ideally we hoped for informal preliminary discussions with potential group members. That seemed to be the only way in which prospective participants could genuinely be enabled to develop an interest in and commitment to the inquiry subject and process. However, the very real difficulties in gaining access mentioned earlier made this impractical. We settled for second best: our link-person took responsibility for contacting each agency to invite participation. We agreed that in order to try to communicate a consistent message it would be helpful if he used some "advertising copy" to help sell the concept to all the prospective client organisations. This confronted us with the question: how can we succinctly communicate the information required to make rational choice of participants possible? Our answer was the summary document reproduced as Table Two.
—Table Two about here—
It is interesting re-reading this "advert" after the event to see how close we were to reality in some dimensions and how far from it in others. Close in the sense that everything we wrote about the process and content of the inquiry was more or less to occur in the research group. Far because the initial expectations of the group members were very mixed, and the criteria by which they were ultimately selected made it far from the peer group of researchers we had hoped to convene, at least at the beginning of the group process. There are a number of issues to note which contributed to these discrepancies:
1) Temporary loss of ownership. We were at least four links removed from those who were being invited to work with us.
Link 1: Us to champion
Link 2: Champion to point of contact in each organisation
Link 3: Contact to line manager of prospective inquirer.
Link 4: Line manager to potential inquirer.
The potential for mixing and missing messages in this process doesn't need elaboration! It felt like Collaborative Inquiry via Chinese Whispers! Having pushed for so long, all of a sudden we felt powerless, literally out of control. The very act of writing and handing over the "advert" seemed to symbolise our loss of ownership at a critical scene setting stage.
This feeling was complicated by the news that our champion was to transfer to another job soon after sending out the "advert". We were therefore to be handed over to his successor who would act as link between the inquiry and the ACPC. Being handed over felt very uncomfortable and risky at this stage. We had no reason to believe that the new link person would be any less effective, but recognised that if this were to be guaranteed, we had further ownership transfers to effect.
2) Differential recruitment processes. We had hoped for two peer representatives from each participant organisation in order to increase the sense of individual and professional safety within the research group. We also thought that if we were to explore an area of practice which we knew to be diverse, it would be useful to encompass as broad a range of experience as possible. Practically, we foresaw some sessions where there would not be full attendance and wanted to guarantee full agency representation for as many research meetings as possible.
Two agencies, Probation and the NSPCC decided to send a single representative to the inquiry. We are not altogether clear whether this mattered critically, but insofar as it represents a deviation from our intention it is worth reporting.
3) Wide range of resulting expectations. Our distance from the recruitment process for an extended period led us to seriously underestimate the wide range of expectations which were being generated by it. From our perspective outside the system, we optimistically assumed that a potentially co-operative group was being formed, whereas in reality, co-option seemed to more closely represent the group's experience.
"I only heard I was coming the day before the inquiry started."
"It's not as if we all got together and decided to do this."
"I was sent."
"I feel really second, possibly third, best, I'm here because X and Y couldn't come."
"I was intending to send one of my staff, but he fell ill, so I came myself."
"My manager was going to come, but had other pressing engagements, so sent me."
The nature of these experiences was not to surface fully until the third meeting of the research group. Their impact however must have been immediate and conditioned the task we faced on entry. In retrospect, we feel that these problems could have been largely overcome by us meeting with participants individually before the event. However, because of time and cost constraints, this was not possible.
The Inquiry was scheduled to meet for six half day sessions over a four month period. We were to be based in the professionally neutral territory of a quiet, convenient diocesan conference centre just outside Northampton. It was, we thought, a perfect setting for reflection.
We started the group forming process a month in advance of the first session by writing individually to the nominated participants. We spent a long time fine-tuning the detail of the letter, aiming for a combination of warmth, enthusiasm and clarity regarding dates, times, and venue. We also enclosed a copy of the "advert" thinking that in the protracted recruitment process some of them might not have had sight of it.
An issue which featured in our discussions at this stage was our respective roles within the inquiry—how to manage our own collaboration. We felt intuitively that our skills were complimentary and well suited to the task in as far as it could be predicted. John had wide experience of facilitating the Improvement Process in industry and was well equipped with process tools. Sara's teaching and research experience in the field of child protection meant that she had a grasp of the issues that were likely to provide the focus of the inquiry. We loosely divided process tasks and content tasks accordingly. In practice this division seemed to be appropriate. Sara found herself up front to a large extent during the sessions where content issues were manifest. John was most active and creative between sessions, analysing and steering the process.
We were incredibly eager to begin! The weeks leading up to the initial meeting dragged by as our file filled with notes for the first session which we worked and re-worked . The end result of this "worry work" was fairly predictable; we knew we needed to spend a significant part of the first session getting to know one another, establishing safe foundations for co-operative activity. We needed to be as clear as possible about the events which had led to the inquiry and help the group move towards an appreciation of the collaborative inquiry process. We wanted to enable active participation and share ownership!
Session One: a full group convened. Something had worked! Were they really interested, curious, keen...or just compliant? Again our own fluctuating confidence played games with our capacity for positive interpretation. But there they were, apparently ready to start. The full group is listed in Table Three.
—Table Three about here—
How to begin? We made efforts to maximise the safety and comfort of the physical environment by ensuring that everyone had coffee on arrival, comfortable easy chairs in a circle and a background of Baroque guitar music. The former were perhaps expected and common, the latter clearly surprised people. They later commented on how they came to value it as a means of easing the transition from one world to another; from a highly pressurised to more reflective environment.
Generally, the first session of any group encounter represents a three-way tension between person focus, process focus and task focus. All three need attention in order to create a group which can work co-operatively and purposefully. Striking the appropriate balance in this context tested our intuition. Remember we had no direct inquiry experience to draw on. It also tested our capacity to understand each other's style and preferences as facilitators. We hoped we could read each others messages accurately during the session when one of us shifted or felt the need to shift the balance.
Initially we chose to focus primarily on people. We started with a session almost entirely devoted to getting to know each other. After a brief introduction to the objectives of the inquiry, the meeting consisted of three main components:
1. Interviewing someone from a different agency and introducing them to the group
2. In small groups, addressing the question "What can we contribute to the Inquiry, and what do we want from it?"
3. A plenary presentation from each group, which led to a general discussion about the common features of the management and supervisory role as the group was experiencing it now.
Although some group members said subsequently that they felt unclear about objectives and direction in the early phases of the inquiry, we feel that our intuitive choice of focus was appropriate. Enabling group members to explore one another in a number of different ways laid a solid foundation for the open and honest exchanges which were to follow and helped a focus to develop which was relevant to their concerns.
An important piece of group culture emerged during this session. John noticed that on several occasions, people, although using the same words as one another, were clearly endowing them with different meanings. He suggested that we start a "Glossary" of terms whose meanings need clarification. The group never got round to filling in the definitions, but the process was invaluable in that it sensitised member to the use of jargon. It also served as an excellent barometer to the group's ownership of its process: it started with us writing words, then group members suggested words for us to write, then group members asked our permission to add words, and finally the group added items freely whether or not we were present in the room.
The group process by the end of the first session was totally divergent. Members ranged widely in their discussions, moving from details of child protection procedure to feelings generated by abuse, to the political and social context in which they operate. This was perhaps particularly important given the multi-disciplinary nature of the group. Although ostensibly doing the same job, the widely differing organisational structures, functions and cultures which the inquiry embraced meant that the inquirers had a great deal of checking out to do with one another as professionals as well as people. This need became even more apparent as the focus of the inquiry began to sharpen.
The exhilaration of starting gave way to a sense of rising panic in our gut after the first session, though we perhaps didn't acknowledge it immediately at head level. The feelings seemed to be about how to facilitate rather than prescribe the move from the divergent early exploration of an incredibly wide territory to a path of inquiry that would be recognisably coherent and valuable for the group's purposes. The "stuff" elicited in the first meeting was exciting and necessary but seemed overwhelmingly complex. We were particularly conscious of the very limited time-scale of the inquiry (six half days). We also recognised the pressure under which group members were working and the difficulties they had in freeing themselves to attend the inquiry. Although we knew they had to own the inquiry in order for it to become appropriately focused, we felt we wanted to give them a tangible direction. As our link person cautioned us later, "you can't go with the flow forever!". The doing culture from which each participant had emerged constantly (sometimes unhelpfully) reinforces this message and we were not immune from its seductive influence.
Extracts from our taped post-session musings reflect our concern:
… the process is a tool which is not inherently important… it is a tool for helping them to do what they need to do. I think it is important that we shouldn't be attached to a particular technology of doing it. I think the fundamental thing is them admitting that they want to do it. 'Cause if it is US doing it with them, then it's never gonna work… we're not going to be effective in the doing of it and it's not going to be owned by them and the output isn't going to be used… maybe a prescriptive stand up in the front and manage the process is the way. I dunno, I wouldn't personally prescribe that process, on the other hand, I wouldn't NOT do it if it was going to be effective.
… I wonder how guided, or misguided, we've been in being committed to having a multi-disciplinary group? I feel at one level it is the only way to begin to address the issue; on the other hand I am very aware that people come from very different cultures of learning and doing…
(Incidentally, we would prescribe that anyone facilitating an inquiry should hold the meetings fifty miles from home. The drives to and from sessions with the cassette recorder almost permanently on were an essential part of our learning process.)
We continued musing and decided as a first step to try to make sense of the groups wide ranging discussion (which we had taped) for ourselves by "chunking and sorting" the transcription. (Bell and Hardiman 1989.) We did so with an oppressive sense of guilt about taking over the group's task, but from it we distilled a very useful starting point from which the group could shape the next stage of the inquiry. We posted the sorted and clustered "chunks" for the group to examine and reflect on as they gathered for the second session.
At this point John offered a more detailed outline of the Collaborative Inquiry process as a research method. Intellectually it seemed late (with 17% of the meeting time over) but in practice it was ideally placed because he could quote incidents from the group's experience in the first session to illustrate key points of action and reflection. Indeed, it became a meta-inquiry within the main inquiry. This pattern of reflecting on the group experience continued and John was later to introduce models of the Improvement Process (Cosier, 1991a, 1991b) and Experiential Learning (Kolb et al, 1979).
The group split during this session to explore two main "chunks": issues relating to the JOB itself and issues relating to the CONTEXT in which it is experienced. They asked themselves the question: "What do we need to do to progress these issues?"
More plenary discussion led to the beginnings of one of the most important process tools of the inquiry: the Inquiry Map. With each week's session it was amended and extended thereby bounding and directing the inquiry. In retrospect, it enabled us to see a quite distinct three part pattern to the groups life together. We dubbed these phases, Ascent, Flight and Descent.
Ascent, the first two sessions, represented our coming together as a group and the generation of energy and direction. Flight, lasting three sessions, was full of "doing"; information gathering, representing and sharing. Descent, the last and breathless formal session, contained the important next steps discussions which were to finally give shape to the inquiry's product.
—Table Four about here—
The emerging sense of shape and direction during session two lifted our mood. Our post session reflection was optimistic, light and clearly signified ascent:
I think they have definitely changed gear...last week I felt that they were happy to be there but passive. At the end of today I feel that they are enthusiastic to contribute. I really do think that we have shared ownership…
…there was a kind of intrigued suspicion on the edge last week. …she wasn't ready to jump into the puddle yet. Now I feel that the inquiry has fully engaged her intellectual curiosity…
We moved more confidently into the data collection phase of the inquiry.
The group chose to explore three major aspects of their role as supervisors each of which reflected the need for cross-agency learning and co-operation in the child protection field. Their exploration began with a detailed elaboration of the knowledge, skills and personal attributes thought to be required for efficient function in role. This focus helped to clarify thinking for individuals about the job they did, whilst providing a means of checking for similarities and differences across agency boundaries.
1) Knowledge, Skills and Personal Attributes
The task was progressed in three different ways:
1. Initially, the group took away a homework question which had been formulated through general discussion, "If you were to be replaced tomorrow, what knowledge, skills and personal attributes would your successor need to have in order to function effectively?" They came to the next session with comprehensive notes to compare. Small groups collated and clustered the products of their private reflection.
2. In the process of doing this piece of work, one group member wondered what the question would look like with another set of glasses on. That query sparked the next step in the exploration. Each supervisor went back to their organisation to ask both practitioners and their own managers the same question: "What knowledge skills and personal attributes do you think a child protection supervisor's successor should have in order to function effectively?"
3. Finally, two group members took responsibility for formulating a questionnaire (asking basically the same question) which was introduced and distributed at a meeting of the ACPC.
The gradual widening and deepening of this part of the inquiry (perhaps the best illustration of the cyclic nature of the inquiry process) was fascinating to watch. It was a dramatic and validating example of the group's growing capacity to take charge of its own direction, test its sufficiency and then alter course to suit its own purpose. The learning for us at this stage was potent. It DOES happen, this elusive thing called ownership, we saw it, MOVING!
Post session notes confirm this shift in confidence.
Tremendous bit of initiative, enthusiasm and commitment!
…my faith in this process has been totally justified today… my doubts completely wiped out. First of all M. mentioned the "other set of glasses" and all I did was to underline that in the group discussion by saying "that's an interesting question, you mean we could actually look at this in more than one way?" And then, three quarters of an hour later P. comes in with the perfect mechanism for getting at that! … and as you know I have been aching for them to ask the punters (practitioners). I was afraid I was going to have to prescribe it
This high carried us through the next month and the long Christmas period. Why didn't we anticipate the trough ahead?
Session four was undoubtedly the lowest point for us. Excerpts from our post session discussion illustrate this:
…it started off like yesterday's rice pudding…
Even before the session started! It developed a crust as soon as the first participant arrived with her doubts and anxieties about the value of the inquiry!
We had been concerned about post-Christmas attendance (having already received apologies from four participants) and had given quite a lot of thought about how to get the remainder back on board. Also (in retrospect) at this the half-way point our anxieties were flipping from how to continue to maintain ownership (the process) to what to put into the report to the client (the task). We had decided to address these issues directly with a review and clarification of the objectives of the inquiry and had just written the question on a flip ("We will know that we have succeeded in our task if…?") when the first member arrived. She had just been to a difficult and apparently unsatisfactory meeting at work and her distress was still wrapped tightly around her. She greeted us warmly but then went on to express genuine concern about the progress and direction of the inquiry. "Is this what you wanted?" was one of her questions, re-stimulating obvious alarms in our minds about ownership! John reflected the question; "Is this what YOU wanted from the inquiry?" This precipitated a lively internal debate with very little intervention from us during which she became convinced of its value and re-committed to the process. She concluded that it was useful to spend time reflecting on her role and particularly helpful to do so with colleagues from other agencies.
Meanwhile the smallish group had arrived and the subject opened up to all. They sat, unresponsive and clearly in another place. The turning point came when the member who had arrived earlier and had had time to start reviewing objectives contributed. She offered a clearly thought out case for the inquiry. Others slowly joined in.
The outcome of their debate was the following set of targets:
We will know we have succeeded in our task if:
1. We heighten our awareness of other people's roles and issues central to the management and supervision of child protection
2. Our people receive better supervision
3. We identify what we can do to make things better within existing resources
4. We construct a report of our work which:
·is usable and friendly
·we all own and support
Thus the nadir transcended to the zenith; a public and overt declaration of ownership, or at least the intention to own!
We reflected afterwards on the importance of this review and re-connection with objectives and its serendipitous emergence into the group's process.
That's one thing that has been the common theme through the whole Inquiry...serendipity. Things have just fallen into place at exactly the right time. The thought of the right question, the thought of the right activity… exactly when it has been appropriate. Quite amazing.
I don't know what that stuff about serendipity means… I don't know whether you just begin to trust it will happen… or whether there is something else going on. But it was a very profitable first half hour and they have a much better understanding of what they are doing.
Having literally re-formed around a commonly agreed intention, the group moved on to the next and quite natural phase of their exploration. They had identified relevant knowledge, skills and attributes, they now directed their attention to the context in which they work and focused on what they called the critical points in the child protection process.
2) Critical Points
Essentially the group was trying to generate an explicit understanding of "who does what when" in each agency during the protracted processes which span suspicion of abuse through to treatment and recovery. The group decided to set itself some more homework. Each participant agreed to develop a map or flow chart of their supervisory/managerial activity which they would then present to the next meeting. They intended to design their map in such a way that it would demonstrate points in the child protection process within their agency which:
·require supervisors to be particularly active
·made particular demands on supervisors
·offered scope for greater multi-disciplinary collaboration.
The maps were shared with the group and checked for clarity and understanding. The critical points listed in Table Five emerged as a consensus.
—Table Five about here—
This piece of work was valuable in the following ways:
·It helped individuals to see the different strands of their complex role with more clarity.
·It made it possible for people to identify the fact that they required different knowledge, skills and expertise at different stages of the process.
·It provided a tool for examining the differential contribution of individual agencies at different stages in the child protection process.
·It enabled a distinction to be made between reactive and proactive styles of management and supervision.
The work also laid the foundation for the groups next exploration; the description of current practice within each agency. This was the brainchild of one group member who envisaged the possibility of representing, in matrix form, the supervisory and managerial activity of each agency at each critical point in the child protection process. It was an ambitious task, and time was running out.
Our own anxiety at the prospect turned our post-session reflection towards the cynical and facetious.
I hope he can pull his matrix off… I asked him to come up and draw the idea on the flip because I thought it was such an enormous task. With only half the group there, by the time we reconvene in a month, heaven knows how we actually DO it!
Don't you know how we do it? We struggle for 6 or 9 months on the first column, the critical points that we have been eliciting today. It's all the functions of every possible referral. That's why you need a team of lawyers and practitioners and experts and professors working on that for 6 or 9 months. Then you pin it up on a board and you say, OK, which bits do you get involved with?. And in 15 minutes you have a matrix of ticks. Quite easy really!
3) Current Practice: A Multi-Agency Representation
A matrix was in fact created at the next session, the fifth. The full grid was originally constructed on scraps of paper and posted, covering the majority of an oak panelled wall of the conference centre. In interim form it was transcribed, cut and pasted, filling an A1 flip chart. Ultimately it became a nine-page coloured section of the final inquiry report. As a courtesy to our readers, we do not include it as part of this chapter!
It showed each participant's account of current practice at each critical step in the child protection process. It proved effective in helping the group to gain a detailed cross agency perspective, and served as a preliminary base line for the question: "If this is what we do NOW, what do we need to do to improve?"
We were much relieved that this third and major group task had born fruit which the group valued. By the end of the fifth session we were anxiously and almost exclusively focused on acceptable outcomes. It feels somehow invalid to admit to such a pragmatic concern, but we were under contract and were cognisant of the need for a product that had meaning for more than the inquiry group.
…. session five was good because it generated data that is structured, shared and usable… it's a lot more comfortable when it comes out structured. I was very anxious before today; bloody hell, how are we going to process all this data with the group and come up with some conclusions when we've only got two sessions left!
… that's interesting, in terms of our own process, the focus of our anxiety has totally shifted away from the group....they've gotta produce some data that someone else will recognise as being worth our fee! I think we have to acknowledge that…
I guess you can divide the six sessions into three twos… One was "take off and climb", two was "what a beautiful flight" and three is descent and landing.
…the feelings associated with that are real anxiety about whether we will get to the desired altitude and will we crash? And in the middle it is really comfortable… nice metaphor.
Analysis and Reflection
The final stage of the inquiry, reflecting on three months of working together, was difficult for the group and for us as a consequence. In the sixth and last session we had a very full agenda: we had to pull together some conclusions from the (by now) large mass of data, invent and agree a process for the group to own the final report and finally, we hoped to review the members' impressions of the process. Right from the start we knew we were on a loser! Whether it was deliberate prevarication, problem avoidance or blissful unawareness we never were to find out, but the discussion was rambling and endless. Reiterating the agenda failed to focus the group, as did reminding them of the time remaining. Our distress was clear in the post-session tape:
…I was in absolute panic half-way through… I just couldn't cope, with the mechanics of it or the content! … I was totally relying on the tape to pick up all that stuff that I simply couldn't understand and find attention for.
…they kept losing their way… hey couldn't keep focused on the task… hey had worked well with the brainstorm that they chose initially… nd then they came to a grinding halt!
… and then B. and G. started their independent debate which went on and on and far away… there was a lot of discomfort in the group at that point…
…none of them were being concise or crisp and they knew we only had today !
B. said a couple of times "I've lost the thread of what I was saying" - Well,
THAT was an understatement: I don't think he ever had a thread!
The burden of ownership is evident from our transcript. We had considerable doubts about whether it was still willingly shared by the group. There seemed to be a lot of unfinished business about. Eventually we arrived at a list of items that the group clearly thought were areas for improvement and further research by extracting comments and highlights from the discussion onto a flip-chart. With this we went away to write a draft report for them to consider.
The group met on one further occasion some six weeks later, having read the draft. (Two members who couldn't attend sent contributions by post.) At this meeting, there was, interestingly, much more focused attention on formulating conclusions and careful consideration of a strategy for moving the report back into constituent organisations.
They felt it was important to distinguish between changes which were thought desirable as a result of their learning, and those which were desirable AND achievable within existing resources. There was complete consensus on this issue. The group wanted to be heard outside the inquiry and wanted their voice to be thought pragmatic and reasonable. This concern demonstrated that they had managed to generate a healthy balance of attention: attention inwards to their mutual exploration and attention out to their clients (the practitioners they supervised and the ACPC). They too, felt under contract.
Mindful of that, the group confirmed specific areas for attention, discussion and action which clustered in the following way:
·Specialist characteristics of the managerial/supervisory task in child protection.
·The need for role clarity across agencies and possible mechanisms through which it could be enhanced.
·Specific issues of cross-agency communication and co-operation in practice.
In this final review meeting people became fully engaged in discussion about specific content issues that we raised. However, notable by its absence was any feedback from the group (either from those present or in writing by others) about the report as a whole: no comment about how good it was, or how bad; how long it was or how short; how well written or how badly; how representative of the group's work or how different. We became very anxious about the absence of affirmation of the report. We were in an uncomfortable position. After the lively and highly participative data collection phase we now felt a sense of uneven ownership of the final and now tangible group product. Without wishing to seek compliments we found ourselves giving people opportunities to make spontaneous general remarks. None came. Why? we asked ourselves repeatedly. Had we got it exactly right? Was it precisely what people had anticipated? Was it so far adrift from their expectations that they daren't tell us? After the event, did they feel that they had been used as guinea-pigs by the academics? Were the group in some way disclaiming ownership in the final moments of the project? Or had we usurped or offended the group in some way by offering to write the report on their behalf? Sadly, we were never to find out. We should have confronted the issue squarely but didn't fully comprehend the nature of our dis-ease until the meeting had finished and we had had an opportunity to check out impressions with one another.
Also, during the final session we were keen to give the group an opportunity to consider and comment on their experience of collaborative inquiry as a research method. We were hopeful that both product and process would be recognised as valuable. We had prompted this reflection by sending an open set of questions for them to think about or write about before the final session. Time ran out on us and we were left, sadly, without the full thoughtful discussion we had planned. A paper picture of their impressions revealed that with one exception the group enjoyed the experience of working together co-operatively and some had very specific thoughts about how the method could be used effectively to explore particular issues within their own work settings. The only concern/criticism about method that was expressed had to do with clarity of objectives from the outset.
"We need clear objectives in the first session."
"Keep us on track more rigorously."
"Half way through I lost track of our aims"
This raised a number of questions which we are still musing over:
1. How, in a relatively short inquiry, can one effectively convey the participatory ethos of the method particularly if it runs counter to the prevailing culture of the organisation in which participants are working? As we were recently reminded in another context, empowerment takes time.
2. Was the lack of clarity a manifestation of the protracted and difficult process of access and entry which characterised this particular inquiry
3. Does the criticism simply give voice to the inevitable tentativeness and anxiety associated with exploratory research methodologies? Should real attempts be made to solve the problem, or is it simply necessary to recognise and manage it?
4. Do the concerns reveal the early dependency which a group inevitably feels when convened by experts, in this case, academics from a distant (and distancing?) institution? Reason (1988) reminds us of the
important tension at the contracting stage. If the initiators are already very clear about what they want to do and how they want to do it, there will be little room for negotiation… it is unlikely that a genuinely co-operative climate will flourish: the group will either form in a dependency mode, doing the inquiry for the initiators; or will be resistant and argumentative; or will simply not get off the ground at all. (Reason 1988, pp. 24-25)
5. Were we just plain fuzzy? Reason again:
…if the initiators are completely open and flexible the forming group will have nothing to get its teeth into at this early tentative stage, and so may flounder around in ambiguity and confusion. (Reason, 1988, p.25)
There were very clear expectations from the client, the ACPC, that we would formally present the report of the inquiry's findings. This was communicated directly at the contracting stage and re-confirmed at a meeting with our ACPC link person as the inquiry drew to a close. We understood the origins of this expectation, and in many ways were sympathetic with it; you buy, you expect delivery. We were, however, concerned that if the report were seen publicly to belong exclusively to us, the outsiders, the force of its potential impact would be lessened. We tried therefore to continue to find ways of maintaining group ownership and participation at the intervention stage of the planned change process. This was attempted in two ways:
1. We invited our link person to meet with us and a member of the research group after session five. The purpose, ostensibly, was to report progress to date and to agree details of feedback into the organisations. An indirect purpose and outcome was to actively enable her appreciation and support of the method and likely products of the inquiry. The change in her attitude during our discussion was marked; she moved from expecting specific prescriptions to looking forward to a set of emergent understandings about the role of supervisor/manager in child protection which might then form the basis of a whole range of future actions. The meeting, in effect, recreated the role of champion.
2. The formal presentation of the inquiry's report was made to a joint meeting of two ACPC Sub-committees (Procedures and Professional Practice). Serendipitously (again!) two active and keen members of the research group were also committee members. They sat supportively on either wing of the semi-circular audience offering confirmation and expanding points as the presentation and subsequent discussion progressed. Their presence helped us feel that the transfer of ownership that was going on was from the whole inquiry group to the ACPC. We concluded the session by symbolically handing over the overhead projector slides that we had prepared and used in the presentation to our champion.
The full inquiry report is at the time of writing being reviewed and sifted by a sub-group which has been convened by our champion and which contains two research group members. They have taken responsibility for making some specific recommendations for action to the next ACPC meeting. We have transferred ownership for the last time. We are no longer participants in the process and its products will be shaped, appropriately, by those who commissioned and must use its learning.
Leaving the territory after having been resident for so long feels strange. We haven't, if we are honest, even now divested ourselves of ownership (or its consequent manifestations). We listen to and tweak our network for news of developments. Nothing yet… too early to tell. What we do hear is that there is almost exclusive attention to the content outcomes of the inquiry. There is no evidence that the introduction of a new research methodology has had any impact beyond the research event. This saddens us because we felt it that it proved to be a particularly powerful tool for such a complex exploration.
The group has stopped meeting; there are no more deadlines but it doesn't feel finished.
Will anything change? Has it made a difference? Will children be better protected as a consequence of the inquiry? The answers to these questions matter enormously.
We have every confidence that the inquiry was valuable to those who participated directly. They actively enjoyed learning with and through one another. They dramatically lowered the unhelpful barriers which can exist between agencies and professionals who share a common, painful and difficult task. Their perception of their role and its potential has expanded. Their practice will be different. We celebrate that achievement and our part in it.
The possibility of wider learning is more difficult to anticipate. It seems critically dependent on the ability of those who have neither direct experience of collaborative inquiry, nor inherent sympathy with its paradigm, to trust in new ways of knowing. We wait and hope.
Its going to leave a huge hole when it's finished.
Table One: Steps in the planned change process
Identification of the opportunity for inquiry
Widening ownership of the idea
Identifying appropriate inquirers
Forming a co-operative group
Agreeing the territory and conditions for inquiry
Cycling; doing, discussing, focusing, further doing
ANALYSIS AND REFLECTION
Pulling out messages
Widening ownership of inquiry outcomes
Withdrawal from the inquiry territory
Table Two: The summary document
NORTHAMPTONSHIRE CHILD PROTECTION COMMITTEE
THE SCHOOL OF SOCIAL STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF NOTTINGHAM
THE MANAGEMENT, SUPERVISION AND SUPPORT OF CHILD PROTECTION PRACTITIONERS
A COLLABORATIVE INQUIRY
The Area Child Protection Committee is seeking ways of understanding and improving the quality of management, supervision and support available to practitioners working in direct contact with children and families where abuse is a concern. Amongst other initiatives, the ACPC has commissioned the University of Nottingham's School of Social Studies to undertake a small-scale research project, a Collaborative Inquiry. The aim of the inquiry will be to explore and describe in as much detail as possible current management / supervisory practice in Northamptonshire's key child protection agencies and to develop discussion about the process of improvement.
All professionals involved in child protection, no matter what their professional or organisational base, are affected to a greater or lesser extent by:
1. the high degree of personal and professional anxiety which the work generates in individuals and their organisations,
2. the complex and sensitive nature of multi-disciplinary communication and co-operation which effective protection demands.
These characteristics place particular demands on managers and supervisors but to date we know very little about how they are responding to and meeting such needs within the major agencies involved. We know even less about the way in which people feel such processes are hindered and how they might be improved. The aim of the collaborative inquiry is to begin the debate in a multi-disciplinary forum where we can learn not only about, but from one another.
Rather than interviewing people separately, or sending out questionnaires, we will be using a research method which is especially helpful when people have considerable experience of a particular issue and can profit form sharing their knowledge and expertise.
The idea of Collaborative Inquiry as a research tool is simple: fundamentally, it is that a group of people with a common concern, work together with a facilitator as co-researchers in exploring, describing and possibly changing their world. It is research with people not on or about people.
In this case, the aim is to invite two representatives from the following agencies to meet together for 6 sessions lasting 2-3 hours over a period of approximately 3 months.
NSPCC Social Services
The group will have the responsibility for defining the content of their project and shaping the research task so that it reflects local conditions and pre-occupations with the overall aim of exploring and describing the managerial / supervisory task in child protection within each agency. We (John Cosier and Sara Glennie) will take responsibility for the research process.
The inquiry will take place in the Northampton Division and each participating agency is asked to nominate representatives who are currently involved in first line management / supervision of staff involved in child protection. The choice for some agencies, particularly Health, may be difficult given the range of staff involved. However, the only prescriptive criteria for inclusion is current involvement in the task and a keen commitment to participate in the inquiry.
It is hoped that nominations will be complete in the Autumn so that the inquiry can commence during November 1991.
Table 3: The full group
Senior Probation Officer
Principal Education Welfare Officer
Patch Manager (Health Visitors)
Patch Manager (Health Visitors)
Sergeant (Child Abuse)
Deputy Team Manager
National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children..
Principal Social Worker
Training Officer (Child Protection)
Table Four: The inquiry map
Table five: The critical points
3. REFERRAL/INFORMATION GATHERING
4. STRATEGY MEETING
6. CASE CONFERENCE
7. CORE GROUP
8. CHILD PROTECTION PLAN/IMPLEMENTATION