Doing Things Differently in Children's Services

In: BlogDate: Aug 03, 2021By: Billy Burgess

As Head of Children’s Services at Monmouthshire County Council, Tracy Jelfs faced the difficult task of improving KPIs, reining in spending and creating a happy, engaged work environment. This was all happening concurrently with the commitment to deliver quality services to vulnerable children and young people. 

Speaking at the 2017 Creating Happy Workplaces in the Public Sector Conference, Tracy details her experiences tackling these twin challenges – a task she ranks as the hardest of her professional career.

Read the transcript and watch Tracy's full talk below.

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Doing Things Differently in Children's Services

As you’ve been hearing about, we do child protection. We have to remove children from very unsafe environments, we have to take those things through court, we have to develop plans for children, we have to monitor risk for children, and I could give the National Audit Office a run for their money on bits of paper that we have to comply with. We could paper the walls between us, I think. As you’ve been hearing, every time something happens in Children’s Services, there’s another bit of paper, another policy, another way to do things that comes about, so the staff were really unhappy for all those reasons. There’d been a restructure the year before I started in this role, and they were unhappy with this restructure to the point that when I took over I banned the word restructure. It was a really anxious time for people, they hated what had happened, they felt that they hadn’t been included in the planning, so it was really difficult for them. We had a number of issues with the court, because we spend a fair bit of time in court getting care orders for children, and it felt like there were so many problems to the point that I had a chair in the local court that had my name on it because I was back and forth to that court so many times. They’d ring me at four o’clock and the judge demanded me to be there by 4:15, and it’s like, “your honour, I’ve got to travel through traffic, I’ll be there when I get there”. The profile of the service internally was really bad, we were seen as over-spending, we were seen as very negative; externally we were being seen as not providing services efficiently, and other partner agencies didn’t always understand what we were doing. When I took over the job, I will never forget this moment, the chief executive said to me “welcome to your new job, I’m not investing in your service…” We had a poor inspection the week after I took over. Apart, from that, it was great! We had a happy workforce, everyone loved coming in… no, it was just awful. People often ask me when I do these things, ‘would you do it again?’, and it depends on what day of the week it is, whether I would or I wouldn’t, because it was the hardest I have ever worked, in my careers across health and social care.

What we had to do was develop change quickly. I like to think I remained calm, or at least mostly calm, because at the same time as I was having to make these changes in service provision, make these changes for staff, we still had to deliver that service to those very at-risk children. The worst-case scenario, as you’ve been hearing, is if we get it wrong, a child could die, or be injured. That was my risk threshold that I was dealing with. I’ve always worked from a position of priorities, and in social care my priorities have always been I prioritise my staff group, because without them the job doesn’t get done. I also always prioritise children, young people, and their families where appropriate. What we did first of all was listen to staff. They were not used to being listened to. They went through the rhetoric about the restructure, to the point where I had to ban that word and ask ‘what else can we learn from it?’. I kind of let it carry on for so long, because as we’ve been hearing you do have to let them be unhappy, but there comes a point where that’s not helpful because they’re just going back, social workers are really good at going back over things and I think that’s because we spend so much of our lives looking through case histories at what has gone wrong and what can we do better, so I think it was that kind of thing. I thought what could I do that are quick wins, so I found out that about ten staff didn’t have good mobile phones, so we ordered ten mobile phones for quick wins. Guess how long they took to come? Ten weeks. I could have gone to the high street faster to get them, but because you have corporate procurement and you have to go through certain channels for auditing purposes, we had to try and win those quick wins and we didn’t do it. The other problem we had was the staff were split over two sites, not all together, so I said to my chief exec, who wasn’t going to be spending any money on me, “please can you put us all in one place”. When I thought about that, I thought it would be good, because then in about six months we might get there, but we actually moved in eight weeks. That’s like warp speed for a local authority; they never do things that fast, you have to go through lots of processes that make it quite difficult. What had happened is that my predecessors, and in fact quite a number of them, had never sat with the staff group, and in my local authority that I was working in at the time, we were actually 15 miles away from where these teams were, so I said to the chief executive, ‘I’m not going to be sat in those offices over there, I’m going to be say with my staff group”. I didn’t have an office, it was open plan, I just sat with them. If they weren’t happy, they could tell me. That was how I started shifting it around. What I absolutely did not do was change services to plan for that reinspection, because social care should never be about inspection, it should be about the children and young people that we’re working for. I had to keep stopping people going ‘oh no you’re answering to an inspection procedure there, that’s not what you do’. What is the outcome that we want for a child. We had to do a lot of work around that, it took quite a lot of time and the other problem we had was we knew what ‘A’ looked like, where we were, but we kind of weren’t sure what B, C, D, E and F was looking for, so it was a time of change without any parameters around that change. We weren’t moving from one box to another, we were working as a whole team to move, and everybody in that team has different ideas about how that should happen.

There was also what could only be described as a lack of trust, and suspicion about change - which is the polite version of what was really going on! There was no faith in managers, and also in local authorities as you probably know staff at senior level, they are responsible to the chief executive, but also responsible to members of the council who are voted in. I also spent a lot of my time in council meetings explaining what was going on, but I felt it was important that they actually understood the work of the service because some of them didn’t. Also we considered the barriers at all levels in the service, and it goes back to what we’ve been saying today really - if it’s a problem for a member of your staff, it’s a problem for you, because without that resolution it’s just going to get worse. One of the biggest drains for staff is the barriers, it’s the same at home, when you have a door handle that keeps dropping off every time you open it, it’s a frustration but you don’t actually get a screwdriver out and put it back and then it’s all resolved, so what do you think, if you’re a manager your staff group, those frontline workers or those people that are running the business for you, what do you think your staff group would say are the barriers in your organisation? You’ll be un-surprised to hear that I was dealing with a lot of barriers, and that was key really to us trying to understand from a work-force point of view, I have my own barriers, members, chief exec, MPs, all the time in my ear. I used to kind of try to tune them out, because my work-force were the priority. I’d love to say to you there’s a theory behind this, but I didn’t do any of that, I simply trusted my staff group to do the job they were employed to do. Nothing more than that. I won’t lie to you, I had my fingers crossed, my hands over my eyes, all sorts of things during this time, because bottom line, children are at risk, that is what I was working to. There was a certain level of anxiety and I will admit I didn’t sleep too great for a little while. What we found was one of the biggest barriers was communication. Never mind location, location, location, it’s communication, communication, communication. What we found was that we all learn differently, we all hear things differently, everyone takes something different out of things, you all interpret it through your own experience, those sorts of things. What we set up, as a head of service I used to stand on a Monday morning, ten o’clock for 15ish minutes, and talk to the staff. It was called catch-up; in my head it was called Monday’s moans and groans because to begin with it was about things like it’s too hot, too cold, too many windows, not enough chairs, all those sorts of things. By now we’d moved everybody into the new environment, so the catch-up then progressed into other people doing the catch-up, so they might have a story that they wanted to tell, they might be being sponsored to do a fun-run, children's services staff spend their live raising money for children, having worked all day for children they then run ridiculous amounts of miles to raise money for children, so we did a lot about that, we also had updates from other organisations, if the police had an investigation going on that they needed help with, they would pop in and explain this to us, because we’re out there in the community, we see things that are changing, those sorts of things. It gave us different things, it gave us a chance to sit down, if we had compliments I would make sure I told the service about the compliments. The staff who had got these compliments would never let me tell them by name, so I always used to say, ‘somebody in the room’ and I used to go and stand behind them, not pointing, just stand behind them and walk away. They got a picture of it in the end, because we were trying to encourage that positive approach that the job is really hard but there’s lots of really positive things that you’re doing. I also had a broken record approach of what we were going, how we were doing, why we were doing, to members, to politicians, different ones internally, externally, and to staff. You have to stick to your message, whatever that message is, you have to be consistent because if you move too much at once it gets really complicated for people. I was also lucky enough to get a young man called Scott King, who had what can only be described as a dreadful time as a looked-after child, and he was able to tell his story. My social workers knew what it was like, they worked in this all the time, they came but I made sure the chief executive went, as well as members, finance, transport, HR, IT, whoever I could get there to listen to us. Part of our barriers were those departments, and I tried to get them to understand that it’s about Scott King, or whoever it is in that position, and it’s about delivering services. If we’ve got delays here because HR haven’t sent the letters out for recruitment, or it takes 8 weeks to get a mobile phone, and all the rest of it - that has an impact on those people. Members found that really helpful and there were a lot of people crying by the end of it. That wasn’t how I hoped it would go but people were very upset! I found myself handing out tissues, it was terrible, but they really got a lot from it. As I said, I engaged members who had county council responsibilities and scrutinised our work, got them to come and spend time with us. Obviously you couldn’t sit accounts down and say, ‘this is Joe Bloggs, this is their story, this and this and this’, because it breaches confidentiality, but in general social workers were able to talk about the types of things that they did, and that was very helpful for them because they found it very useful. We also used anonymised case studies just so they could understand what we were doing. I had a lot of internal discussions, two that came to mind when I was talking about this. One of the finance officers who was very senior said to me, ‘if it costs such a lot of money to transport a child, why don’t you just move the child’s school’. Scenario is, you’ve got a child who’s in foster care, you’ve taken him away from an abusive situation, their only continuity in life at that point is their school, and I will not ever move a child from a school because you’ve got to keep an attachment somewhere. That’s how children, and how we all learn, by attachment. I was dealing with those sorts of requests, and also the other one which is always my favourite: ‘if it costs so much to take a case to court, then why do you do it?’. Well, it’s the legal process, the child’s at risk, what else do you want me to do? I talked to the staff group about it, I said, ‘why am I being asked questions like that?’. I think social workers live in this little world of social work, and think that the rest of the world understands it, and I don’t think they do, so we had to do a lot of work with the wider organisations to see how they understood what we did and why. ‘Threshold’ is a word in social care that nobody can agree on because it has so many variables to it. We also found that sometimes we weren’t believed, because although the staff on the ground were evidencing all of these things, they weren’t believed because it was the staff that was telling the senior people. I’ve got an organisation called DNA Definitive for a very short space of time, and they used the example of the mobile phones, and I did an event to try and help the staff, and it was kind of the point where I was drawing the line, and the words about reorganisation, restructure, those sorts of things. I brought Sam Warburton who’s a rugby player in to talk to the staff, because if you ever listen to Sam talk about leadership on a rugby pitch, I had absolutely no idea what was involved in line-outs, tries, the whole thing, I was fascinated. I was trying to get social workers to think wider than social work, and if you’re in Wales you practically have to sign up to love rugby anyway, and they really enjoy rugby, and it turns out that it’s a really good thing that I just happen to know somebody who knew Sam. At this event, Sam got us a really nice venue in a 5 star hotel - we don’t get out very often in children’s services! - give us cake, give us a cup of tea, and if there’s a sticky pad we’re really happy, so they had a great time. After Sam had done a talk he had photos with people and signed things for them, so it was really positive, but at that event we had written down every phone call that was made to get those ten mobile phones, every email, every meeting to get them, and we rolled it out on wallpaper, metres long, and that was just the phone calls. Never mind the emails or the meetings. There was so much bureaucracy involved and in the meantime I was sending staff out without any support, because they couldn’t ring if they needed the police.

We also developed a new IT system. I ran a competition to name it, and if your Welsh is good you’ll know what ‘plentyn’ means, it means child. Out of my own pocket I bought a few M&S vouchers, ran the competition, the staff designed the IT system, and I said it’s like this: ‘you put up, or you shut up, with whatever system you have, if you don’t want to engage that’s up to you. IT is not for everybody’. I think the reason I realised it was a success was when a worker came to me and she said, ‘Trace, I’ve just made this child looked after’, and I said, ‘great, good job, well done’. She said, ‘no no, you don’t get it, it was so quick, I checked three times that I’d done it properly, because last time it used to take me 15 minutes to do the job’. I thought it’s okay then, because what we’re trying to do is reduce the clicks so that staff could actually go and see the child rather than be clicking on the system. 

We also trialled the use of tablets for staff, so that they could go out and scan the paperwork, bring it back and put it in the system, rather than bringing the bit of paper back, scanning it through into a paperless office into the system, taking it back to the foster carer - it didn’t work. We had to come up with new ways of doing things. We had one particular team manager who was on her knees, so we gave her a sabbatical. I asked her what she wanted to do, and she said she wanted to renew the policies. She was the last person I would ever think would want to renew the policies, but she did. She had six weeks, she went home to her children every evening at the right time, i.e. 5 o’clock, she had a rest, she had a break, and she sorted out a problem for me that I had no idea who would do, and she sorted all those policies and procedures for us. We worked to reduce waste activities, as you’ve been hearing about, it is true, for ten quid there’s about ten bits of paper and about 15 minutes of your life, for a young person to get to an interview or whatever, so I stopped all that, and there was no other manager in the room, they’d bring it to me and say, ‘Trace, will you sign this’. No, take it away, get the ten quid, and go and give it to that child. It was a real different way that they were working, and they said, ‘are you sure?’. ‘Yeah. If something happens, I’ll take the rap for it, but go and give the ten quid to the child.’ It was constantly around those sorts of things that was making them anxious but they thought it was quite good, this, so we got them engaged. I had to do a finance workshop, so I did quizzes for it, and in between questions of ‘how goes Good King Wenceslas like his pizza?’ ‘Deep pan, crisp and even’, was questions about finance, costs of placements, those sorts of things. I had two of our finance officers do the adding up, and it was five points for a quiz question like Good King Wenceslas, ten points for a social care question, and what cracked us up completely was that it was only fives and tens, and even I can add fives and tens, but they, as accountants do, had to check each others’ counting! We had a good laugh, we made teams together, people won chocolates and they had to share it, but they had a laugh, they learnt some more about finance, and it just gave them a bit of a break from the day to day stuff. We also encouraged people to think differently about emails; if you’re copied in, don’t worry about it, if it’s really desperate they’ll ring you. I personally stopped responding to emails for two weeks, and I tell you what, those 14 days were the longest of my life. I kept going through them, thinking ‘is there anything I need to look at’, and there wasn't. I responded to 25 out of the 200-and-something that I had in that time frame. It took quite a bit of guts, I had a bit of support from DNA because I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, but it worked really well and it stopped people copying in as a back-covering exercise as much as anything, thinking ‘what is the purpose of that email, who needs that email’. At the end of the day if something happens, you still have sent that email to the right person so that would never be an issue.

We tried to introduce more positive culture, like I said about looking at compliments and ensuring that they were noted, and I trusted the staff to do the job. We also developed our own webpage, on our intranet so only Children’s Services staff could see, but it was about things that were positive, stuff about law and policy, stuff about changes, training, anything they wanted on it they put on it. I didn’t have any editorship of it, it wasn’t limited to people, everybody who was in Children’s Services could upload whatever they liked. They all did a really good job. We also changed recruitment processes. We moved away from the six questions and the powerpoint presentation, we did an engaged group of staff and potential people who were hoping to join the authority. We did the same questions but we did it in an activity base. We still saw how they worked in a group, nobody works in isolation so why do we sit an interview in one-to-one, or one-to-two? We did lots of things around that. We did lots of stuff about written work so we could see how they write, because we have to do a lot of writing in Children’s Services, and it was really positive, and actually we got really good feedback from people who hadn’t got jobs and people who had got jobs, so that was really good. 

I think I spent probably 80% of my time resolving barriers during this six month period, and the key task, I think something I learnt more than anything, was that if there are things that aren’t working, so if staff aren’t working and not able to perform because of whatever reason, it sucks the life out of the rest of the team, so you have to deal with those thorny issues, you have to get a hold of them, you have to do that. I don’t like sacking people, but sometimes you have to, or you have to have very frank conversations with people. The workforce found it positive that those things that had been going on for years and years and years were stopped, and it helped us move on and get to where we wanted to.

Change can often develop from ideas that are really small but effective. What could your team, or what can you do as a worker, differently tomorrow, that you’ve not been doing today or yesterday when you left your job. 

If a staff member came up with an idea, we implemented it then, or very nearly then. An example of this is for a child to see their birth parents while they’re in care, something that takes place is called contact, we pay for families to come to contact. What would happen is, there’s three pieces of paper, three signatures required, then you have to travel to and travel back, and there was a partridge in a pear tree, it just went on and on, this process. We stopped that by staff saying to me, ‘you know what would really help? Couldn’t we take a small float of money with us’ - because the other risk of course is if you’re in Social Care and you’re carrying money around, word might get out. We agreed they could keep a small amount of money, we had to check with finance that it didn’t breach a rule. They had to account for every penny, but we reduced the mileage costs, we reduced the time spent of workers going back and forth with bits of money and bits of paper, and that was simply somebody had the idea. They came up with other ideas that I thought would never work. I never said that, they tried it, and it did. I’m in a very different position to my staff out there doing their job. Some of the things didn’t work, and by realising it didn’t work it saves people again going over and over the history of ‘the managers wouldn’t let us do this’ and that created the feeling of ‘we are listened to, we give it a go, and if we don’t all agree with it we won’t do it’, and that worked really well. 

Just to give you a few of the outcomes, because in Social Care we’re a little bit obsessed with our outcomes. The staff worked more effectively together, still some people not on the page. I was having one particularly bad day, and one this one person who was part of a group that were very negative came up to me one day and said, ‘can I talk to you’, and I thought, ‘do you know what, no, because I’m having a really rubbish day’, but I said, ‘yes, of course, come and sit down’. I was glad I was sat down because he said, ‘I want to apologise to you. I’m in a partly management role, and I realise what you’re doing, and I was very negative and I’m really sorry. I’m going to talk to the other people that have been really negative.’ From that day on I had no problem. It’s letting them work through their anxiety, work through their fear, because there’s often when you’re making changes, ‘your job’s going to go’, ‘what does it mean for me’, those sorts of things, and that was quite hard work to do. 

Children were supported more creatively. What I found was that staff did not know how to engage children in play. The only way to understand young children, and children who have been abused, is what they’re giving you back through play. For example, if they colour in very dark colours, their life is very dark for them at that point. If you get them to use different colours, you’re moving them on. That’s kind of how we understand young children; there’s lots of strategies that are used. I sent them all off for two days to learn indoor and outdoor play. They came back and said it was the best training course they’ve ever got to go on. I didn’t get near the playdough but they had a great time, and they spent time together, had a bit of a break from the day job, and had loads of ideas about how to engage children. There was one child that wanted to learn to play golf, and the worker used to take them to the driving range. They’d be on the driving range having a conversation and the worker used to say to me, ‘I knew whether that person was good or bad by how far the ball went’, because it was an indication. If you’d have sat that girl down and said, ‘how’s it going, how do you feel’, because we like to know that in social care, she wouldn’t have told us anything. It’s trying to do things differently so we could engage those children.

This one appalled me. 74% improvement in KPIs. I asked them to concentrate on 5. They improved 32. The downside on that improvement in one year is that you’ve got to do it again, and again, and again. I sat there in front of members going, ‘ I know it’s really positive, that’s really good’, but the things is I knew the children coming through, I knew the ones absconding, I knew that it would be more for next year so some of our KPIs would drop, and at the end of the day, as I said to a lot of people, KPIs will not keep a child safe. It’s just a tool to analyse it. I had to work with the senior people to warn them it might not be this good next year. It wasn’t, but we did our best. 

We doubled our compliments, and in Children’s Services I expect to get complaints because we’re removing children, very distressing circumstances, families don’t always agree with that, so you always will get complaints. But we doubled our compliments to about about 25 in just under a year. We used to get about one, maybe two. We were getting professional compliments from court, and from other agencies, we were getting feedback from young people and they’ve drawn us pictures, all those sorts of things that were telling us we were doing things more effectively. 

We improved our profile internally and externally, and that helped a lot. We weren’t being questioned all of the time about thresholds, and the staff group even won a competition around continuous improvement in local government. They were very pleased with that, and it kind of said they were doing alright. My chief exec, remember he said at the beginning ‘I’m not investing in you’? I got a few million as a result of the work that I did. I was so proud of my staff group: when I told them this one day, they immediately asked where the money was coming from. What’s going to have to stop somewhere else? Is it right it’s stopped somewhere else? That’s what I wanted to see; they were completely engaged in their job, and not only their job, but wider organisations. So, we had a really good outcome from that. 

You probably want to know what happened with the follow-up inspection. They came back just over seven months later, for two weeks with six inspectors, and they did two different inspections at once - it was a fabulous fortnight of my life! When they come in like that, they’re generally going to write you a letter about special measures, and that’s what we were prepared for. They were a very inconsistent inspection, which didn’t help the staff, and what appalled my staff the most was coming back to me after their interviews with the inspector, saying ‘I told them all the stuff that they wanted to know, but they didn’t ask how the child was, they didn’t ask what the outcome for the child was’. I said, ‘you tell them. You tell them what the outcome for the child was’. The inspectors in the feedback said the staff were very positive, they were very keen to say what the outcome for the child was, so I said, ‘that’s kind of what we’re here for, isn’t it?’. I wanted them to go away, in a caring way, for six months so that we could evidence that we’d made further progress, but they didn’t come back. They said they didn’t need to come back, they were satisfied that we were meeting the requirements, and I can’t tell you how happy we all were! The pressure of that inspection was such that they came and gave the verbal feedback, the other thing is that what you get verbally isn’t always quite what you get written, but it took me til about 5 o’clock that afternoon, I was sat at home with my feet up, and I said to my husband, ‘they’re not coming back!’.  He was like, ‘what, who, where, what?’. I said, ‘they’re not coming back!’. He said, ‘oh, the inspectors’. He knew what I was thinking about because he’d had to live with this inspection process for some time. 

I’ve given you a bit of a whistle-stop talk, because we did a huge amount in a very short space of time, but what I wanted to leave you with is that I’m often heard to say ‘the only certainty in Social Work is change’, and the key performance indicators are a good example of that. They will rise and fall as I’ve said, and will be largely dependent on the cohort of children and young people going through the system at any given point, as much as it is dependent on my social workers inputting information into the correct box. I can’t tell you how much of our lives we spent sorting that out. What we do need, though, is a workforce who are trusted and supported in their role, to provide services and see children, and enable them to have a positive future, because seeing the child is what’s important to them. It’s often why people go in to Social Work, and what makes them come to work every day. They want to do a good job, but we need to support them from a leadership position to ensure that happens, and that’s the responsibility of me as a leader.

Things weren’t great when Tracy joined Monmouthshire. The internal perception of the service was negative and the public viewed the council as an inefficient children’s service provider. Tracy came in with nearly three decades of experience in adult and children services in the health and social care sector, but instigating change at Monmouthshire was the hardest task of her professional career.

You can’t get things done quickly in a local authority. You have to go submit to various tiresome processes and channels for auditing purposes. With so many controls in place, there was a lack of trust, suspicion about change, and very little faith in managers.

Working in children's services is high risk, high stress work. If they get it wrong, a child’s life could be in jeopardy. And while of course the children are the number one priority, Tracy also prioritises her staff group, because without them the job can’t be done.

To create change, Tracy considered the barriers in the service and one of the biggest turned out to be communication. Everyone learns differently and filters things through their own experiences. So rather than Tracy running meetings as monologues, she invited other people to speak. Staff could share stories about their work and talk about charitable ventures they were involved in outside of work. Representatives from other organisations, such as the police or community groups, came in to update staff and provide feedback. Positive feedback was also related in these sessions, as Tracy understands the value of positive reinforcement in such a touch job. 

Tracy tried to get her workers thinking wider than the world of social work. She recognised that because they’re so driven, they tend to think the rest of the world understands the machinations of social work. But that’s not necessarily the case, and so she encouraged a broader view as a means of improving communication.

Tracy’s biggest takeaway from a six-month solution-finding period was that if something isn’t working, it’s going to have an impact on the whole team. “You have to deal with those thorny issues, you have to get a hold of them, you have to do that,” she says. “I don’t like sacking people, but sometimes you have to, or you have to have very frank conversations with people. The workforce found it positive that those things that had been going on for years and years and years were stopped, and it helped us move on and get to where we wanted to.”

What You Will Learn in This Video

  • Everyone learns differently and filters things through their own experiences

  • Even in social work, staff should be a priority. Without them the job can’t be done

  • Instead of running meetings as monologues, invite other people to speak and share their stories

  • In a high stress environment, positive reinforcement is hugely valuable 

  • If something isn’t working, it’s going to impact the whole team

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About Tracy

Tracy has close to 30 years’ experience working across both adults and children services in the health and social care sector in a range of roles. This has ranged from working as a nursing auxiliary, through to senior management roles. She is also a qualified social worker. Tracy does not manage people; she prefers to lead and support people in their roles and brings about effective change in the workplace so that good outcomes are achieved.

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