Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Integrating children’s services: exploring practice through comparison

A new project, affiliated with What Works Scotland, to explore how local authorities integrate children's services will be the focus of an CRFR informal seminar on 21 January. In this blog Stefanie Schmachtel-Maxfield introduces the project and extends an invitation to two WWS local authority learning partners and others to participate.

How do local authorities implement integrated children’s services? Who is involved? What governance structures and processes are needed to help with the implementation? And what challenges and dilemmas does the implementation pose to local authority professionals? These questions are at the core of a new project affiliated with What Works Scotland (WWS) to explore the governance practices and challenges in local authorities of implementing integrated children’s services.

Existing studies of local partnership repeatedly stress the crucial yet complex role of local authority leadership in implementing partnership-based policies. Leadership in this context involves the difficult and paradoxical juggle between taking authority, acting as moderator and engaging in egalitarian participation. On one hand, leaders have to ensure the implementation of integrated policies, account for it, and provide sufficient guidance and structure so, for instance, everyone has an opportunity to participate. One the other they also have to moderate partnerships whilst also acting as just one stakeholder amongst several. Local authorities also occupy an intermediate position between the central government and diverse localities, which means they face direct pressures from both ‘above’ and ‘below’. Despite these findings about the complexity of leadership in this context, little research has been done on the local authority level investigating the implementation of integrated children’s services. Such research can serve the dual role of exploring the issues whilst also providing valuable opportunity and space for local authority professionals to collectively and in situ reflect on these challenges.

This WWS affiliated project will take a comparative approach to address these issues. Comparison, if conducted in a collaborative situated way, offers considerable underexplored potential as a form of learning for local authority professionals. Traditional comparative policy research is often done solely by researchers ‘from above’, and is often located at the macro level, comparing how whole states differ in their policies and ways of governing. This makes it difficult for comparative policy research to connect with the specific situations on the local level. Yet, if we change how we think about comparison and build it around concrete problems and dilemmas of local authority professionals, we can make it much more relevant locally and transform it into learning possibilities. But how exactly can such a comparison ‘from within’ look like and how does it work?

The idea is relatively simple. It needs (for starters) two partnering teams from different Scottish local authorities who are already engaging in the strategic leadership of integrated children’s services and who are open for a ‘dilemma swap’. This ‘dilemma swap’ is embedded in a three-step procedure which is conducted as a series of three workshops in each locality: in the first meeting, each team decides upon a core dilemma in implementing integrated children’s services for the other team to work upon. In the second workshop, the teams work on each other’s dilemma. The third workshop is dedicated to reflect on the leaning that took place through working on the other team’s dilemma and through receiving their responses to the own dilemma.

When working on a solution of someone else’s problem, our own issues and perspectives inevitably come into play. In putting ourselves into the shoes of others, we are comparing ourselves with others – and in doing so, we can become aware of own ways of thinking about and dealing with problems. We might be surprised about certain aspects which might then provoke us to rethink our own problem focus. Comparison helps to reveal tacit assumptions that become accessible only through taking the issue out of the context. But we might also find out what we value and like to retain and build upon (Hetherington, 2002). More generally, leadership and more specifically, developing leadership in the way described, becomes a collective endeavour. This offers an alternative to the still prevalent approach of developing the ‘heroic individual local authority leader’: one that might contribute to the wellbeing of local authority professionals.

I am looking for two local authority partners to participate in this project from the WWS learning partners. However, if you are interested but are not a learning partner or if you have further questions or comments on this project, please get in touch (stefanie.schmachtel@ed.ac.uk).

I am hosting a free informal seminar on 21 January 2015 (12.30-1.30pm, CRFR, University of Edinburgh) to discuss and develop this project further. To book please email: Brenda.saetta@ed.ac.uk.

Freeman, Richard; Mangez, Eric (2013): For a (self-)critical comparison. Critical Policy Studies, 7(2), 198-206.

Hetherington, Rachel (2002): Learning from Difference. Comparing Child Welfare Systems. Partnerships for Children and Families Project. Social Work, Wilfried Laurier University. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

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