Regardless of the sector, the magnitude and severity of the challenges the coronavirus pandemic is creating are extraordinary. Children and young people services have been no different. The implications of COVID-19, including self-isolation, social distancing and the closure of schools, have increased pressure on how the NHS and local authorities deliver such services in the community and acute sector.
Although children and young people services operate in a complex environment with extensive statutory constraints, the pandemic provides impetus to change and opportunities for services to innovate, adapt and collaborate better. Unlocking this opportunity is now critical – doing so will let service providers survive today and thrive tomorrow.
To reframe the current crisis as an opportunity and drive enduring change, service providers should adopt three key principles to ensure they learn and adapt in this ever-changing world:
1. Communication is the key to success
Communication is key to successfully providing children and young people services. Yet, as everyone strives to socially distance, it’s impossible for service providers to communicate through usual means. According to a recent investigation by London’s Evening Standard, some boroughs saw face-to-face visits declined by three-quarters year-on-year in the three months to June 2020.
COVID-19 has pushed services to reimagine how they work with each other and the families they’re looking to support and protect. For example NHS Digital rolled out Microsoft Teams to 1.3 million users in just five days in March.
To change in the right way, it’s important to share what’s working well. In the UK, virtual communities have enabled teams to support one another and there have been some brilliant examples of improved joint working across the NHS and local government, like more frequent multi-agency ‘stand-ups’. At the same time, providers, local services, charities and the Children’s Commissioner are providing vital support to ensure families know where to go and the ‘voice of the child’ is still being heard.
For example, the Children’s Commissioner has published guides for parents and children that include the Children’s guide to staying safe online and the Children’s guide to coronavirus, and Barnardo’s create it’s See, Hear, Respond Partnership to help children and young people who are experiencing harm and increased adversity during coronavirus.
Similar best practice examples can come from surprising places and beyond our borders. Mobile network provider Vodafone, for example, has developed the Bright Sky app to let delivery and postal workers report concerns of domestic abuse during quarantine. As part of this, delivery staff and postal workers are now receiving basic training to spot signs of domestic abuse and report issues to the appropriate services. Vodafone has now launched the app in the UK, Ireland, Czech Republic and Romania. Children and young people services can learn from this and find their own ingenious ways to help the average person spot and report issues, ensuring safeguarding is at the heart of everything they do.
2. Digitise services where possible
Most young people are at ease with technology. Ofcom’s Children and parents: Media use and attitudes report shows 19% of 3-4-year-olds own a tablet computer, while 83% of 12-15-year-olds own a smartphone. The numbers are similarly staggering for all ages between three and 15, highlighting an opportunity to digitise children and young people services and enhance service users’ experiences.
Of course, face-to-face communication is essential in some circumstances to ensure families and children are receiving the support they need. But a lot of the time, virtual meetings, pop-up clinics and video-only surgeries provide more benefits. They save valuable practitioner time and offer a different way to interact that can better suit a variety of personalities. Virtual meetings can also happen in a place where the service user feels comfortable, allowing for better conversation and reducing negative emotions such as anxiety.
However, as service providers think about the future, with remote delivery at the heart of working practices, they must avoid creating a divide between those who have ready access to the internet and those who don’t. They must not slip into offering services as ‘digital by default’, but rather be child-focused and offer the most appropriate support for each individual. This is especially relevant during the current crisis as its financial implications come to the fore.
Service providers must also be aware of the safeguarding concerns inherent in promoting more online services. Our work with the WePROTECT Global Alliance has helped international leaders understand online threats and frame the national and global response, so we know service providers must promote secure platforms and make service users and their families aware of online harms.
3. Embrace new ways of working
The changes to our ways of working bring benefits, when fully embraced. Digital collaboration tools can make it easy for people to share more knowledge than ever. For example, teams can use virtual breakout rooms on Zoom to brainstorm and create mini proposals, bringing together diverse ideas to drive innovation.
Yet we need to avoid technology and processes leading the change – there must be a people-centred approach. We’re living in a time where people are creating workplaces at home that enable them to be productive. Through this process, they can explore the tools available to them and take a view on what they need to do their jobs well. So, work with your people to embrace these new ways of working. Ask them what does and doesn’t work for them in this new world through surveys or interviews. Shape similar preferences into workplace personas, such as carers who need to work at home or house-sharers who need a separate workspace. And use this engagement with people to test solutions as they develop, for example by asking carers for their home workstation requirements.
Looking to the future
We’re living in an extraordinary time that will change the way we deliver services in the future. The pandemic has provided key opportunities for all services, private and public, to rethink their priorities and focus on those in need. Having faced the immediate implications of the pandemic, we now have an opportunity to assess our priorities, consider whether, as individuals, teams and organisations, we’ve been concentrating on the right outcomes for service users, and decide how we can do things differently in the future.
By harnessing the power of communication and joint working, looking to technology to enable delivery at pace, and embracing new ways of working, service providers will be much more resilient and have a supported and engaged workforce that can respond to the demands of any circumstance.
Hannah Saunders and Fiona Gold are public services experts at PA Consulting