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The year 2022 was quiet by EQ’s normal standards but it provided us with the opportunity to take a long, hard look at ourselves and, in particular, the way in which we engage with our clientele as a provider of social services and the proprietor of Bulgaria’s only family centre catering for parents with children at preschool age.

In 2017, the Child Protection Hub for Southeast Europe published a series of country reports under the banner – ‘Reviewing Existing Quality Mechanisms in Child Protection’.

(See: https://childhub.org/en/child-protection-online-library/reviewing-existing-quality-mechanisms-child-protection)

The monitoring and evaluation systems in each country were assessed on the basis of 6 criteria – relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, impact, sustainability and participation of children and families.

It is noteworthy that there are several shortcomings that are widespread in the region –

  1. The systems generally fail to consider the quality of outcomes for clients of social services or their impact on the actual wellbeing of children and families but, instead, tend to focus on compliance with prescribed procedure
  2. There is no meaningful participation of children and families in the process although some regulatory systems allude to the participation process
  3. The systems fail to produce data sufficient to create broad awareness of the quality of child protection and social services for children and families based on clear and explicit criteria

Recently, the Bulgarian government released an Ordinance on the Quality of Social Services. Here is how the ordinance starts –

“Art. 24. (1) The social service provider shall carry out the periodic monitoring of the quality of the social services provided through:

  1. System feedback from the persons using the service and by the members of their families through a consultation in order to collect information on their evaluation of the quality of the social service provided and the result of the use of the service;
  2. a consultation to the persons when they terminate the use of the service and to their families in order to collect information on their assessment of the quality of the social service they have used;

(2) The periodic surveys under para. 1, items 1 and 2 can be performed through surveys, interviews, discussions, focus groups, including through the ‘user asks user’ method.”

We hold reservations regarding the interpretation of the expression “periodic monitoring”.

Later in the Ordinance, it is made clear that service providers are obliged to report annually on the results of their actions and, under the heading, Quality Development Programme, it specifies the need to perform “at least one client satisfaction study within 12 months”.

Eliciting feedback need not be a continuous process. Service providers can stop and start. They can host intermittent feedback sessions so long as they have something to report annually.

It was against this background that EQ undertook its project – Voice of Adversity. We worked with partner organisations that deliver social services and demonstrated that listening to the personal stories of clients continuously enhances understanding of the community you work in. The more intermittent your engagement with clients, the more you miss.

We actually started our detailed exploration of client engagement back in 2014-2015 when coaching service providers in how to assess their own performance and – in particular – its impact on the wellbeing of their clients. It was at this time, we started to think in terms of creating community hubs and improving not only the community awareness of how services work but the level of contribution from the community.

In the spring of 2016, prior to creation of the Ruse family centre, our research revealed the wishes of parents with young children –

Ease of accessibility to advisors and resources

  • A comfortable, welcoming meeting-place that provides a sense of community and shared values
  • Simple, positive communication and informal interaction
  • The opportunity to contribute

Could Ruse function as a laboratory in which we could find ways to provide ease of access to advice and support, informal interaction, and the ability for parents to meaningfully participate? Would parents know how to react constructively when provided with the things they’d asked for? (Be careful what you wish for, lest you receive it.)

An external evaluation of our family centre refers to creation of a sense of community built around the concept of shared parenthood –

“For all parents the Family Centre is a good place to meet. They receive, on the one hand, unobtrusive professional support from the centre’s specialists, reducing their anxiety, providing reassurance and creating a sense of tranquility and comfort. On the other hand, they all have the opportunity to meet other parents and develop a sense of belonging to the parent community. For some, it is the only community to which they have a sense of belonging.”

However, we realise that some parents are confused by the informality at the centre. Specialists who do not present themselves as “experts” are difficult to take seriously by parents who are accustomed to being kept at arm’s length in a clinical, institutional setting. Advice offered over a cup of coffee is difficult to take seriously (especially if it was the advisor who put the kettle on).

The “studio session” is a method of forming groups to explore complex social issues. It was devised by the Helsinki Design Lab. Equilibrium has taken key components of the approach (and – more especially – the working principles) and applied them in a new context: informal workshops for childcare professionals and parents but also in the creation of working environments that improve the quality of engagement with parents (e.g. monthly meetings with adoptive parents and foster parents).

4 key areas of consideration

  1. Deliberately design the physical space so that it supports engagement and sharing
  2. Remember the words of Heraclitus: “Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.” Provoke curiosity. The style of the engagement is informal and exploratory not earnest and bound by an agenda.
  3. Provide facilitation that ensures forward progress and captures revelations, patterns and “hot” issues. Facilitators need emotional intelligence as well as “relevant qualifications”.
  4. Respect diversity: parenting styles, sensibilities / beliefs and capacity for self-expression

The Voice of Adversity project provided the opportunity for EQ to coach 19 mentors from among the teams providing child-and-family services in Ruse, Shumen, Sofia, Vidin and Plovdiv districts. Those mentors encouraged children and adults to share their stories and to develop narratives to carry forward and incorporate into fledgling attempts at community activism.

The later part of 2022 provided the opportunity for introspection among EQ team members – the absorption and practical applications of lessons learned over a period of years and then shared with peer organisations.