Below, EQ completes a framework for talking about successful practice that features in our publication – “Evaluation of Childcare & Family Support Services focusing on the Impact on Beneficiaries: Inherent Difficulties, Ethics, Key Principles, Suggested Approaches and a Selection of Related Tools”. This was produced in the context of a programme focusing on the evaluation of social services for children and families funded under the Bulgarian Swiss Cooperation Programme.
Framework for presenting successful practice
Below, we talk about success which is different from the traditional idea of “good practice”. The success we talk about is YOUR success. It belongs to your organisation and it isn’t necessarily transferable because it isn’t a technical component of an operation or practice.
We invite you to describe an area of work you consider to be successful and to help us understand why it works in your particular operational context.
We ask you to consider whether the approach could be transferable to other service providers and other local contexts. What components do you imagine they would need to have in place to be reasonably sure of success?
“A social service is of good quality when it positively influences the well-being of its users and has a real impact on the quality of their life.”
(BULGARIAN CENTRE FOR NOT-FOR-PROFIT LAW – ‘QUALITY OF THE SOCIAL SERVICES IN BULGARIA’, 2008)
Successful practices in community-based services for children and families are those that, in one way or another, have “real impact” on the lives of children and their families.
In a single paragraph, please define your SUCCESSFUL PRACTICE. Provide key characteristics that will enable the reader to grasp the essence of what you do.
Delineating a policy for building community investment in the work of Equilibrium and taking a structured approach to the achievement of this support. An essential component of this policy is allowing clients to speak for themselves, listening to what they say and amplifying the key messages. Our approach has 4 pillars –
Development of public engagement with / involvement in pursuit of EQ’s goals and mission as a provider of social services for children and families.
Community leadership that encourages personal commitment and collective responsibility in the support of the most vulnerable members of that community.
Development of innovative approaches and multiple tools for accumulating authentic and reliable feedback from vulnerable people (children and adults) who we work with.
We make continual use of informal methods that allow our clients to express themselves in ways that they are comfortable with and run a parallel programme of engaging the community
In what way(s) does the practice you’ve described transform the lives of your target group (children, families)? What benefits do these clients enjoy that would not have been available to them had the SUCCESSFUL PRACTICE never started?
Mobilization of community resources (eg team effort, financial capacity) to strengthen social connections and build support networks around families at risk that help ensure the results of our interventions as service providers are sustained over time.
Our methods of continually drawing down feedback allow us to accumulate comprehensive detail about attitudes and behaviour and analyse patterns among our clientele. This allows us to constantly fine tune our services and approaches to providing support. Additionally, we can develop the professional competencies of our team, refine our existing repertoire and strategically plan the development of new services.
We are better positioned to talk to the public about the issues that affect our clients and to work towards the evolution of service provision because we are informed by those clients.
What were the circumstances that provoked you to establish this SUCCESSFUL PRACTICE? Briefly describe the context from which the SUCCESSFUL PRACTICE emerged.
There is a need
EQ provides community-based services and the community is a complex working environment in which conditions constantly change and factors influence one another in ways that are not always that obvious. A service provider needs to be vigilant and sensitive with eyes and ears in the community providing information that drives organisational development as a type of calibration process. For instance, deinstitutionalisation leads to certain restructuring and to the current prioritisation of certain areas of work linked to the gate-keeping process and the reintegration of children leaving large residential institutions into the community. To provide the contribution that was expected of us within the social services matrix we changed the calibration settings at the Ruse complex as it were. Current priorities demand recalibration – responding to bumps in the road – but long-term engagement with poverty alleviation and elimination of social exclusion means keeping the vehicle pointed in the right direction and, in order to do this, you listen to what your clients tell you and secure the support of the community you serve.
There are expectations
The Ruse complex was the first of ten such facilities to come into operation and EQ probably has the most experienced team of childcare service providers in Bulgaria. Having provided the implementation team that closed the first baby home in Teteven, we are cemented into the deinstitutionalisation programme in a manner that raises high demands. We try to find solutions to the most difficult cases and we generally succeed. This creates high expectations among our clientele, the watching public and our working partners. Responsibility attaches to those expectations. In our 10th anniversary DVD, a senior person from the directorate of social assistance acknowledges our contribution to shaping social services and delineating policy. We are trusted in this role. This means that we are able to interpret the guidance that our clients provide in our work and respond to signs that come from the community. We don’t need to be a business-as-usual organisation.
EQ wants to develop
Our sharing-and-learning culture is very important to us. We draw on national and international experience. We encourage personnel to take part in external projects and ventures and encourage them to develop their capability as trainers and consultants. We collaborate widely with other Bulgarian organisations and overseas partners. We focus on improvement.
However, all of this has to be anchored to and informed by our relationship with our clients and partners in the community. Otherwise, it could easily become an exercise in organisational self-indulgence. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, organisational focus means saying no to lots of attractive ideas. Meaningful innovation means saying no to 1000 things and focusing on the things that are really going to help the people we work with today and in the foreseeable future.
What are the key resources that you use in the delivery of this SUCCESSFUL PRACTICE (those that help ensure success)? What currently assures the availability of these resources?
Our greatest resources are our standing in the community meaning that supporters rally around us. We also have strong commitment to providing the conditions that nurture expertise and commitment and provide higher meaning for those who work for us – the components of what the psychologist Howard Gardner calls “good work”.
We have a small, cohesive management team containing good and fast decision makers. They are strong leaders over a wide variety of disciplines and they remain accessible to our personnel who now number something in the region of 70 people.
We have good fundraising capability and proven ability to mobilize people and community resources. We have a loyal following within the community that we dedicate a lot of time towards. We express our gratitude at every opportunity.
Your SUCCESSFUL PRACTICE shows you (and your working partners) at your / their best. Can you describe a (potential) method of showing the impact that would leave the observer in no doubt of the value of your practice? Have you used this method?
Standing in the Community
It is important to differentiate between community responses to discrete actions (eg a fundraising effort or public awareness campaign) and the quality of an organisation’s long-term relationship with the community. The success of discrete actions says a great deal about the design and timing of the action and the way the cause was represented. It was a “good campaign”. An organization’s communication capability does not define its standing in the community or value to that community. These things involve sustained loyalty and commitment among the general public that are won by means of a certain type of transparency and continuous informal engagement and not the transient appeal of marketing devices. Transparency and engagement allow people to feel a sense of ownership over the services the organisation provides – they have a say and can make a personal contribution by volunteering or donating. Communication tools and the conventions for using them (“news”, “information”) can actually contribute to a sense of distance between the organisation and the general public especially if they are partly designed for peers and partner organisations or institutional donors.
For an observer to understand the extent to which a service provider is valued by a community, that person needs to engage with the community in a fairly comprehensive fashion. EQ has published a list of “organizational habits that suggest quality” that provides suggestions about how to assess the extent to which the organization focuses on the community, makes connections within that community, speaks to the community in terms that are relevant and comprehensible and inspires loyal support (see “Evaluation of Childcare & Family Support Services..” pages 16-20 at http://eq-bg.org/en/category/interesting-useful/eq-publications/)
The key component of this list is for the observer to both assess and use the organization’s own systems analysis. Can the organization successfully chart its numerous relationships in the community and the multitude of contact points (= community awareness)? Can the organization demonstrate a reasoned approach that it applies in each location (= community responsiveness)? The onus then lies with the observer to draw feedback from each location (or as many as practicable) in a manner that acknowledges the different styles of relationship. A single questionnaire will almost undoubtedly fail to take account of the different ways that the organization touches on people’s lives, the different ways it is valued and the different ways people will express this appreciation.
In our experience, many people recognize that certain groups of service users find it difficult to respond to formal, structured requests for feedback. Fellow professionals are therefore attracted to the suggestion that feedback can be obtained in small chunks through vigilant observation and informal engagement. These small chunks can be accumulated and analysed for themes or patterns on the basis of which organizations can make decisions and recalibrate their performance.
However, our traditional dependence on abstract information and sets of data make it difficult to imagine how the more informal approach can actually work and what methods can be used to collate and categorize the observations. Databases provide rules for inclusion of information and rules for its retrieval.
EQ does not imagine a feedback loop devoid of data. Instead, we say that service providers need to work harder and more imaginatively to allow clients to express themselves comfortably, casually (and – yes – randomly). They need to continuously provide opportunities for clients (children and adults) to express themselves and that self-expression does not have to be verbal. As individuals, we unconsciously react to signals from others all day long. EQ suggests that there is significant value in setting up meetings and scenarios in which the professionals who are present consciously record these signals and then collaborate in defining the information content – the meaning. It is also important that the clients recognize that they are being listened to and understand how the feedback they provide is used.
An observer measuring the impact of this approach should probably have 4 areas of concern. 1. Is the feedback seemingly genuine, clear and unequivocal (not manufactured, vague and impressionistic)? 2. Is it taken seriously (and acted upon when it is feasible and reasonable to do so)? 3. Do clients recognize that they are listened to and that their feedback is used constructively? 4. Are there demonstrable methods for communicating with the most vulnerable / least expressive clients?
The organization should be able to demonstrate a clear path between uptake of feedback and decision-making and the observer should consider that the records provided are reasonable. When feasible, observers can ask clients to collaborate accounts of key meetings or engagements having first talked to the professionals identified as having been involved.
How is your SUCCESSFUL PRACTICE seen in the community? Can you describe a (potential) method of showing an observer the extent to which your SUCCESSFUL PRACTICE is understood, accepted and appreciated? Have you used this method?
Can we meaningfully assess the extent to which our services are valued by the community?
Are volunteerism and support sustainable based on loyalty and trust?
We have shown the ability to affect the choice of degree courses and / or career decisions of students and clients who decide they want to sustain the experience we provided by working with children.
Formal arrangements (like partnerships with schools) change but we have continued to show growth in active participation in our public ventures (people who want to contribute rather than simply attend).
Client may enjoy coffee mornings and networking activities but do they actually recognize that they are being listened to and that they impact on decision-making?
Clients have let us know that technical achievements such a successful placement of children with significant special needs in foster homes is attributable not only to the level of practical support we provide but also to our active listening and the trust that it promotes.
Have you engaged with your target group(s) to find out their opinion about your SUCCESSFUL PRACTICE? IF so, can you briefly explain the approach you took and tell us in what ways (if any) you used the feedback. Is this engagement continuing?
You have described (potential) methods of showing the impact of your SUCCESSFUL PRACTICE. Has this impact ever been confirmed by an independent and objective evaluator? If so, can you tell us a little about that person / organization? Did their approach acknowledge or make use of the methods you have suggested? Did they do anything extra and / or anything different?
The report from a peer review undertaken by FICE-Bulgaria (Association for Pedagogical and Social Assistance for Children) did remark upon the broad diversity of EQ’s repertoire of services for children and families that was seen to have been driven by our interpretation of the needs of our clients.
The BG organization is part of FICE-International and works in support of organizations to help improve the quality of children’s lives. The organization is a fellow service provider and, like EQ, actively adapts and develops methodologies for working with children and families.
The FICE observers used the process of appreciative enquiry, undertaking extensive, ’positive-oriented interviews with EQ personnel and clients and hosting focus groups that focused on EQ’s successful practice. They were impressed by the level and quality of EQ’s engagement with clients and community groups and the response of those people.
In the foreseeable future, can the key resources you need to deliver this SUCCESSFUL PRACTICE continue to be available? If so, what assures this availability?
The FICE review actually raised the issue of sustaining quality over such a diverse repertoire. However, this diversification in response to clients and community does not entail expansion or the development of new departments so as to create a larger organization requiring BIG management and increased resources. Indeed, this would be inconsistent with our government funding structures. Rather, we encourage flexibility of the approach taken by teams within teams. Parts of our operation have dual functions. By way of example, our early intervention team has a role to play within the support of foster parents (especially those who accept children with special needs). Our emergency placement unit supports the processes of preventing abandonment and reintegration. If we are to provide truly integrated services, our operational approach must reflect this integration and the different parts of the Ruse complex cannot operate rigidly as if they are discrete functions.
What are the assets and strengths of your organization that allowed you to devise this SUCCESFUL PRACTICE and establish it as part of your operational performance?
Our assets and strengths relate to attitude and managerial approach and we are fortunate to have a group of team leaders who are highly experienced and who have been together for a considerable time. We also have a very good working relationship with the Child Protection Department and local and regional Social Assistance Directorates. They appreciate our flexibility (our readiness to adapt) and trust us to be responsive to community demands.
Do you think that other organizations working in your sector have these characteristics as well as access to the key resources? How can this SUCCESSFUL PRACTICE become a replicable model in your region or country?
We have long argued that the role and capacity of centres of social support (part of the operation of the Ruse complex) are misunderstood and underestimated. We have recently worked extensively with 6 such facilities in different parts of Bulgaria and were impressed by the extent to which they reflected the organizational characteristics we’d identified as suggesting the capacity to deliver high-impact services.
Our work with these CSSs involved sharing our approaches to self-evaluation and pursuit of feedback from clients. You could say that we have taken the first steps towards replication of the model if, indeed, “model” is the correct word. It is an entire organizational approach that entails the calibration and re-calibration of your operations to the community you serve rather than expecting clients to simply accept what they are offered. You have to be willing to go beyond the level of recommended practice and prescribed methodology. This entails acknowledging the practical limitations imposed by state funding or project parameters but also recognizing the wealth of community resources. You have to blend into the community and you should not stay apart from it, detached, clinical and lacking transparency.