Want to Change Practice? You Need Good Process

In the age of evidence-based practice, the role of practitioners—the teachers, social workers or program officers who provide a service—is often overlooked when evaluating results. Yet, the practitioner is a key input into the success of (or lack thereof) any program. In the child welfare field, agencies are turning to “practice frameworks” to translate organizational values into measurable practice standards for working with children and families. A strong practice framework identifies the casework skills and practices that staff will use to optimize services for children and families. The County of San Diego Child Welfare Services was an early adopter of the practice framework concept in California. Our team worked closely with San Diego Child Welfare Services to create a comprehensive approach to identify, communicate, and measure social worker, supervisor, and manager practice to operationalize their practice framework. This work was recognized by the National Association of Counties and could provide insights for other agencies considering a practice framework approach. Here are some of the lessons we learned through the process.

The importance of process. Practice frameworks are powerful guiding documents to establish a shared understanding of agency practice. However, these frameworks need an intentional, cross-organizational, and learning-focused process to turn shared understanding into stronger practices. With this in mind, we designed a process that incorporated two complementary elements—implementation science and change management.

  • Implementation science identifies three integrated drivers as essential to success: leadership, organization, and competency. Agencies may start with any of these drivers, but in the end, all are linked and contribute to successful implementation.
  • Strong change management processes start from the premise that sustainable organizational change cannot rely only on executive leadership alone. Rather, it requires concerted, coordinated effort throughout the organization to communicate and align practices with a shared vision and values.

Our report from this project describes what it took to design and implement a practice framework for the County of San Diego Child Welfare Services. These steps can be used as a blueprint for other child welfare agencies (or other public and private sector entities) seeking to adopt best practices or strong case management models.

In the course of this project, we documented several critical components to implementation success that deserve attention in future efforts.

Value staff engagement. We found that involving staff at all levels of the organization in planning and implementation increases buy-in and accountability to a new approach. This was particularly important for San Diego Child Welfare Services because it is a large, complex agency spanning multiple departments and serving large geographic regions. San Diego Child Welfare Service leaders created workgroups (a Development and Implementation Team) that included staff from all levels of the agency as well as parent partners, alumni youth, and foster parents as appropriate. We facilitated thorough discussions with these groups to identify observable agency practices for each new organizational value.

Make time for the work. Involving staff took a significant amount of time and effort. The workgroups held monthly meetings which fell outside normal staff duties over two years. We also worked with Child Welfare Service leaders to develop a “Learning Cycle” reflective learning approach to encourage an organizational culture in which all levels of leadership and staff understood the principles and concepts of the new practice framework. We trained internal coaches (dubbed “practice framework champions”) to facilitate the learning cycles in each region. The internal coaches documented staff feedback that we packaged and sent to Child Welfare Services leadership for feedback. This approach provided leadership an opportunity to discuss the anticipated impact or concerns and agree upon steps to assist and support staff.

Use strategic communications. Simultaneous to the learning cycle process, Harder+Company worked with the agency to create a communications strategy to share the practice framework’s components with all regions and departments in a way that would ensure organizational clarity of the values and practices. We used several approaches to ensure targeted and timely messaging to staff:

  • Redesigned the Child Welfare Services Intranet for staff to have continuous access to practice framework information including key tools and resources;
  • Created video clips and case studies to help staff think about and clarify what each value means for them in their everyday work; and
  • Created posters, handouts, and brochures for both internal use and for community partners and families to clearly articulate the new vision and values that now serve as core to San Diego’s Child Welfare Services

What’s next?

This structured, practical approach to rollout and implementation led to faster and broader adoption of high-quality child welfare practices. And it’s not over! Practice Frameworks must be continually reinforced to ensure that they maintain momentum and further embed and sustain the new values as core agency practice. Organizations using a practice framework need to maintain infrastructure supports, such as:

  • Leadership commitment to the practice framework. Leaders should communicate a consistent message and use practice framework principles across all agency operations
  • Ongoing support and training. Designated staff should provide one-on-one guidance to staff as needed, and staff and external stakeholders should receive continued training on the principles and practices in the framework
  • Quality improvement. Organizations should continually update the key outcomes associated with the practice framework, changes in practice should be recorded, and progress evaluated.

Change is never simple in complex organizations, but a solid implementation plan can ease the process and build the foundation for long-term practice improvements.