Possibilities for organisational learning and culture change through policing partnerships in safeguarding children

by | Jul 4, 2017 | 0 comments

In this blog, Dr Xavier L’Hoiry (University of Sheffield) and Professor Adam Crawford (University of Leeds) reflect on some key points raised in a recently published article in Policing and Society which draws on findings of research funded by the ESRC.

The full article – ‘Boundary crossing: networked policing and emergent “communities of practice” in safeguarding children’ – is available free to access at: www.tandfonline.com.

Contemporary crime and policing-related problems do not respect organisational boundaries but demand coordinated responses and joined-up solutions. They necessitate policing partnerships and demand that the police work across organisational boundaries with partner agencies. Nevertheless, the challenges associated with partnership working across organisational boundaries, cultures and established practices are significant. The benefits, however, are many and varied. Partnerships afford the potential coordination and pooling of expertise, information and resources, as well as opportunities for innovation, learning and cultural change that foster preventive and problem-solving approaches. Whilst a philosophy of partnership is strongly embedded within much recent policy – notably in the context of child protection and safeguarding – there remains much to learn in developing and fostering multi-agency collaborations that achieve real public safety outcomes for the well-being of children and young people. Simply put, while the discourse of policing partnerships appears to be accepted wisdom, progress has been distinctly hesitant.

Against this background, our exploratory research delved into policing partnerships with a focus on Leeds – one of the largest Safeguarding Children partnerships in England – in collaboration with West Yorkshire Police and the Police and Crime Commissioner for West Yorkshire.

Safeguarding children and ‘wicked problems’

Safeguarding children has long been a complex, highly emotive and contentious sphere of policing. In recent years, as a result of a series of highly publicised incidents of child sexual exploitation and abuse, child protection has become increasingly politicised, often as a proxy for a range of debates about the efficacy of health, welfare and policing professionals; their expertise, specialisation and interdependent relations. While the importance and necessity of inter-agency collaboration is embedded within the fabric of the Children Act 1989, recent high profile cases have exposed deep faults in safeguarding children services. Incidents such as the child deaths of Victoria Climbié and Peter Connelly have seen the blame partly placed at the door of inadequate communications between partner organisations. Alongside this, allegations of widespread child sexual exploitation have surfaced in recent years in places like Rotherham and elsewhere, as part of which the police and social services have been accused of incompetence and blatant collective failures.

Added to this is the emergence of allegations of historical child sexual abuse by a number of well-known public figures dating back to the 1960s. This has lead to the high profile police investigation Operation Yewtree, as well as the subsequent Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse; the broad aim of which is to consider the extent to which state and non-state institutions have failed in their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation.

These examples (and others) demonstrate that safeguarding children is a complex issue, reliant on diverse organisations working in effective collaboration. Specifically, it involves the police working closely with partner agencies which may include health, education, social care and youth services. In this sense, safeguarding children may be seen as an exemplar ‘wicked problem’; as formulated by Rittel and Webber (1973). Wicked problems are said to be difficult or impossible to solve due to incomplete or contradictory knowledge, have multiple causes, may not necessarily have a right answer and are the subject of fragmentation under the contemporary division of professional labour. Yet previous research as well as the cases discussed above, demonstrate that relations between the police and its partners are often fragmented and fraught with problems. Given the ‘wickedness’ of the problem of keeping children safe, overcoming obstacles in boundary work between the police and others and recognising the benefits of such partnerships emerge as key priorities in this area of policing.

Engendering partnership in safeguarding children

In light of these issues, our study sought to explore the views of actors engaged across the spectrum of delivering safeguarding children services in Leeds. Specifically, it was designed to capture the reflections of individuals with managerial and strategic responsibilities as well as ‘frontline’ staff delivering services and seeing the practical implications of partnership working. Leeds safeguarding children services represents a pertinent case study here since, despite the above-described challenging national context, the city’s child protection services, and particularly the work of the Leeds Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB), have drawn considerable praise in recent years. An Ofsted Report in 2015, for instance, rated the ‘leadership, management and governance’ of Leeds Children’s Services as ‘outstanding’ – the highest rating possible – and the work of the LSCB as ‘good’. The ESRC funded study conducted both one-to-one interviews as well as a series of focus groups with staff from the police, social services, health, youth offending and third sector organisations.

Participants highlighted a range of obstacles to effective partnership working but, crucially, they also identified a myriad of benefits to working across organisational boundaries. These reflections can be helpfully presented within the following key categories of partnership working that encompass both the obstacles of boundary work as well as the mechanisms to foster forms of creative boundary crossing: shared commitment and purpose; relations of trust; exchange of information and resources; mutual respect for differences; and conflict management.

A shared sense of commitment and purpose appears to be a prerequisite for effective partnership working across organisational boundaries. Practitioners reflected that much progress had been made in recent years in fostering shared commitment and purpose across agency boundaries with strong leadership noted as a major reason for this. Equally however, although partners may share a similar broad strategic vision (i.e. keeping children safe from harm), in practice differences in ways of achieving a common purpose may emerge. Here, professionals from partner agencies at times have differing, and sometimes incompatible, assumptions about the problem and how best to solve it. In other words, the destination may be shared but the means of getting to it frequently diverge. Each group of professionals often believes that their understandings are complete and shared by (or should be shared by) all others. In particular, the emphasis on evidence gathering and prosecutorial zeal of the police were perceived by many participants from across all non-police agencies to sit at odds with the processes and values of partner agencies.

Relations of trust are central to developing networked policing in child safeguarding. But this may be easier said than done, particularly where mistrust (or misunderstanding) is deeply embedded. Participants proposed that trust can be facilitated by stability in inter-personal relations between partners which fosters greater mutual understanding and reciprocity. Maintaining stable relationships, however, is subject to a range of practical obstacles. This includes different patterns of working, particularly around weekends and late nights when police shifts are often mis-aligned to the working patterns of partner agencies. In addition, the turnover, or ‘churn’, of key staff out of particular teams or localities can severely disrupt relationships that have been carefully cultivated over time. One possible mechanism to overcome these obstacles is co-location. Co-located teams help to foster dynamics of partnership and mutual respect. Getting to know people can help forge collective team identities, challenge stereotypical misperceptions and encourage joined-up, creative problem solving. All participants in the research already working in co-located teams attested to the beneficial impact of such working arrangements on partnership relations.

Another key dimension to foster mutual trust in partnership working around safeguarding is the balanced exchange of information and resources. This was discussed by participants in the study as being of pivotal importance to ensure good working relations. Trust and confidence once again emerge as fundamental factors here with professionals of all backgrounds more willing to share information as relations of trust develop. A key consideration in this context is the sensitivity of some types of data in the arena of child safeguarding. As trust relations are built, professional anxiety or reluctance to share sensitive data begins to thaw and mutual sharing of relevant intelligence is facilitated.

Linked to building and maintaining trust relations is a growing recognition and respect for mutual differences across different partners. Participants reflected that as individuals of different agencies spend more time together (via co-location or otherwise), a greater understanding of each partner’s capabilities, resources and expertise start to emerge. With this comes a greater appreciation and respect for differences amongst partners, often overcoming previous frustrations and tensions about a perceived lack of interest in or commitment to specific cases. Recognising one another’s limitations may lead to greater partnership work as partners identify and plug each other’s gaps in resources and knowledge.

Relatedly, conflict will at times inevitably emerge in partnership work, particularly in the context of issues as complex as child safeguarding. Participants highlighted effective conflict management practices and procedures as a key feature of ensuring efficient partnership relations. This was reflected in the commitment to what was referred to as a ‘professional conversation’ (also described as having ‘good fights’) whereby practitioners at all levels are encouraged to discuss difficult issues through frank and open dialogue between partners as a means to resolving problems. An important part of this process is the clarification of lines of responsibility, a sometimes difficult process in such a complex context.

The future

Our research found that the cluster model, co-located ‘front door’ and mature networked relations of trust and open conflict management on which safeguarding children in Leeds is grounded, have all played important roles in engendering opportunities for critical reflection on practices and possibilities for cultural transformation to effect change. They have helped cultivate and enabled spaces for creative ‘boundary work’ rooted in shared experiences of participating in daily life alongside others from different professional backgrounds with divergent cultural assumptions engaged in similar practices at the interface between organisations. The research reveals the manner in which boundary crossing can open opportunities to foster increased reflexivity within policing and to develop more systematic organisational cultures of learning as knowledge reservoirs that facilitate the transfer of good practice. Boundary crossing can be both an essential and dynamic element within networked approaches to safeguarding children; prompting ongoing reassessment of assumptions, critical self-reflection on values and questioning of terminology. The study of ‘boundary work’, we content, should prompt novel explorations of the possibilities for organisational learning and innovation that arise among ‘communities of practice’ and their implications for trans-disciplinary knowledge creation and its application.

Policing in an age of austerity demands that the police and its partners, in all contexts, work in effective partnerships. While multi-agency work in an embedded feature of policy, progress remains slow in some contexts. As resources continue to be stripped from the police, local authorities, health services and many others, the burden placed on these agencies is becoming increasingly heavier to bear. Effective partnership and boundary work is a possible solution here. The mechanisms to engender greater partnership amongst the police and its partner agencies discussed in our study may help to inform future policy and practice, potentially leading to such partnerships forming ‘communities of practice’ through effective, reflective and innovative boundary work.

This research was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council [grant number ES/M006123/1].