Public Sector Future Podcast: Episode 17 | Innovation in children’s social care

Episode 17 guest speaker, Dr. Carol Homden

Innovation in children’s social care

with Dr. Carol Homden

Dr. Carol Homden is the Chief Executive of Coram, a group of specialist children’s charities based in the UK, reaching 2.5 million children, families, and professionals each year. Dr. Homden also serves as Chair of Diabetes UK and was previously Chair of the UK’s National Autistic Society for 10 years.

Episode 17: Innovation in children’s social care

Public Sector Future

Episode summary

In this episode we speak to Dr. Carol Homden, Chief Executive of Coram, a group of specialist children’s charities based in the UK that reaches 2.5 million children, families, and professionals each year. Discover how her organizations are leading an effort to work with providers of services that support vulnerable children and young people, as well as with private sector experts, to create, test, and scale new solutions to challenges using innovative approaches.

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Innovating in children’s services with Dr. Carol Homden

Dr. Carol Homden is the Chief Executive of Coram, a group of specialist children’s charities based in the UK, reaching 2.5 million children, families, and professionals each year. Dr. Homden also serves as Chair of Diabetes UK.

Discover how her organizations are leading an effort to work with providers of services that support vulnerable children, as well as with private sector experts, to create, test, and scale new solutions to challenges using innovative approaches.

 Coram – the world’s oldest children’s charity

Coram has been serving children since 1739, making it the world’s oldest children’s charity.

“Our role as the first children’s charity is continuing as a pioneer of new approaches, and indeed, of best practice approaches in the support of vulnerable children and young people,” Dr. Homden said.

Coram started as the Foundling Hospital, providing the first-ever residential and educational support for children abandoned on the streets.

“Sometimes it feels like we are still engaged in the same tasks, but of course, things have improved immeasurably for children in developed nations. But unfortunately, for many children worldwide, they still experience the toxic trio of poverty, and violence, hunger, and abuse,” Dr. Homden shared.

What problems does Coram aim to solve?

Children and young people still experience what Dr. Homden referred to as a postcode lottery, explaining that their future is determined by where they live and who they live with as a result of their birth, in addition to any particular challenges or characteristics they may have themselves.

The outcomes for children can be remarkably different no matter where it is that they live, which is true both in the UK and worldwide. 

“We are a very long way as a society from securing the future of all our children on the basis of equality and justice. So, in one sense, that’s the big macro problem that Coram exists, in our small way and as a convener within the sector to try to address,” Dr. Homden shared.

“But within that, if we look locally, to the systems that we all belong to, how do we make them better? We cannot continue, in the face of new risks as well as the old challenges, to keep on doing things the same,” Dr. Homden continued.

Coram Innovation Incubator

The Coram Innovation Incubator was created to find ways that those eager for change could take action and discover new solutions to these problems.

At the end of 2020, Coram conducted a survey to get a greater understanding of the state of innovation in children’s services– if and how they were innovating, and what the common barriers to innovation were. Respondents from a variety of children’s services providers across the public, private, and third sectors shared a common view that although there was an appetite for innovation, securing more radical change could be difficult.

“The incubator is a way of marshalling the skills of different sectors and across boundaries to come together to identify the problems that we specifically think exist and are malleable to change, and to find ways of doing it,” Dr. Homden shared.

Common barriers of change

Dr. Homden shared themes of why service providers find making innovative changes difficult:

1. Volume of work

The sheer volume of ongoing work means that it is very difficult for staff who are engaged in all that activity, to have the bandwidth to try new things.

2. Reluctance to take risks

How do you take the risk if you’re in one organization and trying to do something different?

Cultivating a culture of improvement leads to innovation

Innovation occurs at multiple levels so it’s important to have an organizational culture of improvement. This leads to innovation in everyday operations.

Successful innovation also requires a range of services, skillsets, and expertise across sectors.

“If you’re looking to achieve really fundamental shifts, radical innovation, then you need different types of skills, and you need to share the risk of that. And that’s why we have been so proud to work with our private sector partners, Microsoft, EY and PA [Consulting], in partnership with our founding local authorities to do just that,” Dr. Homden shared.

How to set up an Innovation Incubator

Coram started with the initial analysis from their survey along with working with partners to determine the biggest challenges faced by the sector.

Together with their partners, Dr. Homden said Coram asked, “which challenges do we collectively think that we need to pay our attention to and which do we think we might be able to change with the help of technology, with the help of new approaches?”

They determined areas they could come together and make an impact on, such as adolescent mental health, placement sufficiency, and challenges around young people’s risk-taking behavior.

“The first thing is to have what I would describe as a ‘coalition of the willing,’ those who feel that they would like to try to pool their skills and their attitudes together with others behind common problems, because you need to create an environment in which people can feel confident to try things, and providing that support network to leaders and managers, it helps to develop that cultural capacity for change,” Dr. Homden said.

“For everyone, there is a benefit in creating a leadership community for innovation and entrepreneurship and creating a greater capacity within the network of organizations that support children,” Dr. Homden shared.

Innovative improvements that can make an impact

There are a variety of service, process, and system innovations that can lead to improvements. Removing duplication and improving data sharing, record management, and access to records can have a significant impact.

Be pragmatic and think about how to create things that can be delivered across the sector.

“Can we produce a system enhancement that others could benefit from, could we generate a new product that could rapidly be rolled out? Or can we produce a tangible result from the pilot which simply results in that particular place being better than it was before?” Dr. Homden shared questions to consider.

She discussed how leaders should “create a culture that empowers the people within your system and service to be constantly hungry for the opportunities that change might bring, and not frightened by it.”

Focusing on the user

Coram has previously won the Digital Service of the Year Award for the public sector in the UK in, which was for the development of a new digital front door for adopters. Dr. Homden shared that the technology has “what I would describe as [having] a consumer focus, a real focus on how people are actually approaching the system, whether they are professional users, or families or children that are needing support. I think it’s partly that freshness of view around the user focus that is as important as the technical infrastructure.”

Dr. Homden explained that the technology for the system is not that complicated. “It’s actually about how you align the benefits of the system behind a process to the user journey. And that’s why we’ve brought different people together.”

Confidentiality of record is extremely important, especially when working with data about vulnerable children and young people. Data needs to be shared appropriately and responsibly to provide better services.

What’s ahead for the Coram Innovation Incubator

Dr. Homden shared a preview what’s coming next for Coram’s Innovation Incubator:

  • Taking pilots into formation and beginning to have results emerge from the Incubator
  • Welcoming new members into the Incubator where they are aligned and want to bring their skills and perspectives to the problem analysis
  • Art of the Possible workshop showcasing how data and technology can safeguard young people, provide early intervention and prevention
  • Continuing to build digital skills in the community, through a range of activities targeting at-risk children and young people

Advice for building an Innovation Incubator

Dr. Homden shared her advice for someone looking to set up their own Innovation Incubator:

  • Contact Coram and Coram International – “We exist for one thing at Coram. We exist to create better chances for children, and we will help you if that’s what you want to do.”
  • Seek inspiration – “You do need to set about it and believe that you can actually affect change.”
  • Act as an entrepreneur & find a partner – “Bringing together complementary skills and values is fundamental in identifying the common goal.”

Digitizing a historical archive

“Coram holds the longest continuing archive of care, so our archive is not the largest that there is, but it is the longest and most continuing,” Dr. Homden shared.

Coram is currently digitizing a substantial part of their historical archive and the stories of children taken into care in the 18th and 19th centuries. The original written records are being scanned and then transcribed by Zooniverse.

Zooniverse is a mass participation platform where anyone can sign up and become a volunteer transcriber. Coram is part of the Zooniverse platform that has more than a thousand volunteers helping with transcription.

“What a fantastic innovation that is, that you have people participating from all across the globe, in that common interest in heritage and giving their time to support this children’s charity to bring its records—its history, to the widest public domain,” Dr. Homden said.

Dr. Homden’s closing remarks

“Change occurs because we make it change, we make it happen, and every person, in every organization, at every time, has the potential to innovate. It just doesn’t feel like that, and that’s what we need to address, that restlessness for change,” Dr. Homden shared.

“If you can see something that could be done better, you are the person to make it better,” Dr. Homden concluded.

To find out more:

Learn more about Coram

Learn more about Coram Innovation Incubator

Follow Dr. Carol Homden on Twitter

Innovation in Children’s Services – Coram Insight Report March 2021

Learn more about how Microsoft supports Public Health and Social Services

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