Some years ago, I became involved in the work of a sub group of my LSCB that had been formed to monitor progress by agencies in meeting the recommendations of several Serious Case Reviews.

The resulting actions formulated to deliver the improvements had been marshalled into an overarching action plan and arrangements were established to independently audit evidence of claimed completion of any particular action. All pretty robust you might think?

The problem I and many other members of the sub group had, was with the way in which some of the recommendations had morphed into suites of so called “SMART” actions that by dint being crafted as specific, measurable etc, offered no clear deliverance of the intended outcomes of the recommendation. Regrettably many of these actions had been completed and signed off.

This is no criticism of the people who were involved in this process before I came along, I subsequently learned that this is a phenomenon to be found in similar SMART action plans managed by LSCBs across the country.

The challenge here is in getting to the root of the problem raised by the recommendation and in fully defining what success would look like; in other words, what is the outcome for the child?

This is not to dismiss SMART actions completely; many recommendations do lend themselves to a SMART approach since they readily lend themselves to the use of hierarchical or legitimate power. Importantly though, sometimes the most crucial recommendations do not.

In my book; “What every manager should know about safeguarding children” I have presented the work of Grint (2005), and Ritell and Webber (1973) who describe the existence of these really difficult problems as “wicked”;

Wicked problems are ill-structured, with an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints. There are so many factors and conditions, all embedded in a dynamic social context, that no two wicked problems are alike, and the solutions to them will always be custom designed and fitted. There may be no solutions, or there may be a host of potential solutions and another host that are never even thought of.

The nature of wicked problems is such that without a supporting infrastructure that is fit to facilitate implementation, these become too hard to do. Often they are very difficult to “shoehorn” into SMART actions without subverting outcomes. In this context it is very easy to see how they generate barriers.

In June 2013, Education Secretary Michael Gove established a new independent panel to help ensure that lessons are learned when a child dies or is seriously harmed and there are signs of abuse or neglect.

Independent panel members Peter Wanless, Nicholas Dann, Elizabeth Clarke and Jenni Russell will advise and challenge local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) to initiate and publish high-quality serious case reviews (SCRs) in order that, nationally, lessons can be learned to drive up the quality of child protection services and avoid mistakes being repeated.

Announcing the panel members, Education Secretary Michael Gove said: “We must ensure that in the most tragic cases the right lessons are learned so the same mistakes do not happen time and time again. The independent SCR panel members are experts in their field and will bring much needed independent, rigorous scrutiny to the system – advising, supporting and challenging LSCBs to do better at completing and publishing SCRs. It is only by identifying where things do not work that we can help professionals and managers across the country to improve frontline practice, and ensure that the most tragic cases we have seen over the years are never repeated.’

The move forms part of the Government’s response to the report of Professor Eileen Munroe that proposed many reforms to the way in which such reviews are conducted. It is to be hoped that the work of this panel will include scrutiny of the way in which recommendations turn into outcomes, rather than a polarised fixation upon the process of the Review.

By Reg Pengelly