Failing fast and improving foster services notes

Imagine that you’re 16 years old and you can’t live at home with your family because it’s not safe, for you and your family. You’ve lived with different foster carers, moving every six months or so, when the carer says it too hard to look after you. For the past two years, you’ve lived mostly in residential care homes, with other young people. It’s not right for you — too loud, too many people, too many rules. Every time you move in with a new carer, it happens again: fights, blame and you have to move on. You feel angry and trapped.

Stories like this are real. We hear them again and again during research with young people as part of our work on fostering services. Based on our findings we design products and services that aim to improve the experience of young people in care and the people looking after them. One example of a new service we designed is a specialist fostering service for young people in care who can find it hard to cope with difficult situations. As part of this service, foster carers receive specialist training, to support the young people better and prevent placement breakdown.

Testing and failing fast in high-risk environments

To understand if a new service is working or not, you need to test it with users. This involves observing the service in roughly the same shape for a period of time. For example, taking the time to research and understand if young people are able to cope better with difficult situations as the result of different approaches and policy in fostering.

One of the mantras of innovation and technology startups is “fail early, fail fast, learn early, learn often”. It’s always better to find out something new won’t work before you’ve spent a lot of time and money on it, rather than after. But what if you’re operating in a high-risk environment, where failure could mean another traumatic care experience for a vulnerable young person?

Safely testing a new service in a high-risk environment

From previous projects I’ve learned that there are two effective ways to safely test a new service that supports people in vulnerable situations:

1. Building additional support around a ‘pilot’

By keeping the number of people involved to a minimum and putting additional and personal support in place, it’s possible to observe a new end-to-end service, while managing and reducing risk. This approach has a higher initial investment.

For example, we can look at the specialist fostering service I mentioned earlier. As part of a three-month pilot, we provided three young people, as well as their carers, with additional support. The young people had daily contact with their own support worker and the foster carers attended additional supervision meetings. They also contacted their own support worker on a daily basis too. This way we were better able to identify risks and provide support when and where it was needed.

Foster care service notes

2. Testing parts of the service in a gradually expanding way

Another option is to identify parts of the new service that can be tested either separately or in low-risk ways. This approach has a lower initial investment, but it takes longer to test a full service or even a minimum viable version of an end-to-end service.

For example, after the first pilot of the specialist fostering service, we decided to lower the risk and test the service in a more stable environment by only involving highly experienced carers. This meant we would learn less about identifying, recruiting and training the right types of carers. It did allow us the increased stability to gain better insight in specific areas and its impact on young people’s experience and ability to cope.

Broken systems, not broken lives

These approaches are about finding out where systems break and how to make them better while minimising the disruption and negative impact on people’s lives.

Fostering is just one example of a complex service operating in a complex environment, with lots of broken parts. Hearing the experiences of young people who have been in care makes the impact that this has on their lives painfully clear. It can be really daunting to try and change that for the better, but it’s also really important. We can do that by focusing on people first, always. Shaping and testing solutions with those involved and impacted by the change.

I’m sure the two approaches I described are not the only ways to safely test a new service in a high-risk environment. I would love to hear your experiences or if you have any questions/comments, let me know!

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