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  • Local government
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  • Digital transformation

Digital tools empowering residents to care for at-risk children

Ready To Care

Client: Buckinghamshire Council

Creating a groundbreaking suite of new digital tools to support caregivers of at-risk children, provide guidance and drive applications.

Challenge

Buckinghamshire Council came together as a unitary authority in 2020. Bringing teams together, their Childrens Services Department covers all aspects of statutory Local Authority duties, including foster care, adoption and special guardianship.

Buckinghamshire Council realised they faced two primary challenges in supporting these groups:

  1. Readying people to become adopters and foster carers
    People were leaving the application process. Data and experience showed Buckinghamshire’s adoption service had a relatively healthy number of resident enquiries but a below-average rate, of 6%, turned into approved adoption applications (compared to sector averages). Tweaking their service offer, ‘pitch’ to adopters and providing online ‘myth-busting’ advice had helped, but with limited impact.

  1. Providing equitable and actionable support for Special Guardians
    Too few special guardians were accessing support. Buckinghamshire’s annual number of new special guardianship orders had surpassed approved adopters (31 to 22) but post-support referrals were 82% from adopters. Furthermore, a high proportion of guardians who did get in touch only did so at a point of crisis, limiting ability to have a positive long-term impact on everyone involved.

Buckinghamshire Council recognised an opportunity to support people throughout the adoption or foster care application process, hopefully leading to more successful applications, and an opportunity to help special guardians access support, and access support earlier.

Together, we delivered a groundbreaking suite of digital tools empowering residents to care for at-risk children.

Approach

Created with carers, for carers

Working in close collaboration with the council, we ran human-centred research and design projects with residents and staff, including weeks of interviews and research sessions to understand the views and lived experiences of all stakeholders (council and community). Having an objective, third party to facilitate research enabled the council to benefit from more candid input from carers and staff, helping to constructively challenge with new ways of solving long-standing challenges.

"We weren’t sure what we would get from these new design approaches. We never imagined we would get something as amazing as the tool and the info sessions."
Carole

Adoption Team Manager

Bringing the research findings together, combined with quantitative data and national research, surfaced new design insights and ideas. Carers and staff were then at the centre of the process of evolving these ideas from sketches and paper prototypes into the final working tools and complimentary changes to our offline services. This was all done in partnership, collaborating with in-house digital and communications teams to embed new approaches and ways of working.

Readying people to become adopters and foster carers

Our research with prospective adopters and existing adoptive parents discovered that people experienced a higher level of self-doubt in their suitability and readiness than previously thought. They were often deterred by relatively minor challenges if they could not readily see how they might overcome them.

We combined our qualitative research with the findings of a recently published large quantitative study from the Department for Education into the ways people explored becoming adopters. That gave us the idea for how we might create an online tool to not only inform people but give them targeted, practical actions to build their self-confidence without having to wait to speak to someone.

Adoption team content review workshop (2019)

Making use of behavioural design principles and cutting-edge web design, we provided users with an engaging online question-and-answer guide to recommends actions and build a ‘personalised readiness plan’. We spent time identifying the common challenges and potential solutions with carers and staff and started turning these into plain English advice, directly linked to actions and further support. This approach gives people ownership and agency over their actions with bitesize practical steps, in a format that fits many prospective adopters’ existing browsing habits and preferences.

Providing equitable and actionable support for Special Guardians

Buckinghamshire Council was aware that many guardians have low trust in the council, owing to the often challenging circumstances of placing children. Coupled with low awareness of their rights and the range of support available meant the council received few requests for follow-on support. Opportunities were missed at key points to connect guardians to help.

Filming for Guardians Guide with Zoe, Social Worker (2022)

To support guardians, we co-created a single online source of support and action, together with current and prospective Guardians and staff. It's the first guide of its kind in the UK that’s created exclusively by and for special guardians (it’s also 100% free and open to access for anyone in the country). The guide is introduced to prospective guardians on day one of the application process and is then re-introduced regularly afterward to make it unmissable for people considering becoming guardians.

Open and empowering by design

Each of the tools has been created based on a common set of principles that run counter to the approaches commonly taken in the sector:

  • Action-orientated – Seeing every situation as an opportunity to give someone agency rather than build reliance. By contrast, most existing websites prioritise sharing positives over practicalities, approaching crucial issues through limited surface-level ‘myth-busting’.
  • Open and accessible by default – Free, anonymous use for anyone anywhere, rather than passwords and clunky accounts. Almost all existing resources for carers are typically shielded on proprietary hubs and locked-down portals.
  • On carers’ terms – Content is engaging, clear and displayed in ways and terms people recognise. The common default in the sector is to describe things based on the terminology of an agency/council and for information to be sorted based on how services are organised internally, not users' needs.

Designing the three products in this way is increasing their impact by supporting more people, in more ways, earlier in their situations than ever before.

"The Guardians Guide is well easy to use. It’s great for someone like me, who knows nothing, to have somewhere to read up on subjects, watch videos and most important, put it in my reading list so I can find it when I need to check statements written to me."
Recently appointed guardian

Beyond the tools themselves, a key aspect of the council’s approach was a commitment to continual learning, with each prototype and the eventual products being regularly tested and refined based on feedback throughout the design process. This meant that, by the time we started creating the digital tools, we were confident they were solving real problems and carers and staff felt meaningfully valued and invested in the process.

This knowledge-sharing and early buy-in across the council’s community of carers and wider services allowed them to secure the support and funding to spread the original AdoptionReady innovation into guardianship and fostering. The cross-council involvement from the outset now means that work is underway on developing an Adult Social Care version using the same core approach and applying the lessons from the process to another new context.

Impact

Launching two new digital tools in 2022, joining the first tool launched in 2019, was a milestone moment in an ambitious three-year effort by Buckinghamshire Council to equip more residents to support at-risk children.

The three ‘Ready to Care’ products take a unique approach of transferring agency, not just knowledge, from services to people in all of the three main care roles (a national first):

  • AdoptionReady
    A simple digital tool that helps prospective adopters learn about adoption by answering questions to build a personalised action plan. Launched in October 2019.
  • Guardians’ Guide
    A nationally unique, one-stop, advice and support guide for Special Guardians and people who want to become one. Connecting our most isolated carers with essential support. Launched July 2022.
  • FosteringReady
    Taking the open and empowering approach of AdoptionReady and adapting it to the needs of prospective foster carers. Launched October 2022.

AdoptionReady

In the year since AdoptionReady was launched in Oct 2019, the council saw a 200% annual increase in approved applications (increasing from 10 to 30, of which 29 households to date have gone on to have children placed with them), directly attributable to the new tool. Introducing this means the council was well-placed when the pandemic forced the country into lockdown; turning the resulting increased interest in adoption into action.

AdoptionReady

In conjunction with launching AdoptionReady, the council also updated the content and approach of ‘information events’ and welcome experiences to reflect what they’ve learned from the research process. This has enabled the creation of a much more joined-up experience across recruitment and assessment teams, as well as introducing adopters early in the process to family finding and support services. They have helped over 400 carers to date create readiness plans and have seen that applicants engaging with the service are better prepared and more aware than ever before. This is, in turn, resulting in higher quality carers and quicker approval processes and placements for children.

FosteringReady

Launching in October 2022 to address a very similar challenge of a low follow-through rate on assessments, FosteringReady is already shows signs of a similar impact. Followed-through enquiry rates have improved by 150% over the previous monthly averages for the last two years.

FosteringReady

To develop FosteringReady, we took the same underlying technology and research approach but started with a blank slate in terms of content. We ran research with prospective, current and ex-carers and staff to understand the unique needs and challenges of foster carers. This has ensured we’ve created the same level of ownership and legitimacy within the service and the care community as we did with AdoptionReady.

Guardians’ Guide

For the Guardians’ Guide, we created over 70 plain English guides from scratch and filmed videos with staff to bring the challenges and potential solutions to life. Every guide includes practical, bitesize next steps to ensure people can act on information in a way that best suits their needs. The site is organised based on the terms and issues Guardians identified and is designed in such a way that raises awareness of the other support available, whilst also helping people with specific issues or questions.

Guardians' Guide

The Guardians’ Guide has had over 5000 unique visitors in the first four months since launch and is helping more guardians than before access the support they need. Contact rates to the council’s support team have risen by 225% and are now split 50/50 with adopters. The nature of calls has also changed with more guardians reaching out at an earlier stage of support, rather than at breaking point. This has opened up more support options for them and the children they care for. The innovative nature of the approach and the site itself has led to it being recognised as national best practice by the leading independent charity, Kinship, and promoted across the sector.

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