RPP 17 1 Carol L. Tozer 20 questions: the research needs of children and family social workers

Research Policy and Planning: The journal of the Social Services Research Group – Vol 17 (1) 1999

20 questions: the research needs of children and family social workers

Carol L Tozer, Research, Planning and Q.A. Manager and Sam Ray, Bournemouth Social Services Directorate, Bournemouth, Dorset

Abstract

This paper examines the research interests and needs of children and family services team Managers and the organisation of the research function across 24 Social Services Departments. The data were collected via two postal questionnaires. The first investigated the size, management and strategic focus of each Department’s research function. The second questionnaire comprised twenty questions designed to explore and catalogue the research interests, needs and experiences of team managers. Results include: an absence of any co-ordinated approach to the development of internal research agendas; the conspicuous role played by departmental training divisions in facilitating practitioners’ access to research; high levels of practitioners’ support for research but low levels of research application; and practitioners’ difficulties in understanding andlor interpreting research findings. In conclusion, the attainment of evidence-based social work demands changes in the material relations of research production. New partnerships need to be forged between researchers and social workers in the formation of research agendas, management of research studies and dissemination of research findings.

Introduction

The relationship between social work research and practice is often tenuous and rarely iterative. At worse, research and practice are poles apart in focus, method and intent: at best, considerable time, energy and skill is required to steer a passage between the two. Such are the salutary reflections of a small number of studies which examine how research can be better exploited in the development of evidence-based social work policies and practices (Smith, 1995; Sinclair and Jacobs, 1994). Apparently, it is not so much that there is a lack of commitment to research within social services departments (SSDs), but that there are severe problems around practitioners’ access to that research (Independent Review Group, 1994).Of course, the phrase “evidence-based practice” seems to be the mantra for SSDs for the 1990s and, like any incantation, it requires repetition rather than demystification if the desired effect is to be achieved. Even the question “what is evidence-based practice” begs tautological response, but such is the focus of this paper: how can children and family services social workers identify which “evidence” is most relevant for their practice and how can they influence the focus and format of that evidence?This paper is based upon the findings of a postal survey of the research needs of children and family services team managers working in 24 SSDs throughout England’. Each department is a member of the Research in Practice (RiP) initiative at Dartington and, as such, demonstrates tangible commitment to the principle of evidence-based social work. RiP is an Association of Directors of Social Services initiative, delivered to its members through a partnership with Dartington Social Research Unit and the Children and Families Research Centre at the University of Sheffield. Through a range of services and programmes, it promotes and supports the development of evidence-based policy and practice in child welfare by encouraging co-operation and understanding between research and practice staff.

Aims, method and response

The twin aims of the research were:

  • to explore the organisation of the research function by RiP member SSDs;
  • to provide an overview of the research needs of children and family services team managers employed by RiP members.

Two short questionnaires were developed, tested and distributed for the purposes of the study: one which addressed the size, management and strategic focus of the research function within RiP SSDs and another which consisted of twenty questions designed to explore and catalogue the research needs of children and family services team managers. Each SSD member of RiP has a nominated Link Officer who has major responsibility to co-ordinate their department’s participation in RiP activities. We asked link officers to: facilitate the research; participate as survey respondents; distribute the study questionnaire to every social worker at team manager level across the gamut of children and family services; and ensure the return of completed questionnaires to us.The average rate of return for self-completing questionnaires is usually about 30 per cent and rarely higher than 40 per cent (McNeill, 1990). We secured a 96 per cent response rate for link officers and a 43 per cent response rate for team managers. The team managers’ response rate varied widely: between 12% -80% returned a completed questionnaire.

The organisation of research among RiP members: the Cinderella syndrome?

Departmental research programmes

The mission of research within any SSD must be to bring high quality, relevant, accessible and timely information to bear upon policy and programme decisions and practices. Properly deployed, research can: help identify policy and practice objectives; illuminate policy and practice outcomes; evaluate policy and practice effectiveness; and review policy and practice implementation, performance and outputs. The delivery of such tangible benefits, however, depends not only upon the methodological expertise and substantive knowledge of researchers commissioned by SSDs but also upon departmental co-ordination of the research it commissions. With this in mind, link officers were first asked:

Does your Department have a formal research programme? (i.e., a document approved by management/committee which describes key research themes and studies undertaken or commissioned by your Department?)

Only five of the 24 link officers replied that their Department had this type of formalised research programme. However, the lack of a formal research programme does not automatically mean that research is managed in an ad hoc way in the other 21 SSDs. Rather, the presence of such a document simply provides evidence that departmental managers and members will have engaged in a systematic discussion about departmental research requirements and subsequently approved departmental priorities. The finding that so few departments formalise their research programme in this way suggests that the strategic management of the research function on the part of RiP members is most conspicuous by its absence. In other words, research would.appear to suffer from the “Cinderella” syndrome within SSDs: taken to the strategic management “ball” by accident rather than design.Departmental research agendas: involving practitionersIf research is systematically to inform a Department’s policies, procedures and practice, practitioners ought to be involved in the research commissioning process as both contractor and customer: contractor because they are invariably well placed to identify what needs to be understood; and customer because research must be managed, presented and disseminated in such a way that social workers are empowered by, rather than alienated from, research findings.

It is, perhaps, salient to recall a key conclusion of the Independent Review Group:

Practitioners need to own research; they must be involved in setting the research agenda, participating in its implementation and cooperating in evaluation and development. (Independent Review Group, 1994:4)

It would seem that this particular “message from research” remains unheard at the local level. While all five research programmes noted above were subject to annual review, only two departments routinely ask practitioners to contribute to the formation of the departmental research agenda that goes to management and/or committee for discussion and ratification. Furthermore, of these five SSDs, four carry out their research programmes in-house rather than contracting from academia or independent consultants.Research staffWith regard to SSD staff structures and the availability of resources for in-house research staff, it must be acknowledged that research competes with other strategic and operational staffing priorities. Acknowledgement aside, however, subscription to the goal of evidence based social work suggests that SSDs need to consider their organisational investment in research.Fourteen of the 24 SSDs employ staff with a research brief. these 14 departments employ 43 research-related staff. Notably, only six departments, who between them employ a total of 11 research-related staff, dedicated those staff specifically to children and family services. It is far more common for SSD researchers to work across the full gamut of adult and children’s services.There would, therefore, appear to be some disparity between the rhetoric endorsing the importance of evidence-based social work and departmental investment in any in-house research capability.Facilitating practitioners departmental activities

Link officers were also asked:

How does your department ensure that children and family practitioners gain access to key research findings? (e.g. The “Blue Book”).

Table 1 shows that departments use a number of mechanisms to facilitate practitioners’ access to research. The importance accorded to training suggests researchers need to exploit departmental training programmes in communicating their findings to practitioners.

Table 1: Departmental research dissemination mechanisms (n=24)

Method of dissemination %
Via training 79
In-house workshops 62
Dist. Of research summaries/digests 42
Via team meetings 33
Commissioned workshops/seminars 12
RiP membership 8
Access to database (eg caredata/Hanstnet) 4
No departmental dissemination mechanisms identified 12

With regard to the dissemination of research findings, it is interesting to note that only a third of link officers mentioned team management meetings as a vehicle for research dissemination. Collectively, Table 1 reveals that Departments have instigated a variety of different dissemination mechanisms in order to ensure that research reaches the practitioner audience. For the main part, however, such mechanisms comprise “dedicated” or “formalised” events such as seminars or training activities: the operational setting remains under-exploited as a dissemination venue.

The research needs of children and family services team managers

Team manager type

As noted above, 303 children and family services team managers from 23 SSDs participated in the survey. We wanted to establish the types of teams managed by the respondents and whether or not they had routine contact with service users. Table 2 below reveals that respondents had managerial responsibility for the whole range of children and family services with the exception of a hospital-based social work. More specifically, almost half the respondents manage ‘assessment and placement’ or ‘family support’ teams. In contrast, very few respondents (n=3) are post care team managers. Finally by way of background, 98 per cent of the team managers continue to have day-to-day contact with children and their families.

Table 2: Name of team (n=303)

Name of team N %
Assessment and placement 90 30
Family support 87 29
Adoption/fostering 22 7
Child protection 17 6
Disabilities 18 6
Residential services 14 5
Youth justice 15 5
Under 8’s 10 3
Postcare 3 1
Not specified 27 9

Research and practiceTeam managers were first asked to evaluate the importance of a knowledge of key research findings to their daily practice. As figure 1 shows, the overwhelming majority (96%) of team managers regard key research findings as either ‘essential’ or ‘important’.Social workers readily acknowledge that research is important to their practice. The development strategy for evidence-based practice, therefore, should concentrate upon identifying mechanisms by which social workers’ access to, and use of, research can be improved and routinised.Respondents were asked how they found out about key pieces of research. Table 3 provides a precis of their responses. Most common is the professional literature route: 89 per cent of team managers find out about research from publications such as Community Care and Research Matters. Next, respondents pointed towards certain departmental activities which facilitate access to research: seminars, the distribution of research reports and meetings were some of the more commonly mentioned activities here. A majority of team managers (64%) also mentioned “personal study” as an access route; a result which confirms the importance team managers accord to research.Figure 1: Importance of knowledge of research (N=303)

[Apologies this figure is unavailable]

Table 3: Research access routes (n=303)

[Apologies this figure is unavailable]

Route N %
Professional literature e.g. Community Care 269 89
Departmental activities e.g. seminars, meetings, distribution of publications 232 77
Personal study 191 63
Professional study/training e.g. MA/PQ course 130 42
Other e.g. informal discussions, internet 105 35

Responses to the next question about the frequency with which team managers refer to research for help in their day-to-day practice highlight a key obstacle to the attainment of evidence-based practice: 39 per cent of team managers admitted that they accessed research “not very often” or “hardly ever”. As Figure 2 illustrates, only 13 per cent state that they access research “a lot” in their day to day practice.Figure 2: Percentage of frequency of use of research (N=303)Despite their overwhelming endorsement of the principle of research informed practice, the reality is that a sizeable minority of team managers fail to apply research findings regularly in their practice. There has been a growing professional awareness of the need for improved research training in social work qualifying and post qualifying education (for example, Marsh and Triseliotis, 1996) as well as calls for improved research dissemination (for example, Independent Review Group, 1994).Social workers revealed a desire to increase their use of research: 94 per cent of team managers stated that they should increase their use of research in their own practice; and 95 per cent stated that their teams should increase their use of research in practice. However, despite the desire to bring research to the operational arena, only 35 per cent of team managers’ replied that research findings were discussed with any regularity in their team meetings. Less than half the team managers (43%) were encouraged by their own line managers to refer to or use research in supervision sessions.

The gap between research and practice having been clearly identified, team managers were asked to explain this gap:

Generally, it is recognised that there is a gap between research and practice. Why do you think that is?

The aggregated responses are listed in Table 4 below and fall into three broad categories. First, and most particularly, team managers stressed the practical difficulties they face in making use of research. The lack of time was a very common inhibitor:

“(There is) no time for thinking, planning, reading and preparation time. (Social) work is reactive rather than proactive. Resources are poor and decisions made on the hoof “

A further practical difficulty involves the length of time it takes to complete the research process. Respondents described an asymmetry between practice developments and the availability of research reports whose conclusions are regarded as redundant by the time they become available:

“There is a time lag between research and publication of results – research reflects what practice was at the time, meanwhile political and social changes affect current practice.”

Responses were organised around an observation that the research community itself effectively excludes practitioners from engaging in, and being empowered by, the research process. Over a third of respondents (36%) noted that research dissemination strategies are simply not targeted upon practitioners:

“Partly structural, partly cultural: although I believe the former affects the latter. Basically, there is no automatic input of research into day-to-day work as links between research centres and the Departments occur at the top and not the “coalface”.

Respondents (21%) also replied that research is not developed in a “practice friendly” manner. Research is theoretically and methodologically driven and this either compromises its practice applications or at least renders those applications difficult for practitioners to discern:

“Personally, I am research minded (BSc/MA studies) but agree with the above statement. Most see research as academic and unrealistic, focusing on areas of little interest. The way research is presentedlwritten up does little to dispel this negativity.”

Finally, respondents described a cultural antipathy to research: there is a lack of professional commitment to research (8%) and little organisational importance is accorded to research (5%):

“The Department pays lip-service to the importance of bringing research findings into policy and practice. It is left too much to individual initiative in an extremely busy working environment.”

Table 4: Reasons why there is a gap between research and practice (n=303)

Reason N %
Lack of time to read research 122 43
Poor research dissemination 102 36
Research is not practice oriented 60 21
Research is out of date vis-a-vis practice 47 17
Resources and costs 30 11
Lack of professional commitment to research 22 8
Low departmental profile accorded to research 15 5
Disagree with statement 4 1

There are important messages here for social work Directors and academic researchers alike. If SSDs are to move towards evidence-based practice, departmental management must provide clear messages that research literacy is inherent to good professional practice. Simple rhetoric is not enough, departments need to reinforce these messages with resources, facilities and training which ensure practitioners receive the necessary support in acquiring and maintaining that research literacy.Practitioners express difficulties in accessing comprehensible research: and often find research confusing and contradictory. Moreover, they question the relevance of research findings to practice simply because those findings are often, it is asserted, out of date. For the research community, therefore, the main message is that fundamental change is required in what are, effectively, the material relations of research production.Cosmetic changes, such as those achieved by improved presentation and simpler explanations of methodology are important first steps in improving the accessibility of research to practitioners. But these alone will not effect the type of change envisaged by the “evidence-based practice” culture and ideal. Researchers need to re-negotiate the roles and responsibilities and focus upon facilitating (rather than formulating) research agendas, design and dissemination. They need to communicate better their interests and hypotheses as well as clearly stating the influences upon their choice of methodology. Put simply, researchers need to build in measures of partnership with practitioners based upon collaboration and accountability.Participation in Research

In order to construct bridges between research and practice, it is important first to test any pre-existing foundations. Accordingly, team managers were asked:

In your current professional role, have you ever participated in a research study?

The results reveal high levels of team manager involvement in research undertaken on behalf of SSDs:’ over half (52%) the team managers replied that they have participated in a research study in their current professional role.Furthermore, as Table 5 illustrates, the nature of that participation spans the whole of the research process and includes: study design; study management; fieldwork; data analysis; and report writing.

Table 5: Team managers’ participation in research (n=147)

Type of participationN %
Development of research instruments 92 (e.g. interview schedule, questionnaire)92 60
Fieldwork interviews86 57
Report writing79 52
Member of a research management group76 49
Data analysis and interpretation68 45
Research design60 39
Data preparation, coding and entry53 34

Practitioners’ research needs

The final sections of questions focused on team managers’ research needs as defined by their ideas on how the relationship between research and practice could be improved and their identification of research priorities. With regard to the relationship between research and practice, respondents were asked three questions:

What types of events or processes would help you and your team to improve your knowledge about research findings?;What types of events or processes would help you and your team to improve your use of research in day-to-day practice?;

What types of events or processes would help practitioners to have a greater influence upon your department’s research agenda?

Responses to the knowledge and application questions echo what is now an established theme in this paper: movement toward practice-based evidence depends as much upon researchers changing their “practice” as it does upon the social work profession being more sensitive to research. Table 6 reveals that team managers thought that practitioners’ research literacy is best served via research reports that set out primary findings and their practice implications:

“When research is presented .. there should be an explanation of what was measured, the limitations of the study and what validity any inferences from the results have. Conflicting results from other studies should be pointed out.”

Interestingly, respondents did not talk so much about finding the time to read research as having the opportunity to hear and talk about research. They wanted their research literacy skills and those of their team members to be promoted in public, visible ways by their Departments. In other words, research required a higher “public” profile within their organisations.

Table 6: Ways to improve knowledge about research (n=303)

Event/process needed N %
User-friendly information, summaries 121 46
Seminars, workshops, conferences 110 41
More time 40 15
Training 37 15
Better IT, library resources 33 13
Better dissemination 30 11
Regular meetings and discussions 18 7
Funding for courses, conferences, books 13 5
Change of attitude, culture 11 4

Respondents provided fewer answers to the question about how they might improve their use of research in their day-to-day practice although the themes of user friendly research products and the establishment of research seminars featured again in the responses given. Relatively few respondents identified their team management meetings as an opportunity for the consideration of research findings as they apply to practice decisions: a finding which might reflect their previously expressed dissatisfaction with their research knowledge base and possible lack of confidence to introduce research findings to their discussions with their colleagues.

Table 7: Ways to improve use of research (n=303)

Event/Process Needed N %
Better dissemination 75 28
Workshops, seminars, training 71 27
Given more time, resources for reading 60 24
Team Manager discussion, supervision 44 18
Training 41 16
Improved access to research 39 15
Develop a culture which recognises research 19 8
Involve practitioners more 18 7

In response to the question about increasing practitioners’ influence upon departmental research agendas, a certain cynicism characterised some of the responses given:

“This is difficult. Practitioners do not have the confidence that grass roots opinion gets acted upon. In theory, the practitioner’s voice gets heard by passing requests up the management chain. Practitioners would need feedback that their views were being considered before seriously spending time and energy identifying a research agenda.”

Table 8: Greater influence on research agenda (n=303)

Event/Process Needed N %
Involve practitioners more 104 47
More resources for research 68 29
Workshops, training, seminars 43 19
Opportunities to discuss areas for research 43 19
Better use of practice implications 24 11

As well as departments providing the venues and time for practitioners to consider their research needs, respondents pointed towards the importance of systematic departmental consultation procedures and processes:

“First, practitioners need to know about the Department’s agenda for research and they need to know what’s in it for them. Departmental negative contextual framework does not augur well for staff’s participation in departmental activities. Staff’s enthusiasm/motivation will be stimulated with a more positive response from Senior Management in terms of making them feel valued. Staff need to be approached in a positive way from Senior Management about the Department’s research agenda.”

Finally here, respondents were asked two questions about their ideas for specific pieces and programmes of research. One question asked:

If you could commission a single piece of research to help you and your team in your day-to-day practice, what would it be?

Some 48 different research topics were described in response to this question: a finding which demonstrates that practitioners provide a fruitful source of research suggestions for the development of any departmental research agenda. Only the more common research topics are highlighted in table 9 below which reveals the priority practitioners accord to the evaluation of efforts to “refocus” children’s services.

Table 9: Research studies needed to help in day-4oday practice (n=303)

Research N %
Evaluate preventative intervention 41 16
Children accommodated, contact with birth parents 23 10
Needs assessments 19 7
Evaluation of services (e.g. outcomes of residential care) 19 7
Survey of placements 13 5
The process of recruitment of adopters 12 5
Process of needs assessments 12 5
Effectiveness of planning for services (inc. costs of services) 12 5
A positive way of working with children/young people 10 4
Service user involvement 10 4

It must be admitted that while some research topics suggested by respondents are reported upon at length and in depth in the existing social work and social policy literature, there was much originality in their ideas:

Table 10: Research Programme Needs (n=303)

Evaluation of effectiveness of social work intervention Service user needs assessment Developing ways of working with other agencies Developing ways of involving users Users’ and carers’ experiences of services
N%N %N%

N

%

N

%
Vital 16958151 5210838

138

48

150

52
Important 782798 3310135

100

34

98

33
Neither important nor not important 311129 106121

42

14

29

10
Not very important 527 2165

6

2

9

3
Not at all important 211 <11<1

1

<1

1

<1
Not stated 635 241

4

1

4

1

“When assessing initial child care enquiries/concerns, the decision as to whether the care is regarded as child protection or child in need would be extremely useful to be researched. e.g., What is the effects (sic) of social worker’s initial contact, team manager’s decision not to regard it as a section 47 enquiry etc. “

Finally, respondents were asked to evaluate (on a five point scale) the importance for day-to-day practice of five research themes commonly found in the academic and professional social work literature. Their replies as noted in Table 10 reveal broad support for the range of research themes and the particular importance of the “what works” research programme.

Discussion of results

The findings of the research reveal that very few SSDs develop and promulgate a research programme: a finding which suggests that the majority of research undertaken on behalf of a department is conducted, and managed, in a “stand alone” fashion. Not surprisingly, therefore, the results also confirm that practitioners are not consulted in the development of any internal research agendas. The absence of a co-ordinated approach to the development of these agendas suggests that such research as is undertaken within Departments is likely to be reactive to particular scenarios and concerns as they arise.More positively, departments deploy a variety of dissemination strategies in facilitating practitioners’ access to research. Concentrated as they are in training and workshop venues, these dissemination strategies are predominantly discrete activities. It would seem that the operational setting is not yet commonly used as a vehicle for research dissemination.The results produced by this survey suggest that any attainment of evidence-based practice within social work depends upon four criteria being met.The first criterion concerns the need for a positive encouragement of a research culture within the social work profession and SSDs. Practitioners’ research literacy should begin during training but recent evidence from the Department of Health points towards an ongoing scenario in which social work students are often ill prepared with a poor use of theory and applied research (Marsh and Triseliotis, 1996). SSDs keen to move towards the ideal of “evidence-based” practice might benefit from looking first at the curriculum of research training provided to students they sponsor through the Diploma in Social Work and post-qualifying courses. From a departmental perspective, it means making explicit the research literacy skills and standards required of children and family services social workers and ensuring that they receive the necessary support and space in order to acquire and maintain that literacy.Of course, it is not only ignorance that prevents the translation and application of research into policy and practice: the “politics” of research can impede its implementation. Indeed, the very call for social research may result from a number of reasons: it may represent a sincere desire for policy/practice decisions to be improved via the contribution of reliable and valid data; it may serve a tactical goal such as postponing a decision or deflecting a criticism; or it may be used for partisan purposes and become incorporated into the bargaining processes between the different interest groups involved.The second criterion, therefore, concerns the development of effective and appropriate research agendas: agendas which are framed by, and engage the support of, practitioners because they seek to inform practice dilemmas or difficulties. But because practitioners only represent one member of the research-commissioning community, the role for the researcher becomes that of facilitator: he or she must ensure that the views of practitioners at least inform decisions about research priorities. After all, no single person or group within social work holds the monopoly of research questions and practitioners are invariably well placed to help frame agendas because they know what needs to be understood from their direct experience of service provision.Next, practitioners experience difficulties in understanding and interpreting research. They find different pieces of research confusing and occasionally contradictory and it is particularly hard for them to discern which findings are most “reliable” and relevant for their own practice. Rather than being empowered by research, practitioners are often alienated by the language and methods of research. The third criterion, therefore, concerns improved research accessibility. “Good” social research relies upon a firm grasp of epistemological principles, substantive policy knowledge and methodological expertise. A necessary precondition for “good” research, therefore, is that the information generated is produced in accordance with social scientific methods under the influence of social science theory. This means that methodology matters and researchers need to make clear to their audience that their choice of methodology is connected to their view of social work and the research issues at hand.Finally, attainment of “evidence-based practice” depends upon the improved dissemination of findings. Securing a practitioner-friendly focus of research is important; helping practitioners to make use of that research is essential. Much has already been written about the need for improved research dissemination which is based upon a recognition that dissemination is as much about strategy as it is about route. What is intended for Directors of social work will not do for practitioners and different dissemination methods serve different purposes. What is very clear, however, is that researchers and those commissioning research within SSDs and elsewhere need to devote as much attention to the dissemination of their results as they do to its design and implementation. Dissemination is not an optional add-on to the research product, it should be an integral feature of its design and management.By way of conclusion, therefore, evidence-based practice throughout the 24 SSDs surveyed remains elusive: its attainment is dependent upon changes in the material relations of research production and cultural shifts in the identity of the social work profession. A very tall order -but then social work is used to being asked to do the impossible.Notes

  1. The main author was asked to prepare a paper on this topic for presentation at the first RiP Annual Policy Forum held at Dartington Hall on 16 and 17 June 1997.
  2. It is important to note that the job titles of these staff varies widely from ‘research officer’ to ‘management information coordinator’ to ‘information officer’.

References

Independent Review Group (1994) A Wider Strategyfor Research and Development Relating to Personal Social Services. London: Department of Health.Marsh, P. and Triseliotis, J. (1996) Ready to practice: social workers and probation officers; their training and first year in work. Aldershot: Avebury.McNeill, P. (1990) Research Methods. (2nd ed.) London: Routledge. Morris, J. (1992) “Us and Them” Feminist research, community care and disability, in Critical Social Policy, (33)22-39Sinclair, R. and Jacobs, C. (1994) Research in Personal Social Services: The experiences of three local authorities. A Report to the Department ofHealth. London: HMSO.

Smith, J. (1995) Social workers as users and beneficiaries of research: a report of a project funded by the ESRC. Social Work Research Centre: University of Stirling