Retrospective and reflection — our Digital Fund journey so far
It’s hard to believe we are in February 2021 already. With all the changes that have come with another national lockdown, it’s been an unusual start to the new year and we have lots of exciting plans for 2021 at The Children’s Society.
Back in December, we worked on our monthly insight submission to The National Lottery Community Fund Digital Fund (TNLCF) which was a valuable look back at our progress through 2020.
December also gave us the opportunity to virtually meet the other Digital Fund grantholders in our cohort at an End of Year Celebration and Learning Event hosted by Phoebe Tickell. This was such a valuable time to reflect on the year and compare our journeys — some very similar and shared experiences, and also those that differed to our own — and to learn collaboratively.
This blog post pulls together our December reflections. It follows previous posts on learning topics such as ‘What is essential?’ and ‘What’s been hard?’. It is part of a wider learning journey we are undertaking through the Digital Fund that Phoebe Tickell is guiding us through. These reflections are shared from the perspective of working in our Digital Impact team during the Covid crisis, but try to capture the wider organisational experience with an emphasis on our youth impact work.
Our Digital Fund journey so far
Early months and mobilising
Our Digital Fund journey started in September 2019 and in the first 4–6 months, we started mobilising our teams around the vision of our digital transformation as outlined in the bid. This included forming new groups, undertaking workshops and meeting other grantees in our cohort. We also met our support partner Shift who helped us develop our priority objectives. This was pivotal to ensure we started off using the right processes to define our project rather than following our original proposal to the letter. During this time, a number of leadership and strategic changes were also happening. Our new CEO Mark Russell joined and it was announced that The Children’s Society (TCS) would refresh its vision and strategy over the coming 12 months. The Director overseeing our Digital Fund grant announced his departure from TCS leading to a change in the senior sponsorship. These changes each created long-term opportunities for transformation, but meant the progress with our Digital Fund activities slowed during this period.
On 23 March, the UK was put into lockdown. A cross-organisational group was immediately convened to support our Children and Young People (CYP) services to adapt to support young people remotely. This ‘Digital-era Services Group’ (DSG) effectively began implementing the primary objective of our Digital Fund transformation project to support our practitioners working with young people. The DSG coordinated our IT, Quality Practice, Youth Engagement, Safeguarding, Digital, Data Protection and Design teams. Chaired by our Director of National Operations (Nerys Anthony), this group supported frontline services by providing the hardware, software, training and guidance needed to work remotely with young people. We focused our research on the organisation-wide change precipitated by Covid. Understanding how the crisis had shifted the organisation towards more digital ways of working, meant we could ensure the Digital Fund built on momentum, and met emerging needs. We shared this work and our learning through a series of public blogs (see links at the end of this blog). This has included research and the piloting of new software solutions in collaboration with frontline staff. Also, crucially, a focus on collaboration and sharing across the sector has allowed us to work with others with a common purpose to help young people during this time.
Planning and prioritising
More recently, and building on the significant uptake in services’ use of digital tools and approaches, our Children and Young People (CYP) Directorate has committed to deliver a ‘blended service offer’ for young people by default. This means offering services that young people can access via whatever combination of ‘channels’ (face-to-face, digital, phone, text and so on) is most effective. The implications of this move were explored in a road mapping session with Nick Stanhope held in September 2020. Our new brand, goal and vision (launched in September) commits us to strengthening the networks and ecosystems needed to fulfill our goals and we have commissioned Tom Brady, digital consultant, to review our digital governance to ensure it’s fit for purpose for the future. This digital governance review has commenced. We have developed a workplan which retains the original digital fund proposal’s emphasis on realising digital-era service delivery, operations and governance. We also added a specific focus on digital-era capabilities. As part of this workplan, we are initiating research into our current CYP operations and governance, and laying the foundations for transformative change to be implemented through our new strategy.
Reflecting on what we’ve achieved
Our Digital-era services group has benefited from the commitment of everyone in the group, showing a willingness to try things we haven’t done previously in our response to Covid. We undertook a ‘retro’ of the ways of working in the group to identify the things that have worked well to enable this pace of change, also what we want to leave behind and what we want to do differently. Our sense of a common goal came out as a big driver, also strong leadership, decision making and a sense of autonomy to get on the task at hand. This group continues to progress our digital change.
These strong foundations of the Digital-era services group are enabling us to progress the Digital Fund work plan. We are proud that we have created a sustainable new way of working that is enabling us to progress towards our goals. The current focus is on driving forward what service delivery looks like now in this lockdown world and in the future in a post pandemic world (which is unknown at the moment but feels like we need to make incremental steps). Building on our learning captured throughout the previous lockdowns we are working on confirming our blended service offer (combining face to face and digital tools) for the future. My colleague Adam Groves writes more about this in his recent blog. We will also develop good practice principles and guidelines on how we can co-design services with young people and develop a good practice library that is accessible and actionable across our services.
We are also proud of our open sharing and blog writing during this time and that is something we are continuing to do. We are actively doing this more and have received positive feedback from our peers and in the sector and made new contacts for collaboration by sharing our work in this way. We’re finding that this open sharing is catching. Through our leadership, wider colleagues in The Children’s Society have shared their work openly. For example, on the themes of young people’s voices (blogs by Jo Petty and Becky Fedia) and youth work (blog by Chloe Dennis-Green)
What we’d like to learn more about
We would welcome practical sharing of approaches of how things are done from other organisations that have been through this digital journey and how to achieve organisational culture shift. How do we ensure our core beliefs and norms support digital ways of working? How do we shift them where they don’t?
We hugely value learning from others about where they’ve had success with internal communication and how they have kept people engaged throughout a programme of work such as this. Planning what we communicate and when can sometimes get left behind while we are focussing on delivery and the task at hand. We are getting better at this and consciously sharing more externally but this feels quite ad-hoc and we reognise there is much room for improvement both internally and externally.
Learning new practical skills like user research, defining solutions, and working with partners and developers. Testing assumptions, agile methodologies, creating prototypes which solve a problem for users. There are some colleagues with these specialist skills but and we would benefit from more breadth of knowledge and experience.
Data sharing is always difficult in our line of work — learning how to undertake this effectively across the different partnerships we work with would be amazing and hugely beneficial to enable more joined up service solutions for young people.
As a large national charity it would be really positive to learn from small charities, how best we could support them — the approaches, techniques and most effective ways of working that would benefit them to enable us to evolve as more generous leaders.
We are always keen to hear other organisation’’s approaches to ensuring the voices of young people are heard and acted upon.
We have found it valuable as a team and also with a group of grantholders to reflect on the year gone by. It has allowed us to take stock and gear ourselves up for the year ahead. The external environment is fast changing in a way we had not ever imagined when we first undertook the planning for this work. It has set us challenges and we have had to adapted our thinking and ways of working to rise to these. If you would like to hear more, then please get in touch. We are intending to continue to share the monthly reflections that our insight gathering for TNLCF enables us to achieve.