Lab insight: using system dynamics in children’s social care


Jenny North | Deputy Director | @JayEeeEnn

Evidence & Users, Systems & Services 

Running through everything we do at the Lab is a desire to improve services for children and families. We do this by applying insights from evidence and data to the challenges facing organisations serving these people – and we complement it with user and practitioner involvement. We believe service design and improvement is strongest when it’s supported by science-based and user-centred perspectives.

But we don’t stop there. Services are crucial to outcomes for children and young people, and so are the (frequently messy) systems in which services are delivered. Looking at the dynamics of the system in which services, professionals, and people exist can give us insights into why things work, or don’t – and what you might do differently.

A Different Approach to a Pressing Problem 

Over the past year, we’ve been working with four local authorities in England, facing a common challenge – escalating rates and costs of children being taken into care. With these authorities, we’ve taken systems and used the tools of system dynamics to understand the causes and consequences of this, and how the dynamics of these social care systems may be better understood and managed.

Our new Lab Insight: Using System Dynamics in Children’s Social Care presents our early experiences with, and conclusions from this work. We hypothesise that the number of children in care is not solely determined by need– the largest missing explainer is the structure and behaviour of the system, including how services are organised, how staff behave, and the rules and procedures they follow. 

We’ve tested these hypotheses with our Local Authority partners and helped them get clearer on some of the ‘intangible’ factors that can increase pressure on staff and make it harder to do their jobs as intended. We’ve also helped them to identify and test, via computer simulation models, the system-level changes that could allow them to safely reduce numbers of children in care, or free up more resource to spend on early intervention and support.

What’s Next? 

The results of the work, including examples of some of these changes, are in the full brief – which you can download here, written by Shreya SonthaliaDaniel Ellis and Vicky Baker of our Systems Team.

It’s been challenging work as we grappled with both the tough realities local authorities are facing and using the demanding tools of systems dynamics to address these. One finding is that the computer simulation models are really valuable, but they’re most useful when combined with insights drawn from participatory workshops. This is becoming familiar territory for Dartington – data plus experience of users and practitioners equal real, actionable insights for improvement. 

Our systems approach to children’s social care is relevant to most authorities: the specific challenges in each authority may not be exactly the same, but the circumstances of almost all authorities are – severe cuts and increased demand. Our intention in the near future is to further share the elements of our work to date that can be applied more universally.

If you are a local authority interested in partnering with us to use the methods in your area – get in touch!