Action for Children supports over 370,000 children and families around 600 services, including children’s centres and nurseries. However, they’re currently facing funding cuts and many children’s centres across the UK are shutting down.
We helped the charity research and prototype a lightweight online chat tool that could enable the same vital relationships of trust between parents and practitioners to flourish, even as the opportunities to build these face-to-face diminished.
The tool, which uses affordable off-the-shelf software, is currently being piloted. It allows parents to ask a family support worker questions, continue a previous online conversation and book in follow-up sessions with the same practitioner.
Action for Children works to improve life for disadvantaged children in the UK—through fostering, adoption and early interventions to stop neglect and abuse. In 2016/17 its 7,000 staff and volunteers helped over 370,000 children, young people and families, and the charity had an income of £159.8million.
The charity currently delivers this work through around 600 services, many of which are children’s centres and nurseries — but year-on-year children’s centre income was down 9%, or £3.7M, in 2016/7 and expenditure reduced by £2.1m: many children’s centres face closure.
Action for Children joined CAST’s Fuse accelerator programme in March 2017. During the user research phase, the team started by honing the ‘problem definition’ (the first step of the service design process), and categorising existing knowledge into ‘what we know’, ‘what we think we know’ and ‘what we don’t know’.
Having identified our knowledge gaps, and which of our assumptions were untested, we then spoke to parents and family support workers at a number of different children’s centres in various locations.
Action for Children’s product manager and Fusilier, Rachael Townley, observed in an article for Digital Agenda, “If you’re about to embark on something similar, I’d definitely recommend starting today to build relationships with people who you can speak to and who can act as ‘gatekeepers’ to your service users. I genuinely feel like everyone I have spoken to so far has given me the most eye-opening introduction to our services, in a way that I never before quite understood the underlying – and not always immediately obvious – value they provide.”
We discovered that much of Action for Children’s early intervention work rests on relationships of trust developed between parents and staff when they meet face-to-face in nurseries and children’s centres. These trusted relationships allow practitioners to identify early stage or ‘hidden’ needs. Early intervention can prevent families facing more intense support and formal, emotionally and financially costly, interventions further down the line.
We realised we needed to find a way for Action for Children to continue to enable the same vital relationships of trust between parents and practitioners to flourish, even as the opportunities to build these face-to-face diminished.
Using low-cost, off-the-shelf software (Intercom), we designed and prototyped a light-touch online chat tool. It allows parents to ask a trained family support worker questions, then book in follow-up sessions with the same practitioner so they can continue the conversation as regularly as they’d like. This enables parents to build a relationship with the same practitioner, whom they can get to know and trust, as they would have done in the physical children’s centre.
The tool is completely free to use and tested very well with parents and support workers alike.
The tool is currently being piloted for three months in Sandwell and Cornwall. It offers support ‘as often or as little as you want, [providing] help with your child’s development, behaviour, feeding, family life, wellbeing, understanding your child, sleeping, and much more.’
You can read about the highly experienced practitioners on the app, all of whom pledge to be non-judgmental, inclusive, friendly and approachable. They make service users feel ‘comfortable, understood and helped’, by facilitating parenting support programmes, signposting families to relevant services and ensuring they get the help and support they need.
As one practitioner says, “I enjoy providing tools and strategies to parents, giving them the confidence to support and guide their child’s development and journey into adulthood.”
The early success of the Fuse prototype has encouraged the charity to dedicate resource to a new innovation/product team, who will create more user-led digital services. In point one of the charity’s three-year action plan it has committed to using ‘innovative digital technology to deliver services online and increase our reach and impact.’