Review: Turning Over Turnover: Thinking Systemically about Worker Retention in Texas’ Child Protective Services

Child protection

For a method that purports to tackle real-world problems, practical examples of systems thinking in action are elusive. Refreshing, then, to read a special edition of the Cornell Policy Review on systems thinking, which presents accounts of the systems thinking craft in a readable and digestible form.  In the interests of better policy, Cornell Institute for Public Affairs Fellow Harrison Speck makes some headway in understanding the question of why child protection case workers in Texas do not always stay long in their jobs (paper and video).

Child protection caseworkers have a tough job, supporting families in crisis but all too often having to resort to forcibly removing vulnerable children at risk from their homes to various kinds of foster or out of home care. This is the sharp end of social work. So it comes as no surprise that workforce churn is high. Speck cites a churn rate in Texas of 40% after 2 years; here in Australia it is similar.

Speck’s approach demonstrates some useful practices for the systems thinker. Firstly, he tackles a demonstrably wicked problem, the enmeshed and convoluted causes that drive worker churn in an industry in which protecting information about workers and clients is paramount. It’s a persistent and costly problem worthy of investigative effort.

By drawing a meta-map (a diagram of factors and relationships) he explicates obvious negative feedback loops common to other workforces — caseworker turnover inhibits the success of child services agencies, breaks continuity of care, lowers collective staff capability and costs the State money. Efforts to stem turnover have demonstrably failed. One such intervention, a set of incentives including better working conditions and a bonus for workers, had an opposite impact — a 7% increase in turnover the following year.

Other negative feedback loops emerge. When a worker leaves, the workload on those remaining increases, resulting in decreased performance on a case by case basis, leading to poorer case outcomes, higher stress levels and increased worker dissatisfaction. New staff take a long time to gain the experience needed to become effective, so capacity uplift via recruitment is subject to a large delay and other side-effects. Speck concludes that policies targeted purely at improving worker conditions and the kinds of outcomes measured by the State have been ineffective because they ignore key actors, namely the clients, the public and the overlooked impact of individual and public perceptions.

Speck’s revised meta-map includes these, exposing a new loop, from caseworkers and clients to the public perception of outcomes via word of mouth and the media. Public perception, and the State’s response (or lack of it) is a powerful influence on caseworker’s sense of professional satisfaction and well-being, two of the primary factors in influencing their decisions to come to work each day.

Public perception sways decisions made by state government and the agency, but it also affects every other actor in the system. The relationships revealed through the network of relationships and perceptions promoted by systems thinking demonstrate that the negative public perception of CPS [caseworkers] has the potential to drastically impact turnover in a variety of ways.

Public perception shapes the tone of the stories that the media publish, so each influences the other. When media pick up child welfare failures because ‘tragedy makes more compelling narrative’ they (hopefully unintentionally) erode the confidence of the workforce, directly and indirectly through family, colleagues and friends. Clients’ mistrust of the workers and agency increases, and a multi-part negative feedback loop leans heavily on the unwitting caseworker. This is an insightful finding.

So what intervention?  The author suggests that the feedback cycle cannot be reversed but the message could be.

If the public witnessed instances of positive outcomes of casework on a regular basis, public perception might shift from disdain for to admiration of caseworkers. The effect of this shift in the public’s mental models could potentially have a profound impact on turnover specifically and casework outcomes more generally.

Caseworkers might benefit from their status as civil servants through personal interaction and pride. Clients might view caseworkers more as partners, as opposed to an antagonistic relationship, helping clients through a difficult time in the family. Child services might attract more social workers, and experienced workers might feel empowered to help shape the habits of new caseworkers, providing a more positive and consistent work environment.

So what has systems thinking contributed here? In a nutshell, previous analyses of the caseworker churn problem had used too small a scope, missing some of the negative feedback loops in the wider system. By expanding the context and including all of the actors, these loops emerge. Like most systems thinking stories, there are insights to be had, but no proof. We don’t know that the proposed intervention to influence perceptions will work. Or how the system might react. The only way to find out is to try it.

That the author argues for spending money on advertising, not case worker conditions, staff numbers or agency services, might not be palatable to the State. But the option is different to those policies and interventions that have not worked to date. In conjunction with other controls and influences, it could alter the nature of the key feedback loop from destructive to reinforcing.

Speck’s use of systems thinking effectively illuminates new forces overlooked in earlier policy work.  It generates a new, viable option for intervention based on systems insights. Recognising and nudging feedback loops is classic systems thinking practice. And intriguingly, the intervention is counter-intuitive — to increase caseworker retention, just add a pinch of positive publicity.

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