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Eight leadership approaches making an impact at Cafcass

Cafcass, the UK's Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, represents 125,000 children a year in family court cases, ensuring their voices are heard and decisions are taken in their best interests. To provide an outstanding service, a culture of leadership runs through the organisation with a focus on talent, flexibility, transparency and accountability  

1. Practice leadership

"Practitioners are also practice leaders, showing conviction leadership on behalf of children"

Leaders in Cafcass focus on providing good to outstanding services to the 125,000 children a year referred to us through the family courts. This means focusing on the frontline at all times, so that leaders have enough management oversight to know what is going on and to take the right action when standards slip or when further improvements to practice standards can be made. All leaders in Cafcass focus on the frontline, including corporate and specialist leaders, all of whom interpret their role and function in terms of adding value to and supporting front line service delivery.

Cafcass invests heavily in practice leadership. All senior managers are practice leaders and this model of practice leadership extends across all management roles – this is our model of distributed leadership. We have invested in seven new heads of practice and more than 100 practice supervisors, who are supporting practice improvement throughout Cafcass. Our practitioners are also practice leaders in respect of their own cases, showing conviction leadership on behalf of children.

2. Leadership impact on children and families

"Joint leadership between operational managers and HR business partners ensures we recruit the right frontline leaders both for now and for the future"

Leadership in this domain is defining a good to outstanding level of service and teaching staff how to work consistently at that level. This means setting out clear standards in our Quality Assurance and Impact Framework and auditing work on a regular basis to ensure those standards are being reached. These clear standards support effective self-regulation and can be used to identify learning needs which can then be addressed. Cumulative improvements in grades (of the quality of work) means that more children receive a good to outstanding service.

Cafcass family

Our recruitment strategy is also robust enough to ensure that we employ good to outstanding new staff. This is an example of joint leadership between operational managers and HR business partners to ensure we recruit the right frontline leaders both for now and for the future.

3. The multiplier effect of distributed leadership, particularly on staff

"We have 200 plus staff on our talent management programme – one eighth of the Cafcass workforce"

Our commitment to invest in leaders and leadership is shown by the fact we have 200 plus staff on our talent management programme – Emerging Talent. This is one eighth of the Cafcass workforce. These staff are adding to our quantum of leadership impact through their job roles and portfolios. We aim for a multiplier effect, in which leadership impact resonates throughout the whole Cafcass staff group. Our ambassadors and champions, for diversity and for raising awareness of child sexual exploitation, are further examples of this high impact model.

For our practitioners, this means the organisation provides them with situational supervision at the point of need, good learning and development programmes, mentoring when new to the organisation, good support with their health and wellbeing, and security and stability in their work, which is crucial given its demands upon them. Developing such a large group of leaders also supports good succession planning for any role in the organisation.

4. Our leadership of the Cafcass culture

"Culture eats strategy for breakfast" – Drucker, 1985

Leaders in Cafcass work hard to strengthen the Cafcass culture, year after year. This includes modelling hard work and the importance of momentum but also supporting a genuine flexible working culture which we know benefits staff and allows them to be more effective in their work through being able to manage their workload and the rest of their life as a whole. We believe that good leadership ticks over in the background rather than being noisy and ever-present in the lives of staff. We believe that good leadership creates strong and reliable systems so that everyone knows what to do with incoming work. We also believe in clarifying the professional task for staff, so that it is clear, and so that they are not buffeted about by too many conflicting demands which can easily cause role confusion and overload.

5. Our leadership impact on courts

"We pride ourselves on responding positively to all requests"

Our leadership role in court is to be the social work adviser to magistrates and judges. This is increasingly important with more litigants in person in private law cases and more need for us to advise courts about case management and case progression, in what at times can be an emotional cauldron. We respond at short notice to requests from courts for help and we pride ourselves on responding positively to all requests. It is rare when we cannot assist. To maintain this level of response shows high leadership impact from staff at all levels every day around the country.

6. Our leadership impact on the Family Justice System

"We show leadership of the future system as well as the present system"

Leaders are members of the national Family Justice Board, the Adoption Leadership Board, the Family Justice Council and we chair one third of local Family Justice Boards in England (14 out of 42). In these roles, we aim to have a positive impact on national policy and local practice, through setting direction, motivating our statutory partners and taking our fair share of responsibility for difficult issues that arise nationally or locally. Our track record means that we are the go to agency to pilot reform proposals, and currently have a number under way. This shows leadership of the future system as well as the present system.

7. Leadership of good to outstanding services

"We take a strengths-based approach to support practitioners in getting to the right level"

Our aim in Cafcass is that all of our services – meaning front room, backroom and corporate services – are either good or outstanding, according to industry standards. We regularly audit, evaluate or benchmark each of our services against recognised criteria. The same aim applies to casework and services to children. We aim at any one time to only have a small number of cases and a small number of practitioners who are not reaching a good to outstanding standard on every case. We work with them, through a strengths-based approach, to support them in getting to the right level.

8. Professional leadership about the issues facing children on our caseload

"We only derive credibility for a national voice if our casework is good to outstanding"

Leaders work with ministers, senior civil servants, our important stakeholders and the national and local media, to raise the profile of particular issues, to suggest and then to work on changes to legislation, court rules, regulations and practice directions. While we cannot campaign, we do work within policy alliances from time to time to push particular issues into the spotlight when we feel the needs of a specific group of children warrant this. We link this back to our day to day service as we only derive credibility for a national voice if our casework is good to outstanding – that will always be our priority as that has the most leadership impact on an individual child.

Anthony Douglas is chief executive of Cafcass and was awarded a CBE in 2008 for his work in family justice and adoption

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