Facilitated Collaborative Inquiry: Evidence Part 4/4

by Stephen Shimshock, PhD
Director of Systems-Data and Reporting, Casey Family Programs


This post is the final part of a four-part series on Facilitated Collaborative Inquiry (FCI). In the previous post (From Stories to Hypotheses) we explored how to engage staff in unpacking the stories behind the data, specifically data that showed a difference in permanency outcomes for a sub-group of youth. Additionally, we examined how to use the themes from the stories and the data about the stories to encourage staff to form hypotheses about the differences in outcomes. All this information was used to set a goal in the “X to Y by When” format. Staff can then engage in the process (typically over the course of 12-18 months) of testing their hypotheses by trying various strategies and monitoring progress in an effort to close the outcome gap for the identified sub-group of youth. In this final post we will talk about how an FCI cycle comes to a close. As staff test out and refine their strategies they are developing an evidence base, both of things that are working and things that may not be working as originally thought. These lessons learned are summarized in a structured report that can be shared with others.

Before talking about summarizing an FCI cycle, it is important to revisit the concept of organizational culture change. In the first post it was stated that while the goal of FCI is to improve outcomes for youth and families, an equally important goal is to develop a culture of “best practitioners.”

By engaging staff in every aspect of the inquiry process they naturally become more curious about understanding the underlying challenges affecting outcomes as well as more creative in their pursuit to find solutions to those challenges. As an FCI cycle comes to a close you should not only see changes in outcomes, but you should also see changes in the staff. You will hear it when they talk about their cases. You should see increases in their communication with each other and their partners.

One of the core aspects of TCOM is that we are in the business of transformation. Transformation shouldn’t be limited to the youth and families we serve, it should extend to all of us. The hope is that each person participating in the child welfare system becomes better at what they do. Social workers become better social workers, supervisors become better supervisors, evaluators become better evaluators, etc. The notion of a culture change is an important aspect to keep in mind when developing a summary report. The summary report will likely identify strategies that worked with the target group of youth; however, those strategies were used within a learning culture (or a culture of “best practitioners”) and they may not be as effective if used outside that context. We have to embrace that there isn’t one magic formula to eliminate the need for foster care. We need to employ a combination of “best practices” in the hands of “best practitioners.”

Throughout the FCI process there are several mechanisms to track progress over time. In the previous post we discussed the importance of staff developing a “cadence of accountability.” This is a short, regularly scheduled meeting where staff can talk through what strategies they are trying out, what is working and what is not working. In addition to the cadence of accountability we schedule regular check-ins with staff to document their progress (these can be monthly or quarterly meetings). The basic idea is to keep a running log of progress to help summarize the entire FCI cycle at the end. Since staff set a goal in the “X to Y by When” format, there is a clearly defined timeline for the FCI cycle. This doesn’t mean that all work comes to a stop; rather rigorous examination of the strategies and data can help staff learn how their hypotheses are playing out. This allows them to make decisions about whether they need more time to refine their strategies or if they have made enough progress to focus on a new area of practice.

We do have a more formal closing session, typically a full day focused on the overall measure of progress toward improving outcomes for the targeted group of youth. In the previous post we provided an example goal: “We want to increase permanency for youth who enter our program with five or more actionable items from 38 percent to 50 percent in the next 18 months.” Obviously, the closing session would occur somewhere around that 18th month and we would look to see if the percentage in permanencies increased, decreased or stayed the same. We use a similar story process, as described in the previous post, to examine the cases that had closed and look to find themes about strategies and interventions that worked.

The information from the closing session is incorporated into an FCI Summary Report. This report follows the four phases of FCI and describes how an office came to discover the group of youth having different outcomes than others; how they set a baseline and a goal for that group; how they developed a working theory and/or a set of hypotheses they could test over time; and, ultimately, summarized their lessons learned. It is important to have a structured format to the report, especially if you are working across multiple offices. This way readers could orient themselves to the structure of the report once, and then they could read about a variety of topics across many offices. Currently our summary reports are written in collaboration with our offices. Our hope is to transition to a place where the offices take on the majority of authorship and tell their FCI story with their own voice. In addition, we plan to make our FCI Summary Reports available to everyone. We are hoping to make our first one available by the end of 2017.

FCI is both a continuous quality improvement process and a systemic intervention. As mentioned, we want to find youth whom our system is struggling to serve well and improve the outcomes for those youth by relying on the creativity and expertise of our front-line staff, management teams, and collaborative partners (including youth and families). In addition to improved outcomes for our youth and families, we also hope to see staff (at all levels) getting better at what they do by creating and cultivating a culture of best practitioners.

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