All decisions affect our futures in some way. But how can you make sound decisions in a field where the only thing constant is change? That’s the situation many community-based organizations must stay on top of in order to ensure critical success outcomes that are transforming the child welfare system to a child and family well-being system.
One of the tactics that informs effective service transformation is trend analysis, which can be a powerful tool in strategic planning by creating credible illustrations of what the future might look like. Based on that, child welfare leaders and their cross-sector partners can align community priorities and resources to reform child welfare by sustaining a shared family and community responsibility to keep children safe, as analyzed in the 2021 Trend Brief.
Designing Useful Trend Inquiry
Before searching for the best trends data that can inform activities like strategic planning, risk assessment, and opportunity mapping, it’s helpful to first understand the origin of trends information that can be useful to child welfare organizations. The typical methodology is based on two types of research: primary and secondary.
Primary research is first-hand research using methods like interviews with consumers and participants, employees, community leaders and advocates, academic subject matter experts, regulators, policymakers, funders, and other stakeholders in the child welfare ecosystem.
Secondary research uses available data and information found in reports and databases from diverse industries, which can be used as sources for trend determination. Examples can include demographics and other census tract information, local asset mapping, state and federal child welfare data (e.g., Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System [AFCARS]), and more.
Although there are many complexities to thorough trend investigation, the essential process is about asking the right questions about the right things. These can roughly be divided into three areas, with examples of questions below:
- Identification of trends: What are the trends we should follow? Are there any associated systems and disciplines we need to understand better before determining trend relevance?
- Analysis of the effects and possible projections: In which directions can a trend lead? What impact can a trend have on our strengths and weaknesses? Can we expect more or less support from partners and collaborators?
- Analysis of the implications: What do these trends mean for our community? How will family well-being and child safety change as a result? Do we have adequate organizational resilience in relation to this trend?
Understanding the Field with the 2021 Trend Brief: Primary Research
Both an art and a science, the ability to synthesize primary and secondary research requires a lot of knowledge, experience, analytical objectivity, and creative thinking. An example of primary research is from Tom Woll of the Strategic Change Initiative and Bill Martone of WPM Consulting, who jointly develop an annual trends brief for child welfare leaders. Pulling from their pool of experts, consulting collaborators, and advisors, Woll and Martone typically interview around 300 people each year through a Delphi-like method resulting in an end-of-year brief that can be used for the subsequent year’s strategic planning. In early 2020, the partners began their usual trends identification cycle. Then a global pandemic hit.
Download the 2021 Trend Brief to spark your strategic planning.
“Our approach for developing the 2021 Trends Brief was different,” says Woll. “Bill and I weren’t traveling, though we were still consulting via phone and Zoom. We knew that 2020 would be a game-changing year, so we changed the focus of our efforts. Each of us turned to about 20 of the leaders who had been expertly advising us through the years and asked them to help us deconstruct the events of 2020.”
Woll and Martone note that the major differences between ongoing annuals trends and 2020 events were very strong pivots toward:
- Incorporating equity, diversity, and inclusion at individual, organizational, and sector levels
- Responding to the implementation challenges of the Family First Prevention Services Act
- Installing trauma-informed principles and practices throughout all levels of an organization
- Redesigning the ways to train, support, and ensure the safety of child welfare and social services staff during the ongoing pandemic response and recovery
- Exploring the limits and possibilities of remote service delivery
“Our field is rapidly becoming much more family-focused and much more community-focused,” Woll explains. “The emphasis on creating a change-ready workforce is and has been very strong. We must be able to change our organizational cultures to allow us to keep up with the rapid pace of change. The need for everyone to expand their funding sources and their service offerings is also very strong. And we are all being called upon to develop proactive mission-driven business models that our staff can understand and agree to join with us to become our full partners in the development of effective, collaborative responses to emerging community needs, especially family needs that are growing due to the impact of the pandemic.”
Woll and Martone also emphasize the movement away from traditional patterns of leadership and toward the adoption of change leadership methodologies, part of which includes established analysis and forecasting cycles of emerging trends in the field. Both consultants are fostering the associated skills and capacities which they recommend that organizations become competent in within three years.
Child Welfare Ecosystem: Secondary Research
In addition to considering megatrends (i.e., a major movement, pattern or trend emerging in the macroenvironment), it’s recommended that child welfare leaders regularly consult data from these aggregated sources for context on their local trends, as well as to understand how other communities in the U.S. are faring with common indicators. Examples include:
- 2020 KIDS COUNT Data Book. The 31st edition of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's KIDS COUNT® Data Book describes how children across the United States were faring before the coronavirus pandemic began.
- Child Welfare Outcomes. Children's Bureau research on child welfare issues includes a series of annual Child Welfare Outcomes reports to Congress. These reports include data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS).
Getting the Most Out of Trends and Scenario Development
Since no one can tell the future with 100% certainty all the time, developing robust scenarios can help bridge present circumstances with future requirements. The range and value of organizational opportunities based on trend analysis depend on scenarios that should include most of these criteria:
- Plausible: Logical, consistent and believable
- Relevant: Highlighting key challenges and dynamics of the future
- Divergent: Different from each other in strategically significant ways
- Challenging: Questioning fundamental beliefs and assumptions
By evaluating relevant trends compiled through primary and secondary research and using the analysis to explore governance and operational scenarios, the ability to create achievable pathways to a transformative child and family well-being system is strengthened.