CYC-Online 34 NOVEMBER 2001
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Setting objectives for residential units

Writing twenty years ago, Robin Douglas and Chris Payne lay some important foundations for planning and management

The clarion call grows “"set your objectives", “clarify your goals", “declare your aims". To be involved in residential work today without learning at least something about objectives means your head is pretty deep down in the sand.

Why is this pressure to be clearer about objectives, aims and goals becoming so intense? We are told that once our “ends" have been determined, the “means" to achieve them will be easier to detect, work can be organised more effectively and resources used more efficiently.

A very valuable goal in itself, but one that appears to fall down so often in practice. The problem is that many people don’t really know what an objective should look like. Should it be about the individuals in your care? The things you do and the services you give? The people you work with and the jobs that need to be done to ensure you can give effective services?

The answer is obviously that objectives need to encompass all these things. To make sense of the whole range of activities that go on in residential establishments should be the goal of any objective setting exercise. To oversimplify the work is useless, but to concentrate on a once-and-for-all, comprehensive approach can become equally ineffective by ossifying the dynamic nature of residential care into a rational straitjacket.

Why do the objectives espoused by many different residential units often sound so similar? For example, the following statements of intent: to create a warm environment; to provide a caring home; to enable residents to achieve independence; and develop a responsive programme of care, appear in similar guises for many residential homes. There is nothing at all wrong with these sentiments, but they don’t give us much of a clue to how staff will behave in the unit and what a resident will find living there is like. What is necessary is a way to describe objectives that give some idea of the fundamental aims of the unit and also the flavour of how these will be achieved.

It is helpful to think of objectives in three groups:

Impacts, services and logistics link together to provide a clear picture of what has to be done, to get the residential unit working, to achieve the changes for the residents. For instance, staff need training (logistic), to run pottery classes (service), to enable the resident to feel a sense of achievement from making a bowl (impact).

When linking objectives of the three types together there will be many times when there is no neat fit between them, a logistic objective could lead to many service objectives, and in turn there may be a number of ways of arranging your services that will achieve a single impact. But if all the activities in any residential home are directed to some ends for the benefit of residents it should be possible to indicate which service or logistic objective is being pursued, and whether they contribute towards an appropriate impact.

Staff in a unit for children in one London borough have been struggling to express and debate their objectives in this way in recent months and are making substantial headway in clarifying:

1. The impacts they wish to achieve with their current and prospective residents. A small group of staff have met representatives of education and local fieldwork services, local voluntary groups, the police and local residents, both old and young, to get their opinions on what should be done for adolescents and their families. The staff group, in conjunction with their management, have taken this information alongside their own ideas and ideals and have created a programme of objectives that they believe they can achieve. The department has decided that the general area of work will be with local adolescents and their families. The primary impacts will be concerned with enabling families to better contain their difficulties, reducing the conflicts between adolescents and their environment.

2. The present services and activities of the unit have been listed alongside those that they would like to provide or could provide with some modifications in their current skills or resources. Those services that appear to help achieve these impacts most effectively are then selected. Each area of activity is designed to contribute clearly towards the impact goals. Thus a “latch key" project provides services for youngsters at risk in the early evening, it provides them with a place to go and aims to help them with their social skill development in pursuit of the impact objectives above. Any service or area of activity that does not relate to the impact goals is questioned.

3. The logistics to enable those services to function are likewise identified and a similar amount of energy is being put into allocation of staff time, supervision, evaluation, and the objectives-setting exercise itself. The organisation of the latch key project above requires staff time and physical resources. These are allocated on the clear understanding that they are used to operate the services effectively to achieve the impacts. There is no expectation that all logistics will work effectively to create the best services to achieve the impacts above. A continuous evaluation of the unit’s work helps check progress towards its goals.

The outcomes of this work will be different from the objectives of most residential units in a number of ways: there will be a clear link between all activities in the units and its basic reason for existence – the youngsters it serves; the objectives will not be set and ignored, they are central to a continuing debate on the effectiveness of the unit and will be subject to change and modification as the work progresses; they won’t be “immensely respectable and dumbfoundingly vague" as in Peter Righton's memorable description of unit objectives; they will be simple, down to earth and subject to public scrutiny.

Finally, as a result of the substantial debates between workers, users, managers and local people, they will be accessible, understandable and make some practical contribution to the daily work of the unit.

Social Work Today 12(16), A Sharper Focus On Achieving Objectives.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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