CYC-Online 120 FEBRUARY 2009
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Administration of a Children's Organisation: Concepts and Guidelines (3)

Geoff Pawson

Agency services

Three elements are considered integral in the delivery of agency services: standards, accountability, and evaluation. These elements help to define the basis of quality that are essential for organizational well-being, community credibility, and client safety.

The dictionary definition of standard is “the measure for judging conformity or excellence.” A standard of practice for social workers can be defined as that level of care ordinarily expected of a competent social worker, so that the public is assured that a social worker has the training, skill, and diligence to provide professional services (Canadian Association of Social Workers, 1994). The application of standards to the operations of a human service agency can be used as a means of attaining competence in the delivery of services.

Standards are dynamic, and they constantly change based on new information. The Child Welfare League of America (1982) notes that standards act as a stimulus for change and a goal for improving existing services. They also note, however, that constant revision of standards is necessary based on new knowledge and experience in a variety of related fields.

Standards become the basis of quality-assurance programs. Service standards are measured by these programs to ensure that the purpose of a service is carried out in practice, that the service is required, and that the recipient of a service is receiving the benefits expected. Demands for quality-assurance programs are increasing, and CEOs who are leaders in the field are strongly committed to this concept as a means of judging productivity and of adapting existing services.

Accreditation is a means by which standards can be formalized and judged by an outside organization that is authorized to review the work of a human service organization. The process used by the Council on Accredita tion for Services for Children and Families (1992) involves two steps: an intensive self-study and an on-site review by competent peer professionals.

Accreditation, where all aspects of an agency are reviewed internally and changes made as required, can be enlightening. It can also be empowering, when staff receive the final results of the on-site study and their work is affirmed by outside authorities.

Quality agencies are recognized by their unrelenting commitment to standards. Agency leaders who uphold the standards of their teams are the framework upon which agency success is established. It often takes years for standards to come into place, and much of this delay is based on the staff’s need for training and the opportunity to experience the impact of standards on quality. Once standards take hold, they must be maintained by managers with an ongoing tenacity that may not be appreciated or accepted as relevant by staff.

The educational services of the Ranch Ehrlo Society exemplify the application of standards. The school was established as an alternative educational program, and although it used the basic curriculum for students wherever possible, the application of these materials was difficult. All the students who attended this service had serious behavioural problems, and most of the students were several grades behind academically, or were illiterate, upon admission.

The director of education and the principal who headed this program were committed to an alternate educational system and to the establishment of an individual educational program for each student that encompassed both learning and behavioural goals. However, key people within Saskatchewan's department of education were opposed to the concept of any type of alternate school system and placed a series of roadblocks in the way of developing this service to full potential. After years of building a program based on standards and after changes of key bureaucrats in government, this service has come to be recognized as an accredited, independent school. At a recent evaluation, the Director of Independent Schools wrote: “The networking among the (two systems) was viewed as highly desired and commendable ... While each of the systems has benefitted, those being served have clearly profited the most” (letter from A. Postnikoff to Ranch Ehrlo, December 18, 1992). Standards of service do work.

Accountability is defined as responsibility for tasks or duties to be performed within defined units of authority to carry out such functions. Accountability is a process that accumulates in responsibility from the bottom to the top of an organization. Each person in an organization is responsible for his or her job, but the managers of services assume cumulative responsibility for the entire team. The accountability burden increases as one assumes a senior organizational role, but the responsibility of the position may not change (Carver, 1990).

The latter concept must be clearly understood by administrators. In a children's agency, the line worker who is handling a tantrum with a seriously disturbed child is carrying out a task of primary importance, but the accountability requirements may only involve writing a report, debriefing the incident, and discussing the matter at a case conference. The supervisor may review a number of such incident reports from different workers and is therefore more heavily encumbered with accountability requirements. But the responsibility within the total system is the same, although the response of the supervisor will be different, based on a wider view of services and a larger control of resources that could result in training initiatives, more staffing, or other solutions to counteract the perceived problem.

Responsibility and authority can be delegated, but accountability rests with the administration and cannot be delegated (Bittel, 1989). Policies and procedures that are routinely completed by staff must be in place to handle problems. If problems arise, the supervisor who delegated the responsibility must stand accountable, not the line staff. Part of a quality service is the protection of staff through well-regulated accountability practices and procedures.

Most human service agencies have different levels of accountability and different ways of responding to their constituents such as families, funders, or the larger community. Administrators who use accountability programs to share case responsibility are often rewarded with legitimation and trust. Mechanisms to review critical incidents, for example, can be used to inform people outside the organization about difficulties with a particular client and about the programs of service being used to respond therapeutically in the case. These processes can educate the outside persons and can help to establish a problem-solving environment in which they are invited to participate.

A negative example of the failure to build accountability mechanisms into an agency is the Wilderness Challenge program developed by the Ranch in 1973. This service was designed as a wilderness treatment centre for incorrigible and violent youth in danger of being transferred to adult court as juveniles.

The program was conceptualized as a nurturing, adventure-oriented experience that included teaching youth survival techniques in the wilderness. Using the Outward Bound model, it was anticipated that these young men would become empowered with their newly found knowledge and would learn cooperative group skills, leading to interdependent relationships.

The workers who initially participated in this experimental project for 6 youth were well trained and highly imbued with the philosophy of the agency. The CEO left for a two-year sabbatical after the program had been operating for one year. Upon his return, Wilderness Challenge had grown to 80 youth, but there had been no changes in the supervisory structures or accountability processes to adjust to the high numbers. Complaints of abuse were laid shortly after his return, and a full judicial inquiry was conducted.

The end result of this experience was closure of the Wilderness Challenge program by the agency, release of the senior manager and most of the staff, and a dramatic decline in agency revenues. This problem nearly caused the Ranch’s closure, but after many months of hard work, credibility was restored and the agency survived. The results of the official inquiry are filed in the CEO’s office as a reminder that quality services require constant monitoring and ongoing accountability. Such processes affect the total organization: board, staff, and youth.

Planning is a continuous process for any human service organization at the board, administration, program, and community level. The purpose of planning is to project the anticipated future directions of an agency in a logical and orderly fashion, despite the uncertainties of such a process, so that no important factor or influence is overlooked. The process of planning usually involves six steps: determine the objectives, evaluate the environment, establish the procedure, set a timetable, assign responsibility, and develop a business plan (Bittel, 1989).

In many cases, planning is affected by variables outside the control of the agency, resulting from the rapidity of the societal change processes and the interrelatedness of social structures (Bauer, 1973). This requires mechanisms to offset external influences through early detection of emerging influences, thus providing opportunity to adjust plans as required. In human service organizations, detection methods used by administration often include participation in joint agency projects, conferences, political forums, and networking. Information is the basis of planning, and administrators who are isolated cannot take an effective community role, nor can they assume a dynamic leadership position within their organization.

All planning can produce unintended consequences that may be costly to the organization, may provide unexpected benefits, or may create unanticipated inversions to the original purpose (Bauer, 1973). Part of administrative responsibility is avoiding adverse consequences through the careful analysis of information and using imagination to contemplate the range of possibilities that could flow from particular actions. Planning demands a reasonably long-term perspective that is highly ordered and creative.

For every plan that is developed based on a prediction of the most probable state of affairs, an alternate plan needs to be conceived in case the environment changes and impacts negatively on the organization. But once a direction is taken, every effort should be made to ensure the success of the direction being achieved. For example, an agency that plans program expansion based on the assurance of one public funder is in jeopardy, because governments tend to be directed by short-term interests that quickly shift. Once a program is operating, other funders need to be secured, so the financial base of the agency’s service has a more solid foundation.

Planning needs constant feedback and evaluation, so adaptations can be made during the implementation phase of the plan. The notion of adjustment of goals comes from an approach to planning that stresses the plurality of future states and the consequences of one’s action (Bauer, 1973). Without evaluation, plans become static, forgotten documents or barriers to achievement. A dynamic plan that is constantly reassessed relative to the philosophy, purpose, and values of an agency can be a powerful administrative tool.

Planning can be used to chart a direction for an agency based on the vision of a CEO or senior agency staff, and it can be a vital link in creating programs at the line level. At every level of the organization, the elements described above are applicable to the work of staff.

An example of planning at the line level occurred in the area of crafts and recreation at the Ranch Ehrlo Society. One of the concerns of the agency was that youth were confined to participating in activities around which the staff had competence. The agency began to hire specialists for two hours per week to deliver a varied range of sports and craft programs. Today, over 70 different programs per month are provided to youth resident at the Ranch. Childcare staff facilitate these programs, but the responsible specialists provide a range of creative programs of direct relevance to youth.

The development of this program was based on a variety of different experiences with community resources, and a number of models were tried before the agency committed to this direction. Once the plan was accepted, adequate resources were allocated. This system of delivering programs has become recognized as unique to enriching the services of residential treatment. Not only has this program proven to be extremely effective in serving youth, it has expanded the visibility of the agency within the community.


Administration and leadership can be synonymous, if all levels of the organization are aligned to deliver quality programs. Starting with the board of directors, these volunteers in a children's agency can provide strategic leadership. The CEO must enunciate a clearly defined vision that acts as a bridge between the board and staff. Accomplishments at all levels–board, administration, and staff–are directed to the delivery of quality programs based on the needs of clients and in response to key constituents.

When all parts of the organization are aligned around a common philosophy and purpose, it is possible to control the external factors impacting on agencies. Properly handled, these factors can be shaped and responded to in a logical, proactive fashion.

Administration is a major factor in achieving agency success. To be successful, administrators must assume leadership and must utilize the tools they have at their disposal. In a changing world, these tools must be adapted to new knowledge and information. This process is the excitement of administration and the basis of quality services.


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This feature: Pawson, Geoff. (1994). Administration of a children's organization: Concepts and guidelines. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 9, 3. pp. 11-26.

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