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Managing societal and institutional risk in child protection

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Public sector services have been reshaped by two interacting factors: the growing dominance of risk management and the growing demands for transparency and accountability. For the caring professions, these have provoked radical reform. Using the child protection service as a case study, this article explores the impact of the changes on a service that deals with conflicting risks and has a poorly articulated knowledge base. Drawing on Rothstein et al.'s distinction between societal and institutional risks, it is argued that difficulties in managing societal risks are creating serious institutional risks. The latter are then being prioritized in the way the system operates. The preoccupation with such risks has been translated into concerted efforts to formalize the work of front line practitioners to make it transparent and auditable. Although done, in part, with the good intention of spreading good practice standards, this formalization has gone beyond the evidenced knowledge base to the extent that it is creating a new picture of “good practice” that omits significant dimensions of work and is distinct from measures of children's safety or welfare. Moreover, the process of formalization acts as an impediment to knowledge development in disciplines where such learning is urgently needed.

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