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‘It’s not them, it’s us’: the making of a child exploitation strategy

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Ben is a TCE Delivery Partner whose career has seen him work and lead across a range of children and young people’s services. He is strategic lead for improvement and innovation in children’s services at London Councils. In this blog, he reflects on his experiences of working with partnerships in local areas to develop a strategic approach to child exploitation.


You will all, no doubt, be familiar with the subtext of the break up line, “It’s not you, it’s me”, which actually means, “It’s you!” In the course of working with partnerships seeking to develop their strategic approach to child exploitation, I’ve been struck by a similar refrain, “It’s not us, it’s them”. In this case, however, there is no subtext, just a sense of frustration that other agencies are mis-aligned, don’t get it; are either insufficiently engaged or too domineering. What I have also noticed is that at some point in the development process there is often a breakthrough moment, when perspectives shift to become, “It’s not them, it’s us”. The ‘us’, in this case, is not an individual agency but the whole partnership; a recognition that all are involved in a shared endeavour. 

This isn’t a phenomena which is exclusive to child exploitation. I have observed it in strategic partnerships at various times, but it is particularly evident in areas of practice – such as child exploitation – which are emergent, complex and have a limited evidence base. When we are in unfamiliar territory, it is natural to be fearful, to hold fast to what we know and those to whom we are already closest. It is easy to misconstrue or impugn the intentions of those we ‘other’. These tendencies are amplified when there are strong external drivers in terms of inspection and regulation; where the stakes are high, as they are with child exploitation, and where there is significant political scrutiny on individual agencies and the whole partnership. It isn’t surprising then, that the starting point is often one of identifying a position in opposition to, or at least in relation to, that of other partners.

We know there are established principles, which should inform our approach to any strategy development in the public realm. Mark Moore’s Creating Public Value (1995), for example, provides a helpful guide to the requisite conditions to achieve public policy goals1. Establishing a shared vision, a future state which will add to ‘public value’ and which partners can coalesce around is critical. To mobilise towards this requires organisational capacity and alignment. It also requires support from those who can bring authority and direct resources towards the goal. From here the strategy moves towards the plan, which identifies the specific objectives and related actions which will make this vision a reality. My colleague, Tony Saggers, maps this process of strategy development here

Perhaps less well described are the behaviours and psychological processes which underpin successful partnership strategy development. In the course of the TCE Support Programme, we are increasingly recognising the foundational significance of behaviours such as leading with care, holding space to engage with complexity and uncertainty, and being able to recognise that child exploitation requires us to deal with multiple blurred boundaries (Joining the Dots). 

What I have seen in many of the Bespoke Support Projects and experienced in working on strategy development in other complex and contested areas of practice, is that, if properly attended to, the process of strategy development in itself provides a means of overcoming these barriers between partners and unlocking collective potential. 

Just as the process of assessment with children and families can in itself be part of the intervention, so it is with partnerships. The act of coming together to systematically approach a shared challenge – the process of asking questions, being curious, identifying needs and strengths – is often as important and powerful as the strategy identified at the end. The development phase both starts the change process partners are working towards and creates the conditions that mean the ultimate strategy has the best chance of succeeding.

Our learning from the TCE programme suggests that partnership strategy development requires some core ingredients. A starting point is a mandate to review and, where necessary, reform current arrangements. The more explicitly this mandate is given by those ultimately accountable for the partnership’s activities, the more effectively the work will progress. Thereafter, those tasked with strategy development need to commit to make time together to systematically unpack issues, which are typically only ever touched upon in the course of routine partnership meetings, and to invest in the process. 

Once this strategic frame is established, there is a set of key components that will support the development process. These can be summarised as:

Creating space to share and learn together: this provides opportunities to name barriers and reflect honestly on the state of practice and the partnership. This means creating an environment where individuals can admit to vulnerability on behalf of themselves, their agency and the collective.

Knowledge exchange: to support a common level of understanding. New areas of practice can encourage a hierarchy of those ‘in the know’ and those left feeling vulnerable about their expertise. This means drawing on subject matter expertise where appropriate, but also appreciating that child exploitation is constantly evolving – we all need to remain open and alert to what may come next.

Effective facilitation: ideally this will be external, or at least neutral, such as is provided in Bespoke Support Projects through the TCE delivery team. This work takes persistence; it is easier to shy away from sensitive subjects than to work with ambiguity and acknowledge professional vulnerability. Skilled, impartial facilitation provides a platform for, what can be, difficult conversations. 

Adopting a mixture of methods: including, at times, working with individual agencies rather than partnership groups, to ensure that people feel that they have been able to speak their truth. 

Explicitly attending to behaviours and the culture: there is no ‘right’ in terms of what a strategic document tackling child exploitation should contain, but there is a stronger case to say there might be a ‘right’ in terms of how we approach and model strategy. Shifts in culture, and in partnerships, are strengthened by modelling specific – constructive – behaviours. This has a particular pertinence in tackling child exploitation; we have to explicitly eschew, rather than mirror, power dynamics and coercive and controlling behaviours.

When relationships have been strengthened, through this process of working together to shape a strategy, partners are better able to recognise that they are engaged in a common endeavour, for which they are all equally responsible. A strategy document does not in itself change practice or change the experience of children. However, a strategy founded on a process which has laid bare the weaknesses and identified the strengths across a partnership; which has built new bonds and a common purpose between partners, will have a much greater chance of improving outcomes and experience for children. 

I’m sure many people will recognise the feeling when strategic partnerships move into their most productive phases; something clicks. What is increasingly evident is that that ‘something’ isn’t the result of fairy dust. It comes from having created the conditions, having invested in your partners and in shared development activity, and through each of us leading with care to achieve a common goal. Once you have made that investment as a partnership, and brought together the necessary ingredients, you just need to trust the process.

Next time you find yourself saying, “it’s them, not us”, ask yourself could it actually be ‘you’, as an individual or agency? If it is, can you take the lead in making it about ‘us’?


1Moore, M, (1995) Creating Public Value, Harvard University Press

Joining the Dots
Our collective knowledge of and understanding of child exploitation is still a developing field. Ideas and examples from across the sector and beyond may help bring a fresh new perspective or unlock a problem. The resources below are part of this rich conversation...
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