Scholarship across social work, public health, medicine, and affiliated professions recommends using evidence to guide frontline practice in child welfare organizations. Yet workers often may not understand the relevance of evidence for their daily practice, and may not be given resources/opportunities to incorporate evidence into their work. While diverse types of evidence (e.g., website-based research repositories, agency-based reports, evidence-based practice curricula) can be helpful for child welfare practitioners, less is known about how agencies can support evidence-informed practice. This abstract summarizes results from a study of frontline worker evidence use and how organizations may support it.
Focus groups and surveys studied the perspectives of 116 frontline workers in eleven private child welfare agencies in six states, in regards to evidence use. The research team collaborated with the agencies to identify workers providing foster care, residential treatment, and other key agency services. Depending on agency size, we conducted between 1-3 semi-structured focus groups in each agency. Questions explored types of evidence used by frontline staff; perceptions of most vs. least useful types of evidence; and how agencies supported evidence use. Transcripts were thematically analyzed by at least two coders using NViVo qualitative software and inconsistent coding was resolved through discussion and consensus achieved. Participants also completed a survey assessing different types of evidence use and perceived value of evidence use.
Focus group results suggest that the types of evidence most commonly used by frontline workers included: client data collected through reporting tools/instruments; agency data compiled through quality improvement efforts; and evidence-based practices or other external research evidence. Workers reported using evidence for different purposes, including informing practice decisions, persuading others, and supporting their understanding of frontline practice.
Workers also identified several barriers to frontline evidence use. For example, workers in multiple agencies described collecting data but never seeing aggregated results or being advised on how these data could inform frontline practice. Others indicated having access to agency data but not in a format that was directly useful for frontline practice.
Agency supports identified as facilitating frontline evidence use included technical infrastructure (e.g., management information systems), knowledge management infrastructure (e.g., quality improvement staff) and linkage-and-exchange efforts (e.g., research-practice partnerships with universities). Frontline staff emphasized the importance of efforts to make evidence more accessible and translatable to frontline practice (e.g., via data dashboards or guidance from supervisors). Strategic alignment of leadership and organizational processes was also identified as critical. Perceptions of organizational supports did not differ based on agency size.
Frontline staff identified a number of strategies for promoting diverse types of evidence and improving frontline practice and agency programming. The identification of sensible strategies for improvement is encouraging, particularly for less well-resourced agencies seeking to promote outcome achievement. A better understanding of frontline staff evidence use is important for promote its uptake in child welfare practice. Overall, study results provide insight into how managers may support evidence use by frontline staff.