MA Service Design , Royal College of Art
8,499 words 
Matthew Wraith


Highly Commended, RCA CHS awards 2018

An Opportunity for Service Design in UK Adoption Services

Adoption charity, Home for Good estimates the UK currently has roughly 4,000 children waiting for adoption, with a need for a further 9,000 foster families. (Home For Good, 2017) It has long been assumed that this deficit is due to a lack of willing and able adoptive parents. However, figures published in January 2017 show that “we now have more adoptive families than children waiting.” (Department for Education, 2017) So, what then could be the true reason for this deficit?

My dissertation asked what role formal Service Design might play in the, then impending, structural reform of UK Adoption Services and how it might aid fruitful and child-centric innovation. I used the Design Council’s eight principles for design thinking in the public sector as a framework.

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The Problem

The UK adoption system is highly fragmented with 184 adoption agencies recruiting and matching adopters for as few as 5000 children per year. (Department for Education, 2015) This network of agencies is comprised of 150 statutory Local Authorities and 34 independent Voluntary Adoption Agencies. (CVAA, 2017) The Department for Education argues “this is not an effective and efficient scale to be operating at and is likely to mean that costs are higher” (Department for Education, 2015) However, in addition to being a poor financial model, The Department for Education believe this fragmentation to be the route of many of the sector’s short fallings.

Adoption UK’s chief executive explains “Now we’re in a position where we’re no longer seeing a mismatch in numbers, it throws into quite stark relief that here is a group of children whom people don’t want.” (Louise Tickle, 2013) In 2015, 5,330 children were adopted from within UK care services with  76% aged between 1 and 4 years old. (Adoption UK, 2017) These children carry more complex needs than the babies for whom our traditional adoption services were designed for. Prospective parents are hesitant to take on such a commitment without proper support and their concern is justified. It has been estimated that a third of adoption placements get into extreme difficulties potentially leading to placement breakdown. (Alan Burnell, 2017)

The Solution

The Regional Adoption Agency policy paper outlined how these challenges might be overcome by combining geographically close Local Authorities and the greater inclusion of local Voluntary Adoption agencies. It invited the sector “to develop proposals that work for those involved and respond to the characteristics and needs of the local area”, self-organising to form Regional Adoption Agencies. New legislation would require all Local Authorities to engage with the programme. (Department for Education, 2015)

However, Regional Adoption Agencies are about more than efficiency, they’re about creating an environment for radical innovation. The current fragmented system stunts scope for broad strategic planning and leaves agencies with no capacity for developing specialisation or innovation. The Department for Education are clear that “structural change will not provide all the answers” and the reformed delivery methods outlined in the Regional Adoption Agency programme, are meant to “create conditions in which excellent and innovative practice can develop and flourish.”. (Department for Education, 2015) 

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My Recommendations 

It is vital that the Service Designers who successfully secure this project and similar projects across the UK allow their methodology to be influenced by the particular demands of UK Adoption Services. These are some of the recommendations that I made.

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