Implementation during a time of crisis: The critical role of trusting relationships

By Allison Metz

author-alison-metz
Allison Metz (biography)

Are there lessons we can learn from the current response of service systems which have galvanized into action to meet the needs of children and families during the COVID-19 pandemic? How does the response of service systems affect our hypotheses about how change happens at scale?

In my professional role providing implementation support to public service systems, I’ve observed these systems responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with urgency and agility. The urgency is to be expected, but the agility has inspired me.

The agility runs counter to accepted wisdom in implementation science that implementation takes time. Depending on the scope and complexity of the change effort, it can take up to five years for initiatives to reach full implementation. Implementation science cites common barriers to implementation including lack of stakeholder buy-in and available resources, plus contextual factors and competing demands.

Child welfare is one example of a public system that needed to quickly pivot to perform mission critical work with children and families during the pandemic. Many of the functions performed by child welfare systems – investigating child maltreatment, addressing food insecurity, providing in-home services, appearing in family court, protecting children and youth with pre-existing conditions, providing visitation and reunification services – are now more challenging than ever to implement. The impact of the pandemic on children and families, including an increased risk of child abuse and neglect, cannot be understated.

However, these systems have also rapidly responded to these new demands. For example:

  • technology has been developed to support visitation
  • protocols have been enacted to assess the health of case planners and families
  • public-private partnerships have been leveraged to ensure service availability
  • emergency plans have been developed and implemented.

Did the crisis necessitate implementation, thereby bypassing all of the commonly cited barriers?

I had a chance to ask leaders from child welfare systems in two major cities in the U.S. this exact question, and their response was that a shared sense of humanity and concern for children’s safety has facilitated rapid adaptations to their current ways of work.

Child welfare leaders noted that relationships were at the center of the fast paced changes they were making to respond to the crisis: “Everyone is in this together…when I make a call people ask immediately how they can help.”

While the crisis itself does not appear to be driving this rapid implementation, it has elevated the role of relationships, which may be the more critical mechanism for implementation. Surprisingly, relationship building has received less attention in the field of implementation science than behaviorally-based and top-down leadership strategies. Few studies have explored the role of relationships in depth, limiting our understanding of how trusting relationships can effectively be built and why they are important.

Trust plays a critical role in how agency leaders and practitioners vet and interpret information needed to make decisions. When trust exists, individuals engage in the risk-taking, learning and change required to support implementation efforts.

There are several ingredients in the relationship building process that have been described as both a contributor to and an outcome of trust. It seems the development of these ingredients has been accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example:

  • Collaborative decision-making is happening daily as stakeholders seek quick solutions to support families.
  • Communication is taking place at a high frequency and involves information exchange that is leading to shared understanding across diverse perspectives on how to solve rapidly emerging problems.
  • Stakeholders are demonstrating a heightened sensitivity to each other’s priorities to keep children and families safe.

The question is whether these active ingredients for building trusting relationships can be accelerated and sustained in a post-pandemic world. We know from clinical psychology that individuals feel more motivated by relationship-based support than they do by general support, such as financial resources. If this is the case, the field of implementation should focus on the strategies we can use to facilitate communication, collaboration and sensitivity in order to build the trusting relationships that seem to be at the heart of successful and rapid change efforts.

Existing research has demonstrated in both early childhood and child welfare service settings that trusting relationships can be built through specific co-creative implementation strategies including:

  • supporting co-learning rather than top-down or outside expert models
  • brokering relationships among disconnected stakeholders
  • co-designing implementation strategies with those who will deliver and experience these strategies
  • explicitly addressing power differentials so that families have a choice in how they respond to emergencies.

These strategies seem more important now than ever before. This crisis has highlighted the importance of relationships for successful implementation.

How can we avoid losing sight of the key role of trusting relationships in our post-pandemic world? What’s your experience been? Have you also found other factors to be critical?

To find out more on the importance of building relationships for implementation:

Metz, A., Louison, L., Ward, C. and Burke, K. (2017). Implementation support practitioner profile: Guiding principles and core competencies for implementation practice. Chapel Hill, NC: National Implementation Research Network, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA. Online:
https://nirn.fpg.unc.edu/resources/implementation-specialist-practice-profile

Metz, A. and Bartley, L. (2017). Co-creating the conditions to sustain the use of research evidence in public child welfare. Child Welfare, 94, 2: 115-139. Online:
https://www.cwla.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Metz_Bartley_94_2.pdf (PDF 490KB)

Yazejian, N., Metz, A., Morgan, J., Louison, L., Bartley, L., Fleming, W. O., Haidar, L. and Schroeder, J. (2019). Co-creative technical assistance: Essential functions and interim outcomes. Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice, 15, 3: 339–352. Online (DOI) (Open Access): https://doi.org/10.1332/174426419X15468578679853

Biography: Allison Metz Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist, Director of the National Implementation Research Network (NIRN), Senior Scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, Research Professor at the School of Social Work, and Adjunct Professor at the School of Global Public Health at The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, USA. She specializes in the implementation of evidence to achieve social impact for children and families in a range of human service and education areas, with an emphasis on child welfare and early childhood service contexts.

6 thoughts on “Implementation during a time of crisis: The critical role of trusting relationships”

  1. Thank you Allison for sharing. I’m inspired to believe that it is still possible to have similar responses when it comes to taking care of returning citizens. The importance if will and trust matter. Urgency, however is still illusive with this population.

    Reply
  2. Dear Allison,
    I just wanted to let you know that I see many similarities with a course I followed at the Collective Leadership Institute on stakeholder collaborations (https://www.collectiveleadership.de/blog/article/the-dialogic-change-model/), which put trust at the very core of successful collaborations.

    Maybe you can get inspired by their work, which seems so similar but in a different field, and get some more ideas for your own research?

    Best,

    Nele

    Reply
  3. Thanks so much for your comments. I agree that many contextual factors that often impede implementation have been suspended during the pandemic, making the way for quicker implementation. We also see new leaders emerging who may not have had the chance to make a difference in typical circumstances. I do think, though, that relationships seem central to the rapid response in many systems. It may be challenging to recreate the conditions that seem to accelerate the development of these trusting relationships in times of crisis. But I think we can learn a lot from the centrality and necessity of relationships for taking actionable steps in implementation and to spend more time on fostering relationships both now and in a post-pandemic world. I have always thought that implementation science did not pay enough attention to the critical nature of relationships in the work and this crisis has put a spotlight on that for me. Many thanks for engaging on this topic!

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    • Thanks for the reply, Allison. You convincingly argued that whereas in normal times implementations often have to follow hierarchical structures (if I understand the analysis correctly), now relationships and the trust associated with those appear to be crucial. I can only agree that it would be great if those would maintain their importance after this crisis. Perhaps this topic is related to the debate about whether in institutions like the universities relatively novel layers of middle-management have taken away responsibility and autonomy from those who actually do teach and research – with the response to a critical situation like this in fact being mainly dependent particularly upon this ‘lower’ level taking its responsibility and autonomy?

      Reply
  4. Very interesting observations and explanations of the unusual implementation successes we are witnessing currently, Allison: many thanks indeed. Your piece raises two questions to me. Is the implementation success perhaps sometimes realized because the coronacrisis has more or less disrupted usual routines and procedures, making it also acceptable to neglect some factors that tend typically to slow down implementation processes (e.g. privacy issues; political and community consultation; etc.)? If that were the case, would taking this experience to a post-crisis situation perhaps be difficult, although attending to relationships is probably still important? Your text also suggested that in times of crisis stakeholders in processes like these agree more than usual about ‘actionability’ being a criterion for success or evaluation of their work (cf. my ‘Imagination and Actionability in interdisciplinary research’, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/Keestra-Future-ID ). Does that concur with your findings?

    Reply

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