The COVID-19 crisis will have a profound impact on the outcomes of young people and families. It is likely to have increased the number of vulnerable young people – by increasing poverty, exacerbating child abuse and neglect, as well as child and adolescent mental health issues, and widening the development gap between economically disadvantaged children and their peers. Moreover, it has introduced severe challenges and disruptions to the delivery of vital services that many depend on.
One of the big questions is: how can local authorities, and others, best help these vulnerable young people in a world where we can’t even stand within two metres of each other? COVID-19, all at once, both introduces problems and hinders our best efforts to solve them.
The Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) is an independent charity and one of the Government’s What Works centres. We were set up to draw on the evidence to provide useful advice to decision-makers and other key groups, helping to make sure that effective services are available and used to improve the lives of young people at risk of poor outcomes. Our own challenge at EIF was to figure out how we can continue to pursue our core mission at this time, and support those working so hard in such unusual and concerning circumstances.
It became clear to us that those who design and deliver services, in their efforts to rapidly adapt to the constraints imposed by the current crisis, were increasingly looking to other ways of working and, in particular, to virtual and digital delivery.
These are services that can be delivered remotely, without any traditional face-to-face interaction. From our conversations with service providers, we found a range of adaptations taking place, including moving resources and content online to facilitate remote access, and using phones, messaging services, and video conferencing software to deliver sessions.
Amidst all of this rapid change, we picked up on some deep anxieties – would services that are typically delivered face-to-face translate well to these other methods of delivery? Would they still be effective and help those who need it most?
We decided that to play our part we needed to get a grip on the evidence and to share this with those who needed it. However, our standard approach – conducting a year-long systematic review of the evidence – would simply not cut it here, when people need advice right now, and this may all be over sooner rather than later.
We quickly realised that any meaningful work in this space would require a real shift in ways of working for us, just as local authorities and service providers are rapidly adjusting the ways that they work. This triggered an intense three-week effort, to gather as much information as we could on what works in virtual and digital delivery.
This culminated in our recently published report. We found that there is evidence that certain sorts of virtual and digital delivery have the potential to be effective (in some cases as effective as traditional face-to-face services) and we identified a range of evidence-based interventions and approaches that can support continuity in the current crisis.
Although it was clear there were concerns over the mixed quality of the underlying evaluation evidence, a clear and consistent set of messages did emerge which have implications for current practice:
- Adapt carefully – We shouldn’t assume that a service which is normally delivered face-to-face will work equally as well when delivered digitally. It is important to identify what the key components of your intervention are, to make sure that they are maintained in the new, adapted service, and to consider how they might respond to being delivered digitally.
- In particular, remote delivery introduces challenges for interventions that rely on building a strong, trusted relationship; the review identifies a range of useful, practical tips for doing this remotely.
- Prioritise personalisation, inter-activity, and professional support. Virtual and digital interventions that are tailored to the individual and involve regular contact with a practitioner are more likely to be effective. Those selecting services to deliver should bear this in mind, and those developing and adapting interventions should, where feasible, include contact between participants and practitioners.
- Pay attention to engagement. It may be more difficult to keep participants engaged in digital services compared to face-to-face services, so it is all the more important to develop a strong engagement strategy, and monitoring systems to make sure that interventions are reaching their intended recipients.
We are issuing a more hands-on offer to local authorities to provide practical support to their experimentation and evaluation efforts. We are all struggling to get to grips with this – so please get in touch with us and let us know how we can help.
Jack Martin is senior research officer at the Early Intervention Foundation