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May 2018Vol. 19, No. 4Deeper Problem Exploration: Understanding Agency Needs to Get to Solutions

Written by the Children's Bureau's Capacity Building Center for States.

Child welfare agencies continually undertake efforts to implement new programs and practices to produce better outcomes for children, youth, and families. Effectively implementing new approaches and achieving sustainable change can be challenging. Applying a structured approach to implementation increases the likelihood that the overall change process, and any specific interventions, will succeed.  

Solutions are most effective when they address the true cause(s) of a "problem." A problem can be anything that needs to change to meet agency priorities. Deeper problem exploration occurs when an agency, in partnership with its stakeholders, systematically reviews key data and information to gain a clear understanding of an identified problem and why it is happening. Meaningful stakeholder engagement helps build a more comprehensive understanding of the identified problem and creates commitment to the full process of implementing and sustaining change. If the agency does not fully understand the underlying causes of the problem it is seeking to address, it may risk implementing the wrong solution, and the problem could remain or become worse. 

Once an agency has identified a problem it needs to address, one of its first steps is to develop a data plan to exploe the problem more deeply. The data plan guides how the team leading the change process gathers and examines existing and new data and information in a comprehensive and efficient way. A single source rarely tells the whole story, so when possible, the team should rely on multiple sources for quantitative and qualitative information. Analyzing and interpreting data involves looking at patterns, trends, and relationships. This helps verify the problem, describe under what circumstances the problem occurs, and identify who is affected.

Before moving into solutions, the team often needs additional information and analysis to identify contributing factors and determine underlying root causes of the problem. Factors are considered root causes when they appear to be the true sources of the problem. Root cause analysis (RCA) is a data-driven approach to determine why a problem occurs and identify opportunities to prevent or reduce it. Social service agencies are increasingly using RCA techniques that are common in other fields. Once the team has validated the root causes and explored the agency's capacity to address them, the agency is in a strong position to select and focus on one (or a few) cause(s) as part of its change initiative.

Deeper problem exploration serves as a powerful tool for understanding complex problems within child welfare systems and identifying solutions that can contribute to better outcomes. 

The following resources provide more information on deeper problem exploration using RCA: