Bristol City Council: Uncovering the barriers to fostering

It’s not new news that the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting our city. Some of the ways are obvious: everything’s closed. Up until about a week ago, there were more joggers than cars.

Some of them aren’t so obvious.

As people began to self-isolate, shielding each other and themselves from exposure to the virus, the pool of people able to offer homes to foster children shrank. The number of children needing homes, obviously, didn’t.

The city needed more foster carers, urgently. But recruiting foster carers is a challenging task, even during normal times. People are bombarded with ‘marketing’ asks from all angles. It’s difficult to illustrate the success stories through case studies, because of safeguarding concerns, even though it’s those stories that are the most persuasive. And it’s incredibly hard to track what’s worked, because becoming a foster carer is a decision it takes years to make.

The need to recruit more foster carers was high up on the priority list when we got in touch with Bristol City Council to ask if we could help them with their coronavirus response. How do you do that persuading during a pandemic when we’re all much more cautious of our interactions with others than we usually are?

Well, it turns out you just need to ask people!

The council launched a social media campaign raising awareness of the increased need for foster carers during the current crisis. Within a fortnight, they’d had over 200 people get in touch, keen to follow up on the possibility of offering up their homes to foster children for the duration of the pandemic, or longer.

This was unexpected. (Although, once we’d done the research, it wasn’t a surprise.)

Our challenge

We always recommend going broad, with research projects. If you ask people about something specific, you’ll find out about that thing, but you won’t find out much else. You’ll have answers to the problem you’re worried about right now, but you won’t end up with any knowledge about the context it’s happening in. The next time you need the answer to a question, you’ll have to start again.

If you set out to explore the whole of an experience, to understand people’s emotions, goals, motivations, and concerns around it, you learn enough about that context to be able to apply your knowledge to your future problems, too.

It’s never a bad idea to take the time to properly understand the people using your service. That’s true even when the problem you thought you were going to have just… goes away. You won’t be able to engineer a pandemic next time you need to nudge people into action.

So, while the council’s fostering service fielded calls from people responding to their appeal, we rolled up our sleeves and set to understanding what it is that stops people from picking up that phone when there isn’t a pandemic.

What we did

We recruited foster carers, people who used to be foster carers, people who’d just decided to become foster carers, and people who were thinking about becoming foster carers but hadn’t made any decisions yet.

We recruited a broad range of participants because we wanted to figure out the difference between these groups:

  • Why have some people made the decision to foster, and some people not, even though it’s something they want to do?
  • Does the experience of people who have decided match the experience of people who are still deciding?
  • Is this a journey that everyone goes through the same stages on? If so, what are they?
  • What moves people between them?

The main aim of the research, after all, was to understand what would inspire more people towards the final, pick-up-the-phone-to-the-council, step. We’d been using words like persuade, but it quickly became apparent that persuading wasn’t what was needed.

As part of the interviews, we asked our participants to review some of the council’s existing comms materials. The people who’d already decided to become foster carers liked the persuasive, emotional stuff: it reinforced how right they were to make that decision. The people who were still deciding … didn’t. They said things like, “it makes me sad, I don’t want to look at it.”

A related lesson: beware of anecdotal feedback. You may hear good things about the materials you put out, because you’re only hearing from people who’ve decided to speak to you. There isn’t a natural way for everyone else to tell you: we don’t like this. We need other things from you, to help us make this decision.

Aside from the collateral review, in the interviews, we spoke to our participants about their questions, their concerns, their information sources – everything that fed into their decision-making process.

We found out what’s really going on in the (on average) three years it takes people to come to a decision about fostering. We got a solid handle on the things that nudge people over the line, and the things that hold them back. We got some clues about how to make that decision into a much easier one.

Via some pen-portraits, some mini-journey maps, and a whole lot of storytelling, we shared all that with the council, and left them with a really clear understanding of how they could better inform – not persuade – their potential foster carers: what do they need to know? What do they think they know? Which ways of getting the right information across are most effective?

These findings will apply both during this pandemic and when the world returns to something nearer normal.

These findings will apply both during this pandemic and when the world returns to something nearer normal. Jack Smith, Creative Manager, said: “this level of insight is invaluable in ensuring that our service and communications can attract and retain foster carers.”

Sharing the insight with public sector

Bristol City Council have offered to make the findings of this research available to other public-sector organisations. If you’re responsible for fostering or delivering services in your local area please contact us and we will arrange to talk you through the insight and recommendations.

Thank you

Thanks to Anna Carnibella, who donated her time to be an extra pair of hands on this project.

Thanks also to our research participants, who offered their time to talk to us about their experiences.