Understanding what goes on behind the scenes of an organisation allows you to appreciate its achievements and the operational scale that it has to work to. This is the striking realisation to be had when looking into the journey of the UK’s largest children’s charity, Barnardo’s, founded in 1867 by Thomas Barnardo.
He set out to provide homes and a basic education for disadvantaged children—this was a pivotal thread throughout the charity’s history that echoes through its work in the modern day.
The charity’s value of leadership has spanned the generations. One case is particularly visible among the data and insight team: in 2017, Remi Martins-Tonks brought his economics expertise into the charity’s fold in his search for a role that would fulfil his own values in alignment with those of his employer, job, and the team in which he works.
“The values on which Barnardo’s was established more than 150 years ago remain the same today. Last year, Barnardo’s provided essential support to over 357,000 children, young people, parents, and carers through more than 790 services and partnerships across the UK,” says Martins-Tonks.
“We provide vital support to children and families who need us most to help with a range of issues from mental health to child sexual abuse and children in care.”
Such motives extend beyond the requirements of Martins-Tonks’ role, supporting the backend operations of the charity to enable teams with data-driven insights and products. To understand how this is incorporated into day-to-day functions, it’s important to recognise how it can support the team’s overall function.
“The charity has changed over the years as it responds to the world around it and is moulded by the society in which it operates to provide services which people need today. But when we go back to the basics of what informed our founder’s work, which was about giving children the best possible start in life, then it’s just as accurate today. says Martins-Tonks.
Barnardo’s values are: “respecting the unique work of every person, encouraging people to fulfil their potential, working with hope, and exercising responsible stewardship”.
With the organisation venturing further into the digital era, data has been selected as a critical component of its ongoing strategy, allowing Barnardo’s to continue its vital work. With a legacy dating back more than 150 years, the charity is continuously evolving to incorporate more digital solutions that streamline the work of other teams, therefore encouraging the wider use of data to carry their work forward.
“You can’t really take your foot off the pedal at the moment. At Barnardo’s, we’ve done a few things,” Martins-Tonks says. “Firstly, we’ve appointed a new head of emerging technology, who is a peer to me. Their specific role is to do with the digital trends and how we get the most use out of them.”
An example of this application is aligned with continuous improvement, which resulted in the adoption and wider use of systems like robotic process automation (RPA) to uncover data and insights at a lower level. As the team adheres to this principle, a number of apprenticeships have taken on critical roles within the team, learning areas such as data analytics, data science, and AI and machine learning.
“We’re in the process of refreshing our digital and data strategy, which is going to focus even more on future digital trends, now that we’ve got a more solid foundation to build upon,” Martins-Tonks explains.
Training and career development is indeed a key part of the charity’s strategy for all-round social support, which, in turn, has a profound impact on its ability to help and support children, young people and families in the UK. The end point for delivering value through data is down to the product teams, enabling various teams to reap the benefits of its in-house data products.
“We’ve got one team that is focused on creating data products for children’s services and one on support services—building products for our finance, HR, recruitment, and the property and facilities teams. We're also about to set up a product team focusing on Barnardo’s Trading company.”
It’s all well and good having teams for data and products in place, but how can we understand the work that goes into their products behind the scenes, as well as the effect they have on the charity and the people it helps?
Classification of the two can be complex, but to understand them, it’s crucial to assess the teams’ data purview: across all areas of the charity, data is becoming firmly embedded—though the application, uses, and outcomes depend on the team or function it informs—collecting information across a range of parameters, not only informing what each team needs at their fingertips via a dashboard, but assessing different measures of success to determine next steps.
As Martins-Tonks explains this, he also provides an example of a recent data product designed to aid the mental health support which the charity provides. “The feedback that we’re getting from that data product is that it’s saving them time, because they’re not having to run reports manually and do things in Excel.
“This means that our teams can spend more of their time helping children and young people. Supporting those teams allows them to consider who’s been referred to the service and subsequently plan their delivery based on the person’s requirements. It also means we can begin analysing our outcomes data and truly understand the impact these services make.”
A culture of education and innovation
Ingrained into the organisation is its passion for giving children and young people the best possible start in life, but having an educational culture means the benefits are twofold. From an employment perspective, Barnardo’s prides itself on supporting the careers of its team members, and this has a knock-on effect on their commitment to the cause and the outcomes they produce.
As part of this educational culture at Barnardo’s, it works to ensure that all new or existing employees embody the charity’s values in everything they do. This is especially noticeable in Martins-Tonks’ data and insight team—it’s all about reflection.
“I always make sure I mention the importance of learning—and that’s learning by experience. That means working on something, delivering on it, and then reflecting: what did you achieve, what could have been improved, and what you'll do differently next time,” says Martins-Tonks.
“It’s also part of a wider data culture. If colleagues are supported to learn, if they’re curious and confident about the data they’re using, that’s really important for enabling things to improve.”
The in-house development programme is what allows teams to advance their careers through Barnardo’s, which seems to be the major driving factor for some of its employees.
“The majority of people I speak to are generally motivated by learning and want to do more; they want to be able to learn more.”
“One of the greatest privileges of being a leader is giving people the opportunity to learn and develop.”
Continuous development is a huge focus point for Barnardo’s. Not just from an operational perspective, but for those who are supported by the charity. The provision of a great service spans the entire organisation and its work is never done.
Even across the data and insight team, progress is key for the greatest outcomes. Nevertheless, Martins-Tonks recognises the great milestones of the team as steps in the right direction.
“The key is being able to embed the use of data to help us with our primary function to —support children and young people so they can enjoy better outcomes and opportunities in their lives,” says Martins-Tonks.
“We’ve got a whole load of metrics that we’re measuring in the programme, in terms of how much people are using data, how much value they’re getting from it, and the time they’re saving by using more efficient data products.”
This is a digital journey that would not have been possible without Barnardo’s partners, businesses well-established in their relevant fields of support. From EY, the charity received expert consultancy to achieve its data-driven goals and revamp its data architecture. EY also supported the process of data migration, moving from the previous legacy reporting system to go digital instead, which incorporated the adoption of Microsoft Azure as a system that brings everything together.
Also supporting the team on this journey is Amplifi, which is sharing its knowledge and expertise, allowing Barnardo’s to access the highest quality data for its operations. Finally, Cambridge Spark is a crucial partner who supported Barnardo’s with upskilling its Data and Insight team in data science, analytics, as well as some core data skills.
Partnership conversations will continue as demands for digital literacy grows and, with ample support from its stakeholders, Barnardo’s will further data usage over the next few years, embedding it firmly at its core.