What The BBC Can Learn From Social Work

One of the biggest problems faced by the social work profession is that everybody else thinks they know what we do, and most of them think they can do it too. Not the nasty bits like taking children away from their families, but knowing when a child is being neglected or abused. I’ve written about this before. It undermines our credibility as a profession and limits the effort people make to understand what we do because they believe they already know the answer.

I have the same relationship with the BBC. The reality is, I don’t know what’s really going on during this latest schmozzle (see how I’m avoiding the ‘c’ word there) but I’m firmly convinced that on the basis of having some contact with the corporation on virtually every day of my life thus far, I understand exactly what’s happening.

From Danny Baker to Jeremy Paxman via David Mellor, the message bellowed by anyone who has a microphone thrust in front of them is that the BBC have too many managers. The Newsnight contretemps (neatly sliding past the ‘f’ word) is full of poor practice but also raises issues that are pertinent to most organisations, about who takes decisions, how much senior managers know about any given topic, how much they need to know and how much power is delegated. Whatever is going on, those sorting out the mess would do well to pause and make considered choices about how to maintain the balance between the professional discretion that encourages creativity and the compliance that spends so much time ensuring things get done the right way, not enough gets done.

Despite Munro’s attempts to focus on practise, children’s social work remains in the grip of a risk averse culture. The waves from the so-called Baby Peter effect are slowly becoming ripples but their effects are still being felt. This manifests itself in a variety of ways. The most noticeable is the high level of care applications before the courts but it’s all around us. I’m writing this in my lunchbreak, seeking respite from a tender application for fostering provision. At this opening stage, the authority will base its decisions on just three pieces of information – the price, the training programme and the Risk Assessment Procedure. Nothing about the quality of service provided for children or outcomes. It’s a revealing insight that lays bare the authority’s current priorities and concerns.

However, the culture of compliance is deeply embedded into the very structure of child care planning. The question has to asked, is this the most efficient way of taking the best possible decisions for vulnerable children and young people?

I’m in favour of built-in checks and balances, and also of the value of independent scrutiny. However, the current system is confusing and stifles the creativity of professionals who work face to face with children, young people and their families, precisely the point where the best social work is done. The balance has to be right.

The Care Planning, Placement and Case Review Regulations in England became effective in April 2011. Reacting to long-standing problems in the planning process, they made it a requirement for foster carers and children and young people to be fully heard and responded to in reviews. They also gave the Independent Reviewing Officers (IRO) greater authority. For example, anyone with a significant interest, including the child or young person, can contact them at any time should there be a problem or implementation delay.

In principle I’m in favour of this. Note the role of the IRO has been beefed up because of perceived failings in the system with poor decisions and lack of implementation resulting in drift. Potentially, however, it creates uncertainly and a lack of clarity.

Typically, the child’s social worker has most contact with the child, their family and their carers. In the current climate, they are at best wary and at worst disempowered from taking the decisions relating to that child, deferring to their manager.

At the Review, the IRO creates the Care Plan. In my experience, team managers sometimes feel powerless. Recommendations may be made that the manager disagrees with or for resources that may not be available. The Care Plan goes back into the mix. The manager may say the resources are not available. Increasingly, the manager and social worker have to go to an eighties-style resource panel where the recommendations of the care plan are effectively reevaluated, but crucially in the absence of key participants.

Meanwhile, the IRO, who as an employee of the local authority is not as independent as their job title makes out, is now feeling undermined. One said to me last week, ‘I despair. This is the third review in as many weeks that when I’ve come back to a key decision I took 6 months ago, nothing has happened due to resource constraints.’

Being connected to but outside the whole process, people talk to me, and anyway I have a kind face. I’ve also got the time to stop and listen, unusual these days. The thing is, managers and social worker feel exactly the same – disempowered, undermined and uncertain. Who exactly takes the decision? It feels sometimes as if any decision is temporary, subject to review at any time. Children require consistency and stability. It saps morale. Managers complain about IROs, IROs grumble about standards. Disharmony where everyone should be working together.

Compliance also takes its toll at an organisatonal level. Independent residential and fostering providers are snowed under with quality assurance demands. Again, I fully accept why this is required and both authorities and children have a right to know they are getting good value for their money and that the best possible standards are in place.

However, it is astonishingly time-consuming and costly. As in any business, those costs are passed on. The unit cost of any placement increases because more backroom staff and/or systems are needed to provide the seemingly endless flow of data for tenders and compliance. And that’s not including Ofsted.

In fostering, although a National Contract exists, few use it. In consequence, all authorities require what is effectively the same information but in an ever-so-slightly different format. This is complex, draining and favours large organisations who can pay for their own compliance unit.

Let me make it perfectly clear – IROs, social workers and their managers undertake some phenomenally good work that benefits so many children. However, in a signficant number of cases that I come across, they are hindered by the system, not helped by it. The unintended effects of well-meaning processes suck up both resources and precious energy. Professional creativity and innovation are stifled. The balance has to be right. The BBC would do well to learn from social work’s mistakes.

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