Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Misplaced Procedures

In a post I made in December 2010 I decried the voluminous London Child Protection Procedures, which have now grown into a huge tome over 500 pages in length. The Munro Review report makes similar observations about Working Together, the nationally produced Government guidance on which procedural manuals like the London one are based. Munro observes that one of the reasons for the huge growth in the length of such documents is the conflation of good practice guidance with regulation and statute. This contributes to the de-professionalising of child protection work by eroding the scope for discretion and judgement.

A little while ago I made a value-for-money Internet purchase, from a large on-line bookstore (which shall be nameless). For a couple of pounds – including the postage – I once again became the possessor of the 1991 edition of Working Together, my original copy having disappeared in the mists of time. This slim volume runs (not counting appendices) to only 60 pages of concisely expressed guidance and contrasts starkly with the 2010 edition, which runs to 335 pages (again not counting appendices) – more than five times the length.

1991 - 60 pages

2010 - 335 Pages

Successive Governments, aided and abetted by the children’s services ‘establishment’, have presided over this procedural verbosity. Why? Munro points to a risk-averse culture - and presumably the need to be seen to be doing something in the wake of tragedies may also have fostered this approach.

I believe, however, that the fundamental flaw stems from a widespread misunderstanding about the nature of child protection services. In my previous post I quoted IT expert, Darrel Ince, as observing that governments have perceived social work "as only slightly more complex than running a call centre”. Put another way there has been a tendency to see child protection not as being a "professional service" but rather as a "service shop" - a bit like retail banking, high street shops or fast food restaurants or call centres.

You can write procedures, and use IT to implement them, if what you are managing is a service shop. That's because service shops are relatively simple types of services, where the range of options is fairly limited and 'customisation' to the needs of the end user is relatively straightforward. But it takes only a few minutes reflection to understand that there is nothing simple and straightforward about the complex needs of abused and neglected children.

Why the "service-shop fallacy" (as I call it) has persisted so long is difficult to understand. Perhaps the great and the powerful want child protection social work to be a simple process which can be controlled from the centre. Perhaps we all crave certainty is an uncertain world.

The truth is that we cannot make difficult things simple by fiat. If we are to have effective child protection services, the only starting point is recognising that they are inevitably complex - too complex to 'proceduralise'.