Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Reactions to Munro

The final report of the Munro Review is analytical, well argued, careful and balanced. It contains is no ‘magic bullet’; there is no quick fix. But the fifteen recommendations are sensible and, if adopted, seem to me to be likely to result in significant improvements in child protection social work.

At last an official document has recognised that more guidance and more regulation does not result in improved practice and safer children!

In her first recommendation Munro asks Government to “… distinguish the rules that are essential for effective working together, from guidance that informs professional judgment” and to “…remove constraints to local innovation and professional judgment that are created by prescribing or endorsing particular approaches, for example, nationally designed assessment forms, national performance indicators associated with assessment or nationally prescribed approaches to IT systems.”

The recommendation also calls for the removal of “… the distinction between initial and core assessments and the associated timescales in respect of these assessments, replacing them with the decisions that are required to be made by qualified social workers when developing an understanding of children’s needs and making and implementing a plan to safeguard and promote their welfare”.

Judging by some of the comments in the press, I am not sure that the full implications of this recommendation have sunk in yet. What it means is the wholesale scrapping of the approach that has been developed over many years whereby groups of politicians, civil servants, “experts” and sector leaders have sat down in air conditioned offices and prescribed how child protection social work should be done. A raft of “tools”, “materials” “frameworks”, “exemplars” “procedures” and systems will have to be swept aside.

The extent to which people are struggling with this recommendation is well illustrated by two reports I have seen in the press this week. 

Community Care, in article headlined “Integrated children's systems can be overhauled cheaply” ( quotes Steve Liddicott, former chair of the national ICS expert panel, as arguing in the wake of Munro that it would be possible to make “quite big changes” to existing IT systems and so avoid the expense of developing new systems. The ability to do this, he says, would depend on the level of in-house IT expertise and on deploying the right skills.

But it is not just a matter of ‘overhaul’. In the absence of a comprehensive audit of these IT systems I do not know just how bad or good individual ones are, but I do know that there is a fundamental misconception behind many of them. That is the idea that rather than support practice – as a narrative or chronicling system would’ – many of these ICS systems are built around the nationally designed assessment forms which Munro, quite rightly, is at pains to reject. It would be better to have no computer systems at all than ones that drive practice inappropriately.

I think that Steve Liddicott and other apologists for ICS need to become familiar with the work of Darrel Ince, Professor of Computing at the Open University and author of more than 100 research papers and more than 20 books on computing.

Darrel Ince obviously knows a thing or two about software. He has also described ICS as having “absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever” (“Computer says: ‘Misery’” Professional Social Work, March 2010). He believes that the short-term solution is what he calls the “barefoot doctor” approach based on devising MS Word templates or using commercial document management systems. These approaches are not likely to be expensive and would allow the development of systems that can cope with unstructured narrative. Most importantly they are not simply modifications, or overhauls, of what Ince refers to as a “forms-based, record-based, database-centred system”.

Incidentally, his article contains some great comments. I particularly liked his description of the failure of ICS as resulting from “… government perceiving social work as only slightly more complex than running a call centre”. That comment has wider resonances and might be applied to much of the recent history of child protection social work in the United Kingdom.

If there is still a long way to go for some people in understanding the implications of Munro for IT systems, then there is also a steep learning curve for those with wider responsibilities. For example, I was struck by comments in Your Canterbury (not a publication I read very often – ). 

This quotes Jenny Whittle, Kent County Council’s Cabinet member for specialist children's services as welcoming Munro’s recommendations saying, "It's absolutely right that they (social workers) should be freed up to spend more time developing relationships with vulnerable children and families.”  But she goes on to say that she does not agree with scrapping centrally-prescribed timescales for social work assessments, pointing out that Kent is working hard to improve after Ofsted heavily criticised it for poor timescale management. “If you don't have timescales, “ says Jenny Whittle, “then you risk losing discipline. If that is one of the plans adopted by the Government, we would seek to keep timescales in Kent."

Sadly, Jenny, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t "free-up" social workers time if you are prescribing how they will spend it. You can’t square circles.

It seems that the most difficult thing about the Munro Review may be the creation of  the conditions in which it can be implemented. People will naturally adhere to the familiar. After years of central control and imposed systems, it will be difficult for many to think outside the box. Let's hope that the government moves swiftly to endorse the overall approach and begin the process of change.