Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Learning from experience in Hackney

Reading the extract (published in the Guardian) from Steve Goodman’s and Isabelle Trowler’s new book on “reclaiming social work”, it is hard not to be impressed by the work that has been undertaken in Hackney. And it is hard not to agree with the ideas and principles under-pinning it.

In particular I like their analysis. They write of recent trends in children’s social work:
“With greater reliance on a procedural approach to professional practice, and ICT systems' solutions, a workforce often incapable of professional, creative and independent thinking had emerged.”
That is spot-on and neatly summarises the impact of policy over at least two decades.

The other thing that really interested me in this extract was the phrase they use – “slowing down to speed up”. By that they mean doing the job thoroughly in the first place, by using a range of professional skills. This is in contrast to just accepting the presenting problem and following the procedures. For example, instead of just accepting a difficult adolescent into care, skilled clinical practitioners are used, early in the intervention, to work with the child and her or his family with a view to achieving a solution. The result, claim Goodman and Trowler, is far fewer children coming into care.

It strikes me that this is very similar to the quality management maxim “get it right first time” and the views of the quality guru Philip Crosby that “quality is free”. 

Crosby argues that the cost of poor quality can be very high, involving extensive rework or even replacement. Another major cost is the loss of confidence by customers or service-users. So spending more up-front to improve quality can reduce the subsequent costs of getting things wrong. And that can result in total costs actually falling over time.

I believe that a poor initial investigation of a child protection concern can have numerous costly consequences:
  1. repeat inquiries, conferences and meetings
  2. time spent in re-referring and receiving repeat referrals
  3. injuries to a child, which may otherwise have been prevented, possibly requiring treatment and hospitalisation
  4. criminal proceedings that might otherwise have been avoided
  5. avoidable reception of a child into care and the cost of fostering
  6. costs of civil court proceedings
  7. costs of complaints or holding internal inquiries and Serious Case Reviews
That list should be a big incentive to us all to look at ways in which doing it right first time can be achieved.

To return to Goodman's and Trowler's approach, there is only one thing that worries me. What seems to me distinctive about 'reclaiming social work' is that the thinking and analysis was done in Hackney where the reforms were subsequently implemented. Rolling out the approach elsewhere might work, but there is a danger that because the analytic thinking has happened elsewhere, managers may be simply looking for a quick fix, like so many of the initiatives that governments have foisted onto child protection in Britain over the years. So often major quality improvement programmes in organisations fail because those implementing them only see the solutions not the problems. Let's hope this does not happen in this case.