Thursday, 29 March 2012

A Procedural Bloodbath?

A ding-dong row appears to be brewing concerning the revision of the procedural document 'Working Together’. Camilla Pemberton, in Community Care reports that there are fears that a “slaughter” of procedures is about to take place, with the suggestion that the professional advisory group, charged with revising the document, and the Secretary of Sate, Michael Gove, are determined to cut the length of the present document (just less than 400 pages) to 60 or even to 10.

Liz Davies, of London Metropolitan University, and Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), are mentioned as being opponents of such drastic pruning of 'Working Together'. Davies is quoted as saying that it would be “extremely dangerous” and Mansuri argues that “core child protection guidance” cannot be taken out.

On the other hand, I am on record as having condemned lengthy child protection procedures and I strongly believe that Working Together in its present form is little short of a disgrace.

But I agree with Nushra Mansuri that using a small group of ‘experts’ and civil servants to prune the document has not been wise. And I have considerable sympathy with her view  that the practitioner voice appears to have been effectively excluded from the professional advisory group. Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight it would have been better to have set-up an advisory group to advise the Secretary of Sate on how to reduce child protection procedures, rather than to undertake the task directly.

It seems to me that the Government may go some way to salvaging the situation by ensuring that the consultation on the revised draft is conducted in a most through-going manner, and not, as is so often the case with Government consultations, seen as an opportunity for those opposed to the proposals to blow off steam before being ignored. The Department for Education must listen and be prepared to revise the draft document extensively if it is to maintain credibility.

Whatever way forward is adopted I remain firmly of the belief that 'Working Together' can be drastically pruned. I defy anyone to read (say) Chapter Five of the document (‘Managing individual cases where there are concerns about a child’s safety and welfare”) without being immediately struck by the sheer amount of verbiage in a document that should be strictly to the point.

Take section 5.5 for instance. This takes more than two pages to say little more than that work to safeguard and promote the welfare of children should be child-centred and informed by evidence and knowledge of child development. And the section is littered with high sounding but uninformative gobbledegook, such as the paragraph on page 134 titled ‘Holistic in Approach’, which contributes very little while using up a lot of space.

There is also a lot of unnecessary stuff about the Common Assessment Framework on page 138, which could be reduced to one line: if there is any doubt concerning a child’s safety make a referral to Children’s Social Care and discontinue the Common Assessment.

Then there are the pages (141-3) on the subject of underage sexual activity, which seem to sit oddly here and which go into unnecessary detail. So that it is not until Section 32 of the Chapter (12 pages in) that any discussion of the local authority’s response to a referral begins!

This stuff is not so much ‘procedures’ as an essay! And the sad thing is that for all their wordiness these procedures do not tell you some simple and important things, for which some sort of procedure would be a good idea.

For example despite the rant on underage sex, the Section on “Responding to welfare concerns where there is or maybe an alleged crime” (pp 140-3) gives no clear steer on how to distinguish matters in which the police only need to be involved (e.g. where a child has suffered a crime at the hands of a third party). And there is nothing to say what happens if a local authority refuses to act on a referral.

My approach to rewriting Chapter 5 would be to: (1) get rid of the verbiage, (2) simplify expression and eliminate ambiguity, (3) stick to the point and not get side-tracked, (4) make sure there were no significant omissions and (5) get in someone who knows how to draw process flow diagrams and eliminate the confusing five flow charts with which the Chapter concludes.

Even if the Government has gone about the process of re-writing 'Working Together' in a ham-fisted way, I would urge everyone to stick with the vision. Munro’s ideas are absolutely right. Procedural manuals that have been amassed as a result of risk-averse responses to various enquiries are not the way to go forward. Detailed procedural manuals are appropriate in some circumstances (for example where a piece of equipment or closed system has been carefully designed) but we are deluding ourselves if we believe that they make child protection any safer. On the contrary child protection is a very uncertain sphere. It does not operate like a well-oiled machine. That makes writing the rules in advance a pointless, and sometimes a dangerous, exercise.