Friday, 22 November 2013

The Blame Culture

Hard on the heels of my last post – calling for a significant cultural shift in child protection organisations – comes news of what looks to be very interesting research on the blame culture in social work.

Dr Jadwiga Leigh of Edge Hill University in Liverpool has carried out comparative research in the UK and Belgium and has found that the blame culture prevalent in many British organisations has a significant negative impact.

Edge Hill’s University’s press release says that Dr Leigh found that in Belgian child protection organisations there was widespread acceptance that mistakes happen and a desire to see what could be learned from them.

On the other hand UK child protection was characterised by hierarchies and power imbalances resulting in a very oppressive culture. Social workers were ‘demonised’ by Government and the media.

If a minister asked me “What is the single most important thing we could do to improve child protection?” I would have to agree with Jadwiga Leigh. Let’s learn from the Belgians. Unless we develop a more constructive attitude to human error in child protection in the UK, we will just stumble on from cock-up to another cock-up, from one tragedy to another. Creating the conditions in which people can learn from their errors, rather than seeking ways to hide them, is vital to children’s safety.  

I was also struck by some other aspects of this research.  Dr Leigh found that the space and environment that social workers worked in is much more welcoming in Belgium. She notes that service users in the UK are stigmatised too. They have to enter “… a fortress-like building to get to see their social worker and in some agencies talk to the receptionist from behind glass windows”.

That reminded me of when I had to visit my social work students on placement (not a million miles away from Edge Hill University) back in the 1980s. One office had a dark and forbidding external appearance and a long and poorly lit corridor that terminated in a cold waiting room in which the metal chairs were screwed to the floor. The receptionist sat behind an armoured glass sliding-window that was located about 1.3m above floor level, resulting in most people having to bend double to communicate. After several minutes of trying to attract attention the window slammed open and the receptionist uttered a glowering ‘yeah’.

She might have said, ’What do you want then?”

Outside the building was a sign erected on the orders of the Director who had read a book by Peters and Waterman. It said “XXXXX Social Services – in search of excellence”.