Wednesday, 31 August 2016


Matt Bee, a social worker writing in the Guardian, persuasively argues that a great deal of paperwork associated with social work with adults is unnecessary.

So too in child protection. There are endless pressures to try to record everything in the hope that one or two small pieces of information may eventually complete the jigsaw of a risk assessment.

Unfortunately trying to protect children is not as simple as completing jigsaw puzzles. There are costs with collecting information as well as benefits. The more you try to garner, the more likely it is that the quality of information will degrade as a hard pressed worker struggles to complete an assessment against the clock. Then there is the problem of how to store, arrange and analyse the information. Too much detail can lead to a ‘data smog’ [1] in which there is chronic ‘information overload’ [2].

The aim has to be collecting the right amount of high quality information to inform the judgement about whether or not a child is safe. And that information has to be coherent and simple enough to communicate easily to others who need to know. Too much irrelevant data can be very distracting and can result in key people not grasping key facts.

Unfortunately, a long-established culture of blaming people who failed to acquire what, with hindsight, appears to be a crucial piece of information about a child has resulted in a widespread fear that everything must be accumulated and recorded. It is not easy to break that cycle. Social workers and their managers need to review continuously how well recording practices, and information storage systems, are serving the needs of children. And they need to be confident about discarding information that does not serve that purpose. Wherever possible, they need to be confident to prune, simplify and make more logical agency records so that less and less unnecessary information is recorded while crucial, safety critical information is made ever easier to access and understand.

Those who design agency recording systems also need to be clear that their responsibilities are to support professional practice by facilitating improved situation awareness and sound decision-making and by enhancing the quality of communication. Information systems should not be judged by how much data they collect; they should be judged by how well they enable effective practice.


[1] A term coined by David Shenk in his book of that name (Harper Collins, 1997)
[2] See Alvin Toffler’s book, Future Shock (Random House, 1970)