Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Dangers of Bureaucracy

There is a report of a case in The Australian concerning a two year-old New South Wales child called “Peanut” (a nickname) who died at home as a result of physical abuse.

Some striking facts are revealed by this report:
  • Members of child protection staff spent more than 40 hours recording decisions to take little or no action in this case in their computer system
  • Despite fifteen separate referrals, only four hours were spent talking to the family, mostly by phone
  • What is described as a “new prioritising regime” resulted in the child being misclassified as being a low priority case
Child protection workers in Britain will recognise familiar themes here. The Integrated Children’s System based on the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need was made the basis for local authorities’ computerised child protection recording systems. It proved time-consuming and difficult to use. Information was difficult to enter and difficult to retrieve. The system was widely criticised.
Research by Broadhurst et al provides an insight into how these “… faulty design elements at the front-door of children’s local authority services…” actually have the opposite to the intended effects. They do not make children safer and they distract workers from interacting with the family by introducing new and unwelcome bureaucratic tasks.

Some may believe that we have moved on in the last few years. But I see little evidence that the kind of bureaucratic thinking that underpins systems like ICS, and its counterparts in other parts of the world, has been replaced with approaches that are actually supportive of practice. Complex decisions cannot be made by algorithms, but by experienced and knowledgeable workers. Good situation awareness is not achieved by simply having more information, but by having the right information. Effective communication does not come from completing fields in a database; it comes from interacting with other people and understanding what they say.