Not all plain sailing

Durham’s contact centre for social care services, Social Care
Direct, is an innovation which other departments around the country
are keen to emulate. The service was introduced two and a half
years ago as part of a reorganisation of adult social services in
the county and is proving highly effective.

Staff take over 300 calls a day and accept referrals directly on
behalf of all 47 of the county’s specialist social care

So whenever someone in Durham wants to contact a social worker
about a new case, they now ring Social Care Direct. The contact
centre receives about 75 referrals a day which are electronically
allocated to the relevant social services team, 99 per cent of them
on the day they come in. Contact centre staff follow up urgent
cases with a phone call to make sure the allocation has been

The team of 24 includes both social workers and unqualified but
highly trained first contact officers. Bob Morland, contact centre
manager says: “First contact officers can take referrals on most
issues, but if it’s child protection, adult abuse, mental health or
a complex case they will pass it over to a qualified social worker.
The bulk of callers are redirected internally, given advice or
signposted to another agency. We also have information we can send
out to people about whatever their concern relates to.”

The benefits of Social Care Direct include quicker responses to
referrals – the county is, for example, rarely fined for delayed
hospital discharges – and a more consistent service for “customers”
– as they are known in Durham. Another advantage is extended hours.
“People can ring up after work if they are worried about an elderly
relative, and GPs will often phone after the surgery closes and
offload all their cases at once. It provides flexibility for
customers making referrals as well as a smoother service

Following his appointment in August 2002, Morland had just six
months to turn the shell of an office into an operational contact
centre. This included appointing and training staff, purchasing
equipment, developing data flows and procedures for making
referrals, and generally preparing for the contact centre. As an
ex-navy man, Morland also had to contend with scepticism from staff
who didn’t quite believe he could manage the service effectively
without having any experience in social care.

Social Care Direct went live in February 2003. At first, Morland
and his team were unprepared for the sheer volume of calls. “We
were a victim of the success of our advertising campaign. We were
being used as a telephone exchange and a directory inquiry
service.” Morland, with county hall support, dealt with the
problems by persuading social workers to give out their telephone
numbers to clients and customers and appointing more staff. “We
tackled the problem quite quickly, but there’s no doubt that we
lost the confidence of some GPs and other professionals because
they couldn’t contact us as quickly as they would have

Despite the early hiccoughs, Morland believes the service is now
respected by customers and staff alike. “People tell us they don’t
know how they would manage without Social Care Direct. We have
regular independent reviews of customer satisfaction and we always
do very well.”

The service has also been evaluated by the government’s Improvement
and Development Agency and came out with flying colours. “We were
found to be very effective and efficient overall. We’re one of the
few contact centres deemed to be operationally successful. Several
councils have been up here to see how we do things.”

After 34 years’ service in the Royal Navy, Morland admits to
feeling like a fish out of water when he arrived in his new job.
“Everything happens quickly in the armed services. It has to – a
warship without communications is a £200 million piece of
junk. Things are a bit slower in a local authority and I’ve had to
get grips with that.”

But perhaps the biggest shock for Morland was learning about the
sheer scope of a social worker’s caseload. He observes ruefully,
“I’ve been to some terrible places in the world and seen some
horrible things, but I believed we still lived in this green and
pleasant land.”


  • Be straight with people and deal with criticism head-on.
  • Be quick to acknowledge mistakes – and learn from them.
  • Strip away the emotion and look for the root cause of the
    problem; the solution will stare you in the face.


  • Keep a cynical detachment – just in case it doesn’t pan
  • Underestimate demand – it will take ages before people start
    using the service.
  • If things go wrong find someone or something to blame.

Curriculum Vitae
Bob Morland.
Job: Manager of Social Care Direct, Durham
Last Job: Lieutenant Commander, managing naval 
communications centre.
First Job: Radio operator,  Royal Navy.
Qualifications: Institute of Management Diploma
level five; Dartmouth and Greenwich  Naval Colleges.

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