A timely opportunity to wage war on bureaucracy and refocus practitioners

Last month’s Community Care survey on working conditions highlighted the bureaucracy faced by social care professionals (news, 15 December).

Most respondents said they spent most of their time on administrative work and almost all said practice had become more bureaucratic in the past five years.

The results echo two recent inquiries into the profession, the 21st Century Review of Social Work in Scotland and last September’s report into the Welsh workforce by the Association of Directors of Social Services Wales.

The causes of bureaucracy cited by the inquiries matched those raised by survey respondents: complex forms to complete, performance management, problems with IT, and processes introduced to protect agencies against liability.

David Johnstone, chair of the ADSS standards and performance management committee, dates the increase in bureaucracy to care management processes introduced by the community care reforms of the early 1990s.

He says: “It’s the formal reporting requirements of assessment, care planning and review, which are very top-heavy, prescribed by regulation and inspected on.”

Bridgend Council’s director of personal services, Tony Garthwaite, who wrote the ADSS Wales report, emphasises the importance of good case recording but says additional regulation has gone too far.

Performance management, such as regulation, has also become more prominent in recent years.

Gordon Jones, chair of the British Association of Social Workers, says departments have to collect far more data now to “satisfy the regulators”.

While the UK government’s view is that inspection has raised standards, Johnstone says: “If you look at its costs, including diverting staff from practice, and ask whether it’s justified by the outcome, I would say overwhelmingly not.”

But employers have also played their part in increasing bureaucracy.

In its interim report in April, the 21st Century Review said organisations had developed systems to protect themselves against liability in response to high-profile tragedies and inquiries, which forces professionals into “defensive practice”.

Garthwaite says this is an issue: “As senior managers we need to  empower our staff to feel confident in their practice, rather than feel their primary function is to keep the organisation safe.”
So what solutions are there to the bureaucratic burden?

Johnstone sees the drive to personalise services, for instance by promoting user self-assessments, as a route to cutting paperwork.

The government’s efficiency drive has exposed the costs of performance management, and emphasised the need to focus inspection where it is needed most.

However, local authority leaders claim this process has much further to go. Last month, the Local Government Association identified £2bn that could be saved from cutting inspection.

Another potential time-saver is IT. Johnstone argues that the replacement of paper-based recording systems by electronic processes will save practitioners time.

But the survey revealed this is not yet happening, with variable access to IT for practitioners, records being duplicated on paper and computer, and incompatibility between social care systems and those of other agencies.

Another solution is for other staff to take over some administrative tasks from social workers, something the 21st Century Review raised and the government’s review into the English workforce, Options for Excellence, is considering.

With the 21st Century Review due to publish its final report soon, the Garthwaite report under consideration in Wales and Options for Excellence expected to report on workforce reform this autumn, 2006 provides a crucial opportunity to address this issue.

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