The strong endorsement of joint reviews in Wales by an independent evaluation study this week will have raised a few eyebrows among the social work community.
Joint reviews are designed to provide an independent assessment of how well social services are performing. They identify what authorities do well, and highlight areas that could be improved.
The evaluation found joint reviews were consistent in approach and judgement, promoted improvement in services and were inclusive, fully involving staff, users and local politicians. The second round of joint reviews started in Wales in December 2004, despite the system being ditched in England and the work passed to the Commission for Social Care Inspection.
The evaluation study was based on interviews with all those involved in the first six second round joint reviews. Although it noted the “mixed evidence” on efforts to reduce the burden reviews placed on authorities, it said there was a strong view among respondents that they were an important part of accountability.
But for social services leaders in Wales the sheer amount of time, money and resources that are devoted to preparing for, going through and actioning recommendations is too great they say. For them, the key word is “proportionality”.
Earlier this year, the Welsh Local Government Association called for joint reviews to be scrapped and replaced by a less onerous process.
Beverlea Frowen, head of social care policy at the association, explains why changes are needed. “The cost for authorities is phenomenal: it will take a year from being notified to getting the report and some say it costs £120,000 in man hours. Joint reviews prevent us from moving to a more effective method of improvement.”
The WLGA says because of the long timescales, joint review reports are often not a fair reflection of an authority’s position when they are published. Many of the issues highlighted in preparatory work or visits by inspectors have already been addressed.
The evaluation report highlights one respondent who said preparation work for a joint review needed to start a year before if you were to perform well. It says this calls into question what performing well means.
“It may be either that the presentation of the authority’s strengths is improved or that the authority works to improve its performance.”
It also says there is confusion, or disagreement, over what documents should be compiled by social services and sent to the review team in advance of visits.
It states: “Members of the joint review team contend that a list of the required documents is included in the advance information template. The handbook states that the documents listed are not mandatory and there is flexibility.”
But Joe Howsam, co-chair of the Association of Directors of Social Services Cymru, explains it would be “naive” to go into joint reviews unprepared.
“Even well performing authorities get credited by the joint review team for knowing where their weaknesses are. If you don’t do self inspection and the joint review team says X is weak and you don’t know it, you get marked down more than if you do know about it,” he adds.
Richard Tebboth, acting chief inspector at the Social Services Inspectorate Wales, admits this tension exists but says councils must put more trust in inspectors to come to the right conclusions.
“Local authorities want to show themselves off to their best – because of their size there is a temptation to show us everything. They may need to trust judgments made on a smaller evidence base,” he adds.
Tebboth says the SSI Wales and the Welsh Audit Commission, which carry out joint reviews, have already made changes to reduce the amount of information they request from authorities. It is using information gathered from other sources – such as achievements against performance indicators – to inform inspectors.
He explains: “We’re trying to get to a situation where much of the information is already available so we start from a more agreed knowledge of where an authority is at and reduce the first phase of joint reviews. That’s the direction of travel.”
Whether that pace of change will be quick enough for the Welsh Local Government Association is another matter. It wants social services departments to carry out a “beefed-up” annual self assessment which would be used to flag up problems for inspectors to investigate further.
“Rather than put our energies into completing reviews I’d rather we put more time into improving the self assessment regime,” explains Frowen.
But while Tebboth foresees a future where Social Services Inspectorate Wales will take on more of “audit activity to validate council’s own judgments”, he expects the second round of joint reviews to be finished and even talks of a third – if much changed – round.