Social care call centres are springing up around the UK, but critics say they could lead to the profession being devalued. Kirsty McGregor finds that this need not be the case
A call comes in: a young woman is worried about sounds of shouting and a baby crying coming from the flat below. The customer e_SDHpservices adviser records every detail in the computer and puts the woman on hold.
He walks over to consult one of three children and families social workers sitting at the next desk. She reads the information he has recorded, which has appeared on her screen, and judges it to be a child protection issue. She tells him to transfer the call to her. Within 20 minutes she has passed the case on to the duty social work team.
This is a typical example of a case handled by a social care call centre, which a growing number of social services departments in councils across the UK are introducing to improve efficiency.
Last month, Glasgow Council announced it was going to introduce a similar model, called Social Care Direct, as part of its plan to restructure and save £180m over the next three years.
Critics argue that it could lead to a devaluing of the social work role, but councils that have already implemented the scheme say it leads to much quicker call response rates. Graham Smith, manager of Edinburgh Council’s call centre, also known as Social Care Direct (see case study, below), says the rate of call answering is “far superior” to the old system. Calls are responded to within 30 seconds and every query looked at by the end of the day.
Hampshire, Suffolk and Liverpool have also gone down this route, and it’s likely that other authorities will follow as budgets continue to be squeezed. Call centres can be particularly attractive to councils that deal with thousands of calls a day.
“The principle of the contact centre approach is to avoid frontline teams having to deal with calls that do not require their skills,” says Felicity Hindson, executive member for adult care at Hampshire Council, which provides services for 1.3 million people.
In the past, calls have been routed through the council’s main switchboard to social work teams. But that has often resulted in callers and professionals being transferred to the wrong department, or calls going unanswered because frontline social work staff are too busy.
Now, a dedicated children’s reception team and adults’ services professional advisory team screen initial calls and then pass them on to the relevant teams.
“They can take information and signpost people to services that may be more relevant to their needs,” Hindson says.
Call centres do not replace a social worker’s duties, such as making assessments. Instead, the call handlers’ primary role is to take and record information from the public, service users, social workers and other professionals.
That information is then passed to the social workers based in the call centre, who decide whether it warrants being followed up by the duty teams.
This two-tier filtering system can have significant benefits for practice teams as long as the call centres are properly set up, says Nushra Mansuri, joint manager for the British Association of Social Workers in England.
“If [call handlers] are well trained and well supervised, they can screen out the obviously inappropriate referrals,” she says.
But Mansuri warns against creating a “cold calling” culture where people feel like they are passing through an impersonal system. “It has to be person-centred and human,” she says.
“We’ve heard of really poor practice where some local authorities have reduced assessments to telephone calls. That’s appalling.
“If you ask a vulnerable person whether they’re happy, often they don’t want to be a burden so they say what they think you want them to say.”
This concern is shared by Sue Bott, director of the National Centre for Independent Living. “Often people will be contacting [social services] in a fairly depressed situation and it takes good training and knowledge to elicit all the information that’s needed,” she says.
She points out that service users may feel they are not being listened to or valued because they are not speaking to a qualified professional.
Another risk is that call centres could be seen by some councils as a line of defence or a barrier to services. “It needs to be monitored, so employers aren’t tempted to exploit the system,” says Mansuri.
Some critics argue that call centres “devalue” or “de-professionalise” social work, but Mansuri says this is not the case, as long as they are well supported.
“We’ve had call centres like ChildLine for years, so you can have specialist social workers doing that kind of work,” she says. “Social workers spend a lot of time on the phone anyway.”
Although Bott has concerns about the service users’ experience, she admits that, too often, service users phone social services and get no response. “At least you get to talk to somebody.” she says of call centres.
‘We can give clients a more consistent response’ – Social Care Direct, Edinburgh Council
Edinburgh Council launched Social Care Direct four years ago in response to complaints from service users and professionals that they could not get through to the duty social workers by phone.
After an outlay of £70,000 to buy workstations, flat screens, headsets and desks, advisers were recruited and trained not only in call centre work but also social work procedures and legal considerations.
Graham Smith, manager of Social Care Direct, said some of the training is classroom based while some happens “through buddying up with existing advisers, listening to calls”.
The number of referrals has increased by 10% each year and 18 advisers now deal with about 350 calls a day. They sit alongside six experienced social workers who monitor incoming calls. If it’s a complicated or urgent referral, they make any necessary follow-up phone calls before passing the case on to the duty teams.
Advisers are trained to listen out for signs of neglect or child abuse, such as “I smacked him” or “he’s a bit withdrawn and he’s wetting himself”. Information of this nature is immediately passed on to a social worker.
“I’m highly trained to recognise child protection issues,” says Glynis McEwan, a social worker at Social Care Direct, who has nearly 40 years’ experience. “The advisers take all the details and, because we’re in the same room, they turn up on my computer immediately.”
McEwan moved to Social Care Direct as a team leader when it began dealing with children’s services two years ago.
“I think it’s a vast improvement,” she says. “We can give a more consistent response and it is a better experience for the clients.”
‘I wanted advice but came up against a brick wall’ – Service user, carer, southern England
Call centres are designed to improve efficiency in social work, but how do service users feel about it? We spoke to one carer in southern England, who wishes to remain anonymous, about her experiences with her local authority’s call centre system.
“My son is registered disabled. Last year he became more and more temperamental and began fighting, and he was in danger of being excluded from his special needs school. I phoned social services for some advice and support – respite care, perhaps, or a recommendation to Camhs (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services).
“But instead of getting any advice I had to go through an hour-long phone call and give personal details to a woman I didn’t know. I didn’t get to speak any professionals. A week later, I got a letter in the post saying my son didn’t reach any of the criteria required and giving me a list of voluntary organisations to contact.
“All I wanted was some advice, but I came up against a brick wall. I accept that it’s a good filtering system: social workers aren’t picking up ridiculous calls, so they can get on with their work.
“But if you don’t say the right things on the phone, you don’t get the service. The woman was very professional and asked lots of questions, but it was box-ticking. I complained to the head of children’s services, but he said the services were stretched and they had to prioritise.”
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This article is published in the 15 July 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Call me, I’m a social worker”