The Department for Education should create a model to help social workers make effective decisions, a report from the government’s “nudge” unit has said.
The study, by the Behavioural Insights Team, said there was an almost total lack of robust evidence available or given to social workers on what works in particular contexts”.
The report, “Clinical Judgement and Decision-Making in Children’s Social Work: An analysis of the ‘front door’ system”, was based on visits to five councils plus literature reviews. It listed cultural and circumstantial factors in some social work environments that mitigated against good decision making.
These include “decision fatigue” because so many decisions have to be taken in a day, fear of blame or not using mistakes as an opportunity for learning. It also listed biases, such as making judgements of the probability of events based on how easy it is to think of examples, looking for evidence that confirms pre-existing views and judging cases on their relative rather than objective merits, which could affect social workers judgement.
The report also found time or workload pressures could lead to a reliance on intuition. While skilled intuition based on evidence could be developed, it said aspects of some social work environments could hinder this, such as a lack of timely feedback, a defensive culture and not using mistakes as an opportunity for learning.
It proposed trialling several other measures to deal with these problems. One was testing a series of decision making tools with local authorities – ‘fast and frugal trees’, checklists, and heuristics – which it claimed had worked well in other professions. Another was trialling the effectiveness of feedback.
Instant feedback could “enhance learning greatly”, but is rare in social work, the researchers said. They proposed trialling the “shadowbox” method where experienced professionals “with a strong grasp of the evidence base” help junior staff develop their decision making through hypothetical scenarios.
The report found “front door” social workers had to sift through huge amounts of information and referrals that were not of value. For example, many referrals from police where a child had witnessed domestic violence contained little information about the child.
Instead, the Department for Education (DfE) should develop systems for filtering the information, the report recommended. This would involve working with councils that do not have a multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) model and a trial comparing the effectiveness of MASH to non-MASH models. A trial should also test the value of a culture that prizes learning and views mistakes as opportunities for improvement, it recommended.
Social workers require a blend of skills that are not often found together, researchers found. They need to be highly analytical; empathetic; decisive and assertive in their communication, so some professionals would be weaker in some of these areas and need help to develop them.
The detailed report has provoked a variety of opinions across the sector. Joanna Nicolas, a child protection consultant and trainer, agreed with much it, admitting social workers did not always know the theory behind their work and had to sort through a very large amount of information.
She disagreed with the idea that they faced “decision fatigue”, however. “Decision fatigue – that is not my experience. I think they make very quick decisions, because they have to, [which are] based on their intuition and experience as opposed to being evidence-based. This isn’t criticism of social workers; it’s the reality of how they are working,” she said.
She also agreed there was a problem with agencies passing on large volumes of irrelevant information, and that social workers need a blend of skills not often found together. She added: “Social workers are not given the time for reflective practice or the time to do training and learn about new things and if they are then they are not given the time to embed it.”
Sue White, professor of social work at Birmingham University, said: “My view is that the review suffers from an apparent lack of knowledge of the existing research on social work decision making and heuristics. The research within the report itself is very limited.
“There are a number of thorough ethnographies of social work, which look in detail at the contingencies and complexities of this and much cognitive science of importance.
“I am unconvinced by many of the recommendations about decision support, which appear to rely on evidence from fields with limited if any relevance to social work. It is unclear what is its purpose, why or by whom it was instigated.”