By Dr Rick Hood
Child protection, a complex and politically sensitive area of practice, has long had an issue with performance.
Its public reputation has been scarred by hostile media coverage of deaths from child abuse, while Ofsted inspections recently found almost three-quarters of local authority children’s social care services to be inadequate or requiring improvement.
Dr Rick Hood will be speaking on a panel discussion on ‘Inspection and the measurement of services’ at Community Care Live
There is understandable pressure that such a contentious public service should be transparent and accountable to the people who use and pay for it.
But what are the measures to reliably gauge the quality of a service? Particularly where the protection of children is concerned?
Part of the problem is that performance is an ambiguous concept that combines ideas of functionality, comparability and compliance.
This means that different measures of performance sometimes produce contradictory results. International statistics on deaths from child abuse, for example, show that the UK system functions relatively well, whereas Ofsted’s latest annual report into children’s social care describes a sector struggling to cope with the pressure on frontline services.
Child protection workers are in contact with some of the most vulnerable children in our society. Yet there are very few ways of tracking outcomes for these children after they receive a service.
Instead, what tends to be measured is the quality of the process: how long an assessment takes; how long a plan lasts for; how soon after a strategy meeting a conference takes place.
Process indicators should ideally have a clear connection to the benefits of intervention. Yet the only outcomes indicators that are collected routinely – such as rates of re-referrals within 12 months of case closure – measure failure rather than success.
Even then, there is no evidence that adherence to targets for work completion improves outcomes as measured by re-referrals.
Indeed, the influential Munro Review of child protection took the view that such targets had a distorting effect on practice and recommended that they should be scrapped.
Nonetheless, timescales remain a prominent feature of performance management in child protection. In part, this reflects a longstanding focus on internal audit and quality assurance, reinforced in recent years by electronic workflow systems that allow this type of performance data to be easily captured.
Lack of empirical evidence
Another contributing factor may be the lack of evidence-based process measures, which would seek to align patterns of intervention with empirical evidence of effectiveness in certain contexts. This issue points to another key characteristic of child protection, namely its association with the social work profession, which has in the past struggled to establish its ‘scientific’ credentials.
Performance indicators are neither neutral nor objective; they also shape and influence the services they purport to serve.
There is an obvious pitfall here. Research shows that measures only work properly when they derive from the purpose of a service. Once services begin to be designed around their measures, it results in waste and inefficiency.
In this respect, it is worth noting that statutory agencies routinely subject families to multiple assessments and transfers between different services and workers.
Purpose and design of services
So while individual pieces of work might be done in a timely and professional manner, from the perspective of families, the overall service may be experienced as fragmented, time-consuming and repetitive.
Deciding what to measure in child protection involves thinking deeply about the purpose and design of services. Simplistic and polemical debates about those services may suit the aims of politicians and the media, but are ultimately to the detriment of the children and families who depend on them.
Dr Rick Hood is a senior lecturer in social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London. He will be speaking on a debate about inspection and the measurement of services at Community Care Live, Birmingham on the 10th and 11th of May.