‘I didn’t become a social worker to feed reports into computers’

With practitioners needing less paperwork and more direct work, is it time to embrace new ways of recording, asks Social Work Tutor

Before I qualified, I imagined my life as a social worker as long days spent out in the community helping families overcome barriers they were facing.

I’d be putting the theory I learned at university into practice. I’d be working in a person-centred way. There’d be some paperwork every now and again, yes, but I could pop into the office for an hour or two each afternoon to catch up on that.

I cringe at myself now for how green I was back then and for not realising that the reality of modern child protection (my chosen pathway) can be very, very different.

We often ‘help’ families who, understandably, don’t really like the idea of their entire lives being scrutinised under the auspices of ‘assessment’. Most of our days aren’t spent out in the community but instead in the office, save for an hour or two to pop out for visits every afternoon (or often in the evening due to how busy we are).

We type up casenotes on dated computer systems. We duplicate information over many different forms. We work under a constant pressure to meet deadlines and key performance indicators.

In this data-driven, procedural, functionalist environment the greatest accolades are bestowed upon workers who have everything – visits, core groups, assessments, court statements – typed up and on the system in time.

‘Being efficient machines’

Social workers are praised for being “efficient”, a word that the Oxford dictionary defines as: (of a system or machine) achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort.

Being an efficient machine wasn’t something we spent much time learning about in university. It certainly wasn’t what I dreamt of when I decided I wanted to be a social worker. And it isn’t, at least in my experience, the bit of our work that is most valued by those we’re here to serve.

Instead when I’ve heard children or families praise their social workers it is usually because they’ve been caring, understanding, compassionate, and relatable – not for how well they completed an analytical assessment.

This isn’t to downplay the necessity of our assessments. The reflection and analysis contained in them creates the very foundation of our work. But we’re in danger of paperwork regularly being prioritised over direct work and we need to strike a far better balance for social workers and, most importantly, the families we work with.

A team meeting from three years ago still sticks with me. Asked by a manager about implementing a new way of divvying up initial assessments, a colleague of mine replied: “You can be a good social worker on paper in the office or a good social worker with people out of the office. You can’t be both”.

Feeding the system

I can’t shake the feeling that in the current climate we operate in he may just be right. Too often it feels like we can either feed the system to evidence what a good job we’ve supposedly done, or actually be out there in the community doing the work.

One thing is certain – doing both is nigh on impossible to achieve in a 37 hour week with a caseload of 45 (the highest I’ve had). This matters. Yet in stark contrast to the focus and funding being funnelled in to accreditation tests and new regulation, it is receiving little attention.

When I speak to colleagues who are thinking of leaving the profession, I’m rarely told that it’s the direct practice with children and families or the multi-agency working that is driving them away from a job many spent four or five years training for.

Instead, they point to the procedural pressure placed upon them. It fosters the burnout which results in practitioners having to make a choice between keeping their job or salvaging their own quality of life.

They end up walking away from a job they love because they are having to practice social work within an iron cage. Every single decision has to be accounted for, every minute of direct practice recorded and every outcome for a child linked to a key performance indicator.

New ways of recording?

I understand the importance of recording, especially in an environment of mass staff turnover that means families get jaded with having to retell their life stories time and time again. But we need to be more ambitious with how we record these tales.

With voice-to-text software, digital dictaphones and cloud-server software, it seems archaic that in 2016 we still rely on text-based reports being manually fed into outdated computer systems to form the bulk of our work-based evidence.

If I may be so bold as to propose a truly progressive approach to social work practice, drawing upon the new desire for innovation, I would propose that the government look to buy out councils from long-term deals where people with poor IT skills have been wooed into buying in outdated IT recording systems.

In their place I would wish to see new systems that seek to use video, audio and picture recording to tell the story of the lives of the children we work for.

If such techniques were to take off we’d of course need families and children to come with us in the development of new systems to ensure they were person-centred.

At Community Care Live in May, I heard Lucy Reed, from the Transparency Project, and ‘Annie’, from Surviving Safeguarding, talk about how recording could afford more openness to safeguarding.

This shows that a move away from the time sink of repetitive data entry and towards 21st century methods of recording will, if implemented in a safe and secure manner, help create a more modern way of working.

How nice it would be to have a care-experienced young adult request to see their file and be able to present them with videos, pictures and audio recordings of their life (instead of a succession of stale reports written by a number of workers and using technical language that likely fails to resonate in the real world).

I didn’t become a social worker to feed reports into computers, I became a social worker to help others and to record their life’s story in their own words. Let’s be truly innovative and implement the technology that allows us to do this.

The author is a children’s social worker. Would you like to write for Community Care? Email your article ideas to us here.

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24 Responses to ‘I didn’t become a social worker to feed reports into computers’

  1. Sylvia August 17, 2016 at 8:26 pm #

    I think author makes some great points! There seems to be little innovation in our recording processes, I imagine this is because IT developers take instructions from Senior Managers who are concerned about how they will report on outcomes for governmental depts…..

  2. CT August 18, 2016 at 10:28 am #

    “At Community Care Live in May, I heard Lucy Reed, from the Transparency Project, and ‘Annie’, from Surviving Safeguarding, talk about how recording could afford more openness to safeguarding.”

    This was about parents recording social workers so that the words said reflect the word recorded.

  3. Jim Greer August 18, 2016 at 2:55 pm #

    Nobody should be having to write info ratio down on paper and then have to type it in again at an office. Written recording will be necessary but social workers need lap tops or tablets so that they only have to record information once. Tnis had been piloted successfully in a number of authorities.

    • Yvonne Bonifas August 24, 2016 at 7:09 pm #

      I dont want a tablet in front of me when Im interviewing someone, and Im keen on electronic records. I prefer to think about my assessments.

      • Jim Greer August 25, 2016 at 2:12 pm #

        What is the difference between a paper notepad and a small tablet device?
        One advantage of the tablet is that you save time from having to completely rewrite information. Another advantage is that if you can tidy up and edit your notes quickly- you can actually share what you have written with the service user before you leave their house. None of that prevents you from thinking about what you have written and adding to it or editing it later.

  4. carolyne scriven August 18, 2016 at 3:13 pm #

    Too true…they have destroyed the profession…..and made it a profiteering racket and no longer cares about the “human” aspect about helping people. Very slippery slope and that’s why all the good social workers with a conscience have left. Ridiculous and dangerous case loads…for social workers and Managers alike..no/little supervision…deaths and huge miscarriages of Justice occur on a daily basis and this will backfire in the future when children taken wrongly will sue for bad practise. Social work is in a major crisis..not long before the damn will burst! x

  5. Kamarun August 18, 2016 at 3:28 pm #

    Here, here! I agree with the author, having worked most of my 16 year social work career in and out of various statutory sector Local Authority teams I am one of those seasoned professionals that have indeed walked away from social work and become a qualified Counsellor. My reasons for leaving social work were not because I disliked the families or nature of helping and supporting families in need, but because of the red tape, bureaucracy and restrictive recording methods on repetitive forms using IT systems that are create more work than is necessary. My passion for helping families is still very much alive but now its used therapeutically where I do get face to face direct time with those in need instead of sitting at a desk churning out reports with minimal contact. Im sure many other experienced social workers are leaving the profession for similar reasons- more needs to be done to retain seasoned professionals because thats where the expertise, knowledge and years of experience is rooted. Therein is the support structure needed to mentor, motivate and educate the newly qualified front line staff with practical advice and support.

  6. Tim Barker August 18, 2016 at 3:58 pm #

    I feel a rant coming on. I retired from social work a couple of years ago after 40 years mainly working in child care/protection. I would be the first to stress the importance of accurate timely recording but I have often been appalled at the lack of support workers receive in this task. The best set-up I worked in was over 20 years ago in the North East when we had dictaphones which we recorded on immediately after the visit, then handed over to the team admin for typing up-brilliant. Then in the name of efficiency and modernisation, typists were phased out, computers came in and highly skilled social workers became inefficient data processors. The introduction of the Framework for Assessment led to a massive increase in recording requirements. IT providers were way better at promising than providing helpful systems, with frequent breakdowns, and the article suggests that things have not really improved in the last few years. I despair!

  7. Steve Rogowski August 18, 2016 at 5:27 pm #

    Excellent summary of some of the issues confronting social workers in a neoliberal age where managerialism dominates. Instead of a focus on completing bureaucracy speedily so as to ration resources and assess/manage risk, it should be on working with people so as to improve their lives.

  8. Stuart August 18, 2016 at 8:27 pm #

    Thing is, you can measure by counting whether recordings are up to date. Measuring whether you kept a child safe by supporting the parents to change their lives is more difficult.

  9. Moment August 18, 2016 at 11:01 pm #

    Surely, the recording systems that some local authorities are using are appalling and had lost focus of making social work a helping and user friendly profession. It is a fact that funding is running at its lowest, but this does not translate to use of derelict information systems. Some systems like AIS, Erica,… just to mention a few, require a lot of worker input and associating documents that are already on the computer information system. Instead of review of support outcomes, where needs have not changed the system would require workers to restart a full assessment for same to be authorized, resulting in workers being inundated with chunks of forms that would take more than thrice as much as the actual assessment to associate and workflow. The cheap recording systems, while they are intended to be cost effective and probably easier to navigate, miss out on efficiency as the computer systems get too slow due to huge amounts of data to input. Also the systems are always on and off as web traffic is overloaded meaning those at the IT service desks would not cope with excessive demands for support. What does this do to the worker? It builds upon the already huge case load and impact on confidence and public trust. Instead of of us being prepared for defensible decisions, the system failures will cause workers to be defensive, thereby losing professionalism. The whole idea is that cheaper recording systems had seen the local authorities failing to retain experienced workers, which inadvertently disadvantages the service recipients, and result in costly adventures by councils to recruit agency workers at a higher price. The exercise of recruiting though sometimes appeal to new workers, once they experience high case loads against information input system backdrop, they just leave in search of quality towards professional excellency. While Managers would want to save money to meet the national targets, I would urge them to open their eyes and see the whole picture of why there are some challenges in the social work profession output. Unless the managers are in a position to reflect and separate causes of staff discontent from the effects this would have to the general practice and receivers of our service, social care would lose its appeal as a helping service. There is therefore an urgent need for consultation by those in procurement, managers, IT, social workers, and the public we serve to come up with ideas for a safe, effective, and transformative practice.

  10. Karen August 19, 2016 at 7:18 am #

    I worry about the presentation of a dichotomy between reports and direct work. Paperwork (paperwork is accurate recording and reporting) = bad and ‘being with people’ = good. It’s much more complex and while computer systems don’t help, building up a divide can lead to the perception that it is less ‘worthy’ to spend time writing clearly and accurately.

  11. Emilie August 19, 2016 at 2:12 pm #

    I also work in the field of Child Welfare. I feel as though this problem does not lie in the technology available or the requirements of social workers to write thorough comprehensive assessments. It starts with the little value that our society places on families who are raising children. Their is very little support for families, whether they are poor or middle class. We are one of the only industrialized countries in the world that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave. Child care is very expensive and many jobs do not even pay a livable wage. The amount of work that is required simply to survive, draws away from the development of strong communities that would otherwise be a natural support for our youth. It does take a village to raise a child! The very nature of our society creates substantial risk for its most vulnerable members- young children. Funding for Child Welfare simply does not support the idea of low case loads or quality time spent with families. Until our society changes and begins placing more value on quality of life for all people, and less on monetary profit, we will continue to have these struggles.

  12. Andrea August 20, 2016 at 12:28 pm #

    I agree with Karen re setting up the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ argument, the adage ‘ a system is only as good as those using it’ stands, however I also agree with many of the other comments and think that Tim makes a very good point, I too started when you would talk into Dictaphone after visits and pass to admin to type up, you would then proof read and analyse as you did so. The use of IT means that some report are being pulled together from various places and sometimes include out of date info which the social worker hasn’t had the time to check and in some cases hadn’t realised the IT system would pull it from a previous, and now outdated report.
    Finally, Step Up entrants to social work training – some are absolutely brilliant, others,………….very good essay writers.

  13. Janna August 22, 2016 at 11:07 am #

    I wholeheartedly applaud this article – telling it as it is and also coming up with practical solutions, the underpinning social work approach we all need I believe.
    I wonder if Isabelle Trowler has seen this? She would potentially have the power and influence to move the direction of travel…though that said I don’t see much coming from this government to suggest they are interested in making life easier for service users or social workers.
    I appreciate the positive perspective of the author in coming up with new ideas. Perhaps we can all be inspired by this, shrug off the collective weight and resigned inertia and keep on keeping on highlighting ideas for positive change and steadfastly sticking to social work values in the face of adversity

  14. Anita Singh August 23, 2016 at 12:29 am #

    Layers and layers of red-tape, repeating the same information over and over in different formats – the initial assessment, followed by a more comprehensive assessment, followed by a case conference report, followed by minutes, review reports, more minutes and all of the other layers of information, should anything else happen. Eileen Munroe made exactly the same observation and strongly recommended that we get rid of the bureaucracy in social work.

    So why has nothing been done to enforce the Munroe recommendations when we paid good money for her observations of the problems created by bureaucrats? Excellent recommendations and absolutely nothing has been done to implement them. Those who sit in their ivory towers remain married to electronic form filling, tick box exercises, performance targets and spreadsheets and the endless regurgitation of information repeatedly.

  15. Julie August 23, 2016 at 9:38 pm #

    Hear Hear Anita or is it here here lol.
    I don’t believe it’s all about technology in fact the suggestion of tablets so we can write whilst we; talk to family members, chair and contribute to meetings I don’t think so given this profession should be, as it is, about people. Anti oppressive skillful inter-personal communication is not achieved peering over a screen!
    More workers (SW’s & admin) less cases and definately less beaurocracy would enable us to do the work we came into this profession to do – ‘bring about effective change’ that leads to a more harmonious society – yet good paper practice does appear more valued, research such as E.M report ignored, than the ‘real work’ which achieves the aims and positive outcomes for children and families.
    Surely we’ve evidenced by now that the beaurocratic approach doesn’t work and that children’s lives are not enhanced or safeguarded from a desk in the office.
    Social work as a profession seems at worst ‘lost’ and at best ‘mis-guided’;full of contradictions, duplications and lacking in general common sense not to mention ‘risk averse’, under-funded and seemingly lacking any clear, meaningful and honest pedagogical approach
    Oh well; still doing it, still smiling and still think SW’s are the best – Walk tall, hold head high and keep child and family clearly ahead and when able record thoughtfully 🙂

    • Jim Greer August 25, 2016 at 2:04 pm #

      Julie. I dont see what the difference is between typing into a small tablet device and writing notes in a paper notebook. Of course social workers should not be writing or typing while someone is telling them something painful or deeply personal. However, most initial social work visits involve some form of written recording. At least with a tablet the written information can be edited and tweaked rather than having to be completely rewritten.

      • Andrea August 26, 2016 at 10:36 am #

        there is a difference – notes on a pad are aide memoir and dates, using a tablet the worker will become concerned with making the complete recording, because s/he will be concerned with saving time. Active listening and noting facial expressions, where the ability to see the difference between what is, and is not, being said will be missed. I had the pleasure of ‘chairing’ a meeting with a prison resettlement officer who was significantly more interested in recording on her tablet than paying attention to the meeting – the questions she asked appeared to be on the format she was completing,- she missed all concerning clues from the person she was ‘resettling’ in relation to his views about his children, but her recording of the meeting was completed at the same time as the meeting, without reflection. Pointless.
        The likelihood of some one disclosing something unexpected is also lost if you are looking at a tablet.
        Absolutely agree with Anita above – would add cynically that the point of any report is to assuage the braying publics demand that ‘something must be done’ and to give the impression that the Govt who commissioned it is in any way interested.

  16. H August 25, 2016 at 6:22 pm #

    What can we do about this though?
    How can we make a stand to make a change ?

  17. Ellie August 27, 2016 at 9:48 pm #

    Oh, boy! Can I ever empathise with what the author of this article writes! It is SO true to say that most Social Workers do not see direct work with service-users as problematic – as was the case with myself, it’s what they went into the profession to do – they view all the paperwork and endless bureaucracy as problematic.

    O.k.! So, I understand that recording work done is important (to a degree) because it evidences our decision-making process. However, it should NOT be the be-all-and-end-all. The problem with Social Work is that staff are forced by the system to spend so much time on paperwork and recording that they have little left for actual work with service-users. Heck! I could say that on a day-to-day basis, MOST of my time spent as a Social Worker was filling in assessments, completing forms and referrals for services to get commissioned, typing up case notes, sending e-mails or faxes to service-providers (updates, changes in care packages, and so forth),recording case conferences and other things such as Public Protection Meetings, compiling risk assessments… ALL of it paperwork, and SO MUCH of it duplicated time and again. Where the heck in all of this is the TIME to spend with service-users? The irony of it is, if you DON’T spend time with service-users then you DON’T generate all the paperwork! This is a double-edged sword – on the one hand, less paperwork gives you more time (to do what, if you aren’t seeing service-users?); on the other hand, the less you are seen to be recording, the more you are accused of “not being a good Social Worker”, of not hitting deadlines, of missing targets, and so forth.

    Here’s the bit that baffles me most of all… You see, when I did my Social Work training, the impression that I was given was that Social Work was PERSON CENTRED. That means that we are supposed to be seeing things from, and working from, the perspective of the SERVICE USER. What the SERVICE USER says is important! But, HOW can that be, when we work to so much bureaucracy, and have just so much paperwork? The MORE we have to fill in tick-box forms, the more we have to record case notes and meetings with service-users in pre-prescribed ways (usually according to whatever IT package a Local Authority has chosen), the LESS we are actually recording what the SERVICE USER SAID! The whole thing is just SO de-personalised! It’s tick-boxes, ratings, pre-programmed flip-down assessment charts or flow-charts… It’s standardized, formulaic letters, assessment documentation… It’s a “one size fits all” NONSENSE!

    If, as we are supposed to be doing, we should be recording what the SERVICE USER has to say, then why do the systems we use seem to prevent this, or make it so difficult? My own feeling is that the ONLY recording device that a Social Worker should be making use of is one that DIRECTLY RECORDS ANY INTERACTION WITH A SERVICE-USER, such as perhaps a DIGITAL DICTAPHONE which is then uploaded directly to computer to form a service-user’s individual record. That way, the meetings and conversations that a Social Workers has with a service user are directly recorded, and directly presented as evidence of contact, assessment, ongoing work… Besides, if THIS is how Social Workers record the work that they do, there is very little likelihood that service users could complain of not being heard – instead THEIR OWN EXACT WORDS WILL BE RECORDED. I would have thought that such a system of recording would do wonders to empower service-users, because their voices would be heard directly – instead of hearing either the Social Worker’s interpretation of what was said (how easy is it to recall a conversation with a service user that happened perhaps hours before it was recorded? Social Workers often have to complete several home visits, then return to their office before they can start on paperwork, and this can take time. During that time, they have to try to remember all that was said. NOT EASY!). ; or hearing only what outdated systems, tick-boxes and other bits of ill-thought-out bureaucracy will permit the recording of!

    I think the suggestions that Social Work Tutor makes in respect of how Social Work with service-users could be recorded make fantastic sense. Videos, Dictaphones, voice-to-server… any or all of these would, perhaps for the FIRST TIME EVER, allow for the genuine words of service-users to be fully recorded. This HAS to be right. This HAS to be more empowering for service-users than what currently happens. The point surely is TO RECORD A SERVICE-USER’S LIFE STORY IN THEIR OWN WORDS.

    So why isn’t this happening? My feeling is that, if it did, it could simplify so much. It would mean that service-users truly had a voice. It would possibly lead to less litigation, because service-users could not complain that they had not been listened-to, permitted to express themselves, or had been misinterpreted. It might also lead to more creative and innovative care, which would have to address issues as service-users TRULY presented them, rather than merely the results of tick-box assessments, generic recording forms, and so forth.

    Please could Social Work Tutor, and the Social Work profession as a whole, get behind this and push for new ways of recording to be implemented. Oh… and those Social Workers who disagree should perhaps be served with their “sell-by date”, as they are clearly as obsolete as the recording systems that they seek to cling needlessly onto!

  18. Andy August 31, 2016 at 1:13 am #

    I am convinced that senior managers ABSOLUTELY NEVER read these sorts of articles.

  19. CT September 15, 2016 at 6:00 pm #

    it is part of the social work task to reflect and critically analyse in order to do justice to families in reports and assessments. SW need to ensure the voices of the people they work with are heard, the views and wishes of children are considered, and that they are recorded. SW are building relationships, and need to be open to communicating with people in any way they need us to. the introduction of technology needs to avoid being process driven or a barrier. Munro’s view of bureaucracy was not just about saving admin time.

    • CT September 16, 2016 at 4:07 pm #

      P.S. quick review of caseload, no families have internet access.