IT and communications key to improved quality

Local authorities can boost the quality of their social services
by adopting quality management agendas and updating their
information technology, according to a new report by the Social
Services Inspectorate, writes Craig

The report Quality on the Way draws on recent
inspections of 10 councils: York, Windsor and Maidenhead,
Portsmouth, Luton, Sheffield, Sefton, Islington, Cornwall,
Wolverhampton and Nottinghamshire.

Best Value reviews were in progress in all councils, and there
were ‘encouraging signs’ that these were being used to
raise quality, the report says.

The SSI found independently validated quality systems like
investors in people and charter mark to be ‘not merely window
dressing, but of great benefit’.

Information and communications technology were found to be the
most important factors in improving quality, with even modest
changes leading to ‘dramatic’ results – for
example, Sefton Council managed to shorten waiting lists for
adoption, and reduce the use of residential care for looked after

But three councils used ‘outdated and cumbersome’
communications technology, making it difficult for service users to
contact social workers. Lack of e-mail and fax machines made it
hard for social workers to arrange care packages.

A particular problem in tracking progress was inaccurate
baseline information, with the accuracy of some financial data
found to be ‘questionable’. Performance indicators on
unit costs showed wide variations, particularly for in-house

The SSI found it ‘worrying’ that some in-house
services remained reluctant to implement their recommendations, and
that contract standards were not always applied to in-house

While eight councils had independent reviews of cases to ensure
consistent quality, managers in three authorities did no audit or
monitoring of files or cases.

Good policies on quality were often ‘compromised’ by
a lack of suitably trained and qualified staff, notably in
children’s and family services and mental health social work,
the report says.

In some councils, fieldwork staff and managers did not
understand their role in contributing to quality services, while
good practice in one part of a council was often unknown in

Failure to take account of users’ views also hampered
efforts to raise quality, the report says.

Where care packages were brought in from several different
agencies, users were often confused about who to complain to.

Some councils did not meet the timescales for responding to
complaints, and in one case response to a complaint about a looked
after child took a year.

The inspectors found an under-reporting of complaints, often
about inflexible care packages where, for instance, a resident had
to go to bed at a time convenient to staff.

The report is available from






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