Inspections can lead to quality improvements

    Local authorities can dramatically improve the quality of their
    social services by making relatively small changes, according to a
    new report by the Social Services Inspectorate.

    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 states.

    And 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 factor 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 children.

    But three councils used “outdated and cumbersome”communications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 services.

    The SSI found it “worrying” that that contract standards were
    not always applied to in-house services.

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

    Meanwhile, 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.

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