Some performance!

Imagine you worked in a business where you were paid to manage invisible processes producing invisible results. Imagine if the resources that you needed to produce these results were largely invisible – or, worse still, beyond your immediate control.

Managers in social care grapple with this sort of invisibility every day. Ambiguity, uncertainty, risk and scarcity are the stuff of our daily working lives. Just to add to the pressure, we are routinely taunted with comparisons with manufacturing and retailing such as “if M&S can do it, why can’t you?”. The answer is that selling knickers and sandwiches to a grateful public is not in the same league as helping people with learning difficulties to lead independent, safe and fulfilling lives or helping children separated from their natural parents find new families.

Managing in this environment is stressful. This stress comes partly from being unable to “see” the things you are responsible for managing. Good information can help to make things more visible. And good information is:

  • Relevant: it is about issues that are important and that make sense to you.
  • Timely and reliable: it is up to date and arrives on time.
  • Accessible: you can get hold of it when you want it and you can understand it.
  • Accurate: you can trust it.
  • Sensitive: it can detect changes.
  • Anticipatory: it warns you about events before they have happened – not when it is too late.
  • Balanced: it allows you to form rounded judgments.
  • Data presented in graphs and tables can increase accessibility and acceptability.

There is much good information but we do not always organise it in ways that are helpful to managers. Too often information is seen as something we collect for somebody else – for head office or the government.

Indeed, the media all too often highlight the manipulation of data and indicators by hospitals, for example, to achieve targets. This can often result in cynicism. And any staff enthusiasm can be dumped into the recycle bin if they see no rhyme, reason or benefit. They spend time collecting the stuff, pressurising the grey matter only for it disappear into a black hole.

But if you are collecting this stuff anyway, why not use it yourself? For example you can use it to:

  • Reinforce good practice by feeding back to staff the results of their efforts.
  • Improve local accountability by sharing information with service users and their advocates.
  • Identify areas for practice development and service improvement.
  • Help staff and services users judge the effectiveness of efforts.

We need to consider the quality of the information collected and made available. Management information should inform decisions and lead to better outcomes for service users, otherwise it has failed. It is a fine balance between collecting information and measuring performance for its own sake rather than to change practice.

Nonetheless, by valuing information, you can help encourage a culture of inquiry within your team – a culture that encourages it to routinely challenge its effectiveness. When staff see that the data they are responsible for collecting is being used purposefully, they are more likely to take an interest in the quality of that data. It is important to remember that information is only the starting place for questions about performance. We need to make sure that our conversations about performance are balanced by users’ views, professional knowledge and practice wisdom.

Typically, information is distributed across an organisation with different parts of the picture held in different places. This information can be routinely drawn together to help staff judge progress towards user-valued outcomes. You could begin this by undertaking an audit to check what information you have about each of the intended outcomes of your service. You could include feedback from user consultation, analysis of complaints as well as quantitative data.

The way we present and talk about information is critical to its acceptance by staff. Understandably, many people find the language and paraphernalia of performance management a big turn-off. You came into social work to help people and before you know it you are in a benchmarking club earnestly comparing run-charts with staff from a sausage factory.

If performance management is to mean anything to staff, we need to make it about social work. We now have regular access to information that in the past we could only dream about. For example, in the late 1980s, challenging questions were asked about the educational attainments of looked-after children. Fifteen years later, every council in the country routinely collects information on this subject. Yet there is a danger that all the fuss and noise around “Best Value Performance Indicator Number 50” drowns out important professional debates around the outcome that the indicator is intended to measure.

The introduction of star ratings in social care has tended to focus attention on the use of performance assessment as a means of accountability. This has been at the expense of using it to help the organisations learn how to deliver better client outcomes. Too often, managers want to go flogging through the indicators, seemingly oblivious to the objectives that the indicators were designed to measure. Sustained progress on performance will be driven by a collective concern for better outcomes for service users, not by short-term data fixes.

Mike Pinnock is policy, planning and performance manager, North Lincolnshire social and housing services. Additional material by Des Kelly, partnerships director, Bupa homes, and Claire Smart, purchasing manager, Gloucestershire social services.

Top tips

  • Focus on getting outcomes right for service users. The performance indicators will follow.
  • Undertake an audit to see whether you have feedback on each of the outcomes that your service is committed to.
  • Organise performance reports and presentations around user-valued outcomes. Involve staff and service users in reviews of performance reports.
  • Settle for “good enough information” – you will always want more, you will always want it to be better – at some point you must go with what you have.

Rubbish tips

  • Keep shouting about the performance indicators and staff will get the message.
  • Gather information for its own sake. You never know when it might be useful.
  • Management information and performance indicators are not relevant to the private and voluntary sectors.
  • As long as you can tick the box you’ll be OK when the inspectors come.

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