Bureaucracy: social workers bogged down by paperwork. Exclusive Survey…

Last month, children’s minister Parmjit Dhanda announced £13m to help social care employers buy laptops and other mobile communication devices to help free up children’s social workers to spend more time in direct contact with clients. New research published today by Community Care suggests his intervention was timely.

Our exclusive survey of more than 1,000 social workers working across children’s and adults’ services reveals that one in four is actively thinking about leaving the profession. The single thing most likely to persuade them to change their mind is less paperwork and more client contact.

Our survey finds that three-quarters of social workers spend more than 40% of their time on administrative work, including more than one-third who spend more than 60% of their working lives on administration. Half also claim to do five or more hours’ overtime every week.

But this is by no means a new phenomenon. Studies from the 1960s and 1970s suggest that it was the norm then for social workers to spend only about one-fifth of their time in direct client contact.

What appears to have contributed towards today’s high levels of dissatisfaction, then, is not so much the volume of paperwork or client contact a social worker’s job involves, but what exactly these different elements entail.

Last year’s Options for Excellence review of the social care workforce suggested part of the problem might lie with more of the direct contact time social workers have with service users being used for assessment activities rather than counselling and support, and with more indirect work involving unnecessary bureaucracy rather than improving outcomes for clients.

Ray Jones, former chair of the British Association of Social Workers, agrees: “It’s not so much about spending time with clients I don’t think that has changed. What I do think has happened is that more non-client time has been distorted. More of it is now spent on bureaucracy than doing things on behalf of clients.”

So, what is already being done to redress the balance between people and paperwork? And what more needs to be done to prevent a quarter of social workers leaving the profession?

Initiatives such as Dhanda’s £13m to help pay for better computers are indicative of the important role technology has to play. Tony Barron, business development director at IT consultancy Anite, believes there has been a breakthrough in terms of practitioners finally engaging in the use of technology to support their own work.

“Historically, practitioners have been wary about the use of IT it has been seen as a management reporting tool, not as being about case management. Now, it is being seen as useful for case management. It is giving them access to their case files ­wherever they are. And it is giving their colleagues elsewhere access at the same time – they can hold multi-agency telephone conferences where they can all see the same documents. That’s seen as a major benefit.”

Anite is working with about 50 local authorities on electronic document and record management systems, and is developing these into the electronic social care records (ESCR) that all councils are now supposed to be using.

Jackie Wilde, who oversees implementation of the ESCR in children’s and adults’ services at Sandwell Council, says introducing electronic records has already reduced the paperwork that goes back and forth between different in-house teams, as well as speeding the whole process for service users. The move has also saved social workers’ time in terms of dealing with inquiries from other agencies and professionals.

At Barnet Council, meanwhile, efficiency savings made three years ago have been reinvested in mobile computers for social workers. Everyone who is not office-bound now has a handheld computer called an Xda, and feedback from staff is positive. Staff are also piloting technology that automatically writes up assessment forms that they complete in people’s homes.

Paul Fallon, who retired as head of children’s and families and director of social services at Barnet Council last month, says: “The Xdas give social workers more flexibility and enable them to make more effective use of their time. For example, if they have to go somewhere for a visit, they can do bits of work if they are delayed or kept waiting. It also keeps them up to date with real time in terms of whatever is on their desktop, and they don’t feel as remote as they might otherwise do when they are out on visits.”

Fallon believes most of the information required by local government, central government and inspectors is information social workers ought to know about their caseload anyway as part of good case management. However, he acknowledges that there is still an issue around duplication, with social workers repeatedly entering the same basic information about clients on different forms.

He hopes that, for children’s social workers at least, new technology being introduced as part of the integrated children’s system will reduce this duplication by automatically populating all statutory return forms with a child’s details when they have been entered once.

But technology is not the only answer. Ann Harrison, national development manager for social care at the Children’s Workforce Development Council, says the workforce body is “absolutely clear” it needs to look at how social work is supported. One way the CWDC is addressing this is by working with adult social care workforce development body Skills for Care to improve leadership and management, and a new supervision module is due to be launched this month.

“We see as crucial embedding in organisations the kind of supervision and management that social workers deserve,” Harrison says.

Inspection bodies also claim to be doing their bit. The Commission for Social Care Inspection says it has already taken steps to “simplify and cut down on processes relating to paperwork for inspection and regulation” and that its new performance assessment framework for 2006-7 will cut the time councils spend collating data on adult social care.

The new enlarged Ofsted, which took over responsibility for inspecting children’s social services earlier this month, says it too plans to write to providers and inspectors to see how inspections can be improved, and will adapt its work to reflect the outcome of a review of national minimum standards.

Andrew Cozens, strategic adviser at the Improvement and Development Agency, says such changes in performance regimes are essential. But he also believes there are significant changes afoot to the way social workers operate that will result in a move away from a bureaucratic model of social work towards one where practitioners are helping service users design their own services.

“A lot of the attraction of the In Control pilots is the way that social care professionals are in more of a brokerage role, and not simply there to determine who does and doesn’t get a service,” Cozens says. “It gives them a chance to re-engage their social work skills.”

Alison Myers-Ward, a social worker in a multi-disciplinary team for adults with learning disabilities in West Sussex, is one such In Control enthusiast who can see the benefits of developing this model. She argues that, if service users truly had control of their budgets, they could commission the services they wanted and there would be far less financial and administrative paperwork.

“We could become better listeners and more involved in therapeutic intervention,” she says. “I think we wear too many hats at present: we have to be good advocates, churn out ever-increasing paperwork, and I’m acutely aware all the time of limitations and competing demands. The role needs to evolve.”

Beating bureaucracy: top tips 
* Make better use of self-assessmnt tools to filter out people who will not qualify for services before they have a chance to add to your paperwork.

* Take the time to learn how to use any in-house electronic document and record management systems properly in order to reap the full benefits.

* Keep case notes up to date. This is good case management, plus it will avoid any last-minute panics when asked to provide information on cases.

* Take a laptop or personal digital assistant on visits in case of delay or to facilitate working en route.

More information
Children’s Workforce Development Council

General Social Care Council


Options for Excellence

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Contact the author
 Lauren Revans

This article appeared in the 26 April issue under the headline “Finding the time”

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The Mental Health Bill: How proper support will make compulsory treatment orders unnecessary

Progess in child protection since the Cleveland child abuse scandal

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