Cutting the red tape: moves to slash social workers’ paperwork

Paperwork, red tape, bureaucracy call it what you will, it has long-been associated with social work.

It comes as no surprise, then, that many in the field have welcomed plans by the Children’s Workforce Development Council to support 18 pilots from across the country to test out ways of working that allow social workers to spend more of their time with children and families and less on form-filling and compiling reports.

The aim of the Remodelling Social Work Delivery Project is not only to improve services to children and their families, but also to help retain social workers and reduce turnover. It will take forward recommendations in Care Matters: Time for Change and complement the social work practice pilots being set up to find out whether, by allowing small groups of social workers to work in autonomous organisations, they can deliver better outcomes for children in care.

Paper obstacles

John Kemmis, chief executive of Voice, the voluntary organisation which works with children in care, welcomes the CWDC plans, saying the issue of paperwork getting in the way of direct work chimes strongly with the experiences of young people in the care system.

“We spent 18 months examining the lives of looked-after children in England and one of the four key recommendations that came out of it was the need to create a better balance between working directly with children and all the other tasks that professionals have to do,” says Kemmis.

“The bureaucratic processes that have become associated with the care system have to be minimised and adapted if we are to serve children as individuals and promote their sense of identity.”

Linking better working practices with improved recruitment and retention is not new either. Options for Excellence: Building the Social Care Workforce of the Future, published in October 2006, linked recruitment and retention difficulties within social work to heavy workloads. The 2003 Victoria Climbié Inquiry report, meanwhile, identified the need for social services departments to tackle supervision issues, manage staff members’ high workloads effectively, and provide strong administrative support.

These findings have been further endorsed by Community Care’s own research. A survey of more than 1,000 social workers carried out in March revealed that 67% of those considering leaving the profession claimed that less paperwork and more direct client contact would persuade them to stay.

Janet,* a senior children’s social worker in Hertfordshire, says she has seen a steady decline in her profession’s fortunes over the past 15 years.

“It’s just not the same job anymore,” she complains. “I spend 90% of my time in the office at the computer. Team managers and those higher up seem to forget that we do actually have to visit families too.

“The feeling I get over the last few years is that social workers are just being used to collate information into reports. The reports are also repetitive, for example we will put together a very detailed child protection report but then we’ll be expected to transfer all that information into a core assessment. Duplication happens all the time.

“I feel like I have been progressively deskilled over the years, with a lot of the fundamental parts of my job taken away. It is difficult to establish relationships with people when you can’t spend the time with them.”

Administrative overload has undoubtedly become a demoralising aspect of a job that cannot be done half-heartedly. James Blewett, research director in the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College, London, says: “Very few social workers enter the profession to fill in forms. They are there because of a sense of vocation they want to form relationships with children and young people, and to make a difference in their lives.

“The CWDC’s proposals would help to reinforce the highly specialised expertise of social workers which is engaging hard-to-reach children.”

How a reduction in paperwork would work in practice – when it seems that the culture of risk management, audit, and assessment is here to stay – is still unclear.

Blewett believes that, for remodelling to work, part of the answer may lay in re-investing in high quality admin and assurance systems.

“Traditionally admin was seen as the backstage part of the workforce and has always been the most vulnerable to cuts,” Blewett says. “Over the years, local authorities have allowed their admin networks to deteriorate, meaning a lot of those responsibilities have shifted over to social workers.”

At the same time, many believe the scale of the bureaucracy itself needs to be addressed.

“Maybe it’s time we became a bit more selective about what is really needed, and pare down performance indicators, and the like, to what is absolutely necessary,” suggests Kemmis.

For Blewett, “a safety first” attitude in children’s social care has led to a proliferation in bureaucracy which can stymie work on the ground. Blewett believes post-qualifying training is essential to repair the confidence of a bruised profession.

“The present culture means that some social workers don’t feel confident enough to work with children on a day-to-day basis. Ongoing training will be needed if they are going to spend more time with clients and be effective.”

Hackney Council is ahead of the game. To address its reliance on up to 40% agency staff and restore a sense of professionalism to its social care services, the east London borough is about to launch a pioneering new model replacing traditional social work teams with “units”.

These units, of which there will be about 50, will each be headed by a consultant social worker, and will include a social worker, child practitioner, clinician and a unit co-ordinator.

Substantial units

Isabelle Trowler, assistant director of children’s social care, says: “These units will be based on service areas like child protection, assessments and court proceedings. Everyone in that unit will know all the children it deals with. This will ensure continuity for children and their families who understandably get fed up with the constant stream of new faces from social services.”

The full-time input of clinicians is unprecedented and will hardwire a therapeutic focus into the Hackney model. “We have been trialling this for the past 12 months,” says Trowler, “and in that time we have reduced the number of looked-after children from 470 to 430.”

Crucially, the role of unit co-ordinator will address the thorny issue of paperwork and be dedicated to the task. “I’ve fought really hard for this role,” says Trowler. “I’m not expected to organise my diary, sort out appointments, and make sure I have all the relevant documentation in addition to my job, so why should social workers?”

The model, which will go live in November, has certainly got everyone talking and resulted in “huge numbers of applicants so far”.

“I think it shows this is how people want to practice,” she says. “They want to be treated as professionals, they want to have direct contact with children and families, and they don’t want to constantly say ‘I’ll have to ask my manager’. This is about giving staff back their professional confidence so they can take decisions and have the support on hand to know they are good and safe decisions.”


The success of each pilot will be judged on a range of factors including:

● Average time spent by social workers with their clients.
● Average time spent on assessment, planning.
● Average time spent on necessary paperwork.
● Staff turnover and absenteeism.
● Job satisfaction.
● The views of service users.


● CWDC-funding is available for up to 18 pilots (two per government region), running from January 2008 to the end of March 2011.
● Pilot bids are being invited from a range of organisations that are either part of children’s trust arrangements or are supported by them, including voluntary, community and faith organisations, private companies, local authorities and other statutory agencies.
● Pilots should enhance the work of local children and young people’s plans.
● Outcomes of the pilots will be used to develop tested models of freeing up social workers’ time to spend with vulnerable children, young people and their families.
● The deadline for pilot applications is 1pm on Friday 19 October, and shortlisted bids will be announced the week beginning 5 November.

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Related article

Hackney reorganises children’s social work

This article appeared in the 4 October issue under the headline “Back on the direct route”

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