Why the back office is so vital to social workers

Administrative and IT support is essential for good social care, but all too often practitioners are left frustrated by the systems. What needs to change, asks Gordon Carson

Administrative and IT support is essential for good social care, but all too often practitioners are left frustrated by the systems. What needs to change, asks Gordon Carson

The travails of social workers using information technology, particularly the Integrated Children’s System, have been well documented, and the Munro Review of Child Protection’s first report this year branded IT as often “unhelpful” in social care.

The ICS had also increased duplication and data entry at multiple stages, “creating repetitive tasks that simply did not exist before its inception and now cannot be bypassed”. Frontline workers could certainly have done without this increased workload, especially at a time when children’s services have been under unprecedented pressure.

However, some authorities are pioneering different models of working in social care which are using technology to assist, rather than obstruct, frontline practice, and which also provide extra administrative support (see case study below).

The use of technology to facilitate good practice will become increasingly important and it is adults’ services that are likely to lead the way, says Arlene Adams, managing director of OLM Systems, part of technology supplier OLM Group.

As the shift to personalisation accelerates, she says adults’ services will become brokers, rather than providers, of care.

“Initial assessment will be pushed more out to citizens self-assessing,” says Adams, who also thinks social care professionals will increasingly use mobile technology so they can work on the move.

Denise Harrison, director and co-founder of Liquidlogic, another technology supplier, says the focus on more localisation and personalisation in adults’ services could, however, create extra challenges for IT providers due to the number of potential local variations.

“With children’s services there has been a more prescriptive approach, but in adult social care there’s far more flexibility in how local authorities want to deliver their systems locally,” adds Harrison, who also highlights the ongoing test of integrating social care systems with those in the health service.

While good IT systems should ideally make the recording and management of information easier (though this hasn’t always been the case in practice), high-quality human resources can be equally important in freeing up social care professionals to focus on their core tasks.

The Social Work Task Force found that social care practitioners highly valued administrative assistance, but two-thirds of social workers in statutory children’s services had experienced cuts in this support.

Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social work, is worried that cuts to local authority budgets from central government could exacerbate this problem. “Admin support is being whittled away and decisions are being taken at corporate level to reduce the number of posts by 10% without an assessment of how it impacts on social care professionals,” she says.

Pile also says the move to self-assessment by service users in adult care has not yet reduced the administrative duties of social care staff. “Some of our members say self-assessment can be farcical because the forms that service users are meant to fill out to get resources allocated are so complicated and long that it’s not realistic for them to do it,” she says. “So staff are filling them in but as if they were the service user.

“That’s adding to the time taken to set up people with personal budgets, often when there are not any changes to their care packages. We hope the good ideas coming out of the social work remodelling pilots will get wider publicity. The idea of having quite skilled administrators working with social work teams seems to work very well.”

Pile is more sceptical, though, about administrative staff carrying out initial assessments of people’s needs through telephone interviews, in a model similar to call centres.

“A short phone interview might not be enough for people to express the full range of their needs,” she says.

Case study

Tower Hamlets remodelling social work pilot

Administrative workers have taken the pressure off child protection workers in Tower Hamlets and brought linguistic skills that have aided communication with Bengali service users.

The east London council is one of 11 authorities taking part in the remodelling social work delivery pilot scheme, backed by the Children’s Workforce Development Council, and has recruited two people to fill enhanced administrative roles across two frontline children’s social work teams.

The remodelling administrative officers (RAOs), as they are known, attend weekly team meetings so they are well informed about current issues. They also routinely arrange contact visits and transport, book interpreters, and assist with the induction of new workers.

Social workers are often away from their desks and visiting clients, so accurate message taking is essential. Both the RAOs speak Bengali, which is important in an area where more than half of service users are from the Bengali community.

Tower Hamlets has not made a decision on the future of the RAOs after the remodelling pilot ends next March, but says the benefits of the role are “well recognised”.

The council has also used funding from the pilot to roll out new technology to more staff. For example, team managers have been given BlackBerrys to enable them to keep in touch with social workers when they are out of the office.

More information

UNISON and Community Care’s Social Work Contract says that in order to practise safely and effectively social workers need “the right to a functioning IT system and adequate administrative support so that social workers can use their time on activity that requires their expertise”.

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