Before I qualified, I imagined my life as a social worker as long days spent out in the community helping families overcome barriers they were facing.
I’d be putting the theory I learned at university into practice. I’d be working in a person-centred way. There’d be some paperwork every now and again, yes, but I could pop into the office for an hour or two each afternoon to catch up on that.
I cringe at myself now for how green I was back then and for not realising that the reality of modern child protection (my chosen pathway) can be very, very different.
We often ‘help’ families who, understandably, don’t really like the idea of their entire lives being scrutinised under the auspices of ‘assessment’. Most of our days aren’t spent out in the community but instead in the office, save for an hour or two to pop out for visits every afternoon (or often in the evening due to how busy we are).
We type up casenotes on dated computer systems. We duplicate information over many different forms. We work under a constant pressure to meet deadlines and key performance indicators.
In this data-driven, procedural, functionalist environment the greatest accolades are bestowed upon workers who have everything – visits, core groups, assessments, court statements – typed up and on the system in time.
‘Being efficient machines’
Social workers are praised for being “efficient”, a word that the Oxford dictionary defines as: (of a system or machine) achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort.
Being an efficient machine wasn’t something we spent much time learning about in university. It certainly wasn’t what I dreamt of when I decided I wanted to be a social worker. And it isn’t, at least in my experience, the bit of our work that is most valued by those we’re here to serve.
Instead when I’ve heard children or families praise their social workers it is usually because they’ve been caring, understanding, compassionate, and relatable – not for how well they completed an analytical assessment.
This isn’t to downplay the necessity of our assessments. The reflection and analysis contained in them creates the very foundation of our work. But we’re in danger of paperwork regularly being prioritised over direct work and we need to strike a far better balance for social workers and, most importantly, the families we work with.
A team meeting from three years ago still sticks with me. Asked by a manager about implementing a new way of divvying up initial assessments, a colleague of mine replied: “You can be a good social worker on paper in the office or a good social worker with people out of the office. You can’t be both”.
Feeding the system
I can’t shake the feeling that in the current climate we operate in he may just be right. Too often it feels like we can either feed the system to evidence what a good job we’ve supposedly done, or actually be out there in the community doing the work.
One thing is certain – doing both is nigh on impossible to achieve in a 37 hour week with a caseload of 45 (the highest I’ve had). This matters. Yet in stark contrast to the focus and funding being funnelled in to accreditation tests and new regulation, it is receiving little attention.
When I speak to colleagues who are thinking of leaving the profession, I’m rarely told that it’s the direct practice with children and families or the multi-agency working that is driving them away from a job many spent four or five years training for.
Instead, they point to the procedural pressure placed upon them. It fosters the burnout which results in practitioners having to make a choice between keeping their job or salvaging their own quality of life.
They end up walking away from a job they love because they are having to practice social work within an iron cage. Every single decision has to be accounted for, every minute of direct practice recorded and every outcome for a child linked to a key performance indicator.
New ways of recording?
I understand the importance of recording, especially in an environment of mass staff turnover that means families get jaded with having to retell their life stories time and time again. But we need to be more ambitious with how we record these tales.
With voice-to-text software, digital dictaphones and cloud-server software, it seems archaic that in 2016 we still rely on text-based reports being manually fed into outdated computer systems to form the bulk of our work-based evidence.
If I may be so bold as to propose a truly progressive approach to social work practice, drawing upon the new desire for innovation, I would propose that the government look to buy out councils from long-term deals where people with poor IT skills have been wooed into buying in outdated IT recording systems.
In their place I would wish to see new systems that seek to use video, audio and picture recording to tell the story of the lives of the children we work for.
If such techniques were to take off we’d of course need families and children to come with us in the development of new systems to ensure they were person-centred.
At Community Care Live in May, I heard Lucy Reed, from the Transparency Project, and ‘Annie’, from Surviving Safeguarding, talk about how recording could afford more openness to safeguarding.
This shows that a move away from the time sink of repetitive data entry and towards 21st century methods of recording will, if implemented in a safe and secure manner, help create a more modern way of working.
How nice it would be to have a care-experienced young adult request to see their file and be able to present them with videos, pictures and audio recordings of their life (instead of a succession of stale reports written by a number of workers and using technical language that likely fails to resonate in the real world).
I didn’t become a social worker to feed reports into computers, I became a social worker to help others and to record their life’s story in their own words. Let’s be truly innovative and implement the technology that allows us to do this.
The author is a children’s social worker. Would you like to write for Community Care? Email your article ideas to us here.