My mum once told me that the day (long ago, sorry mum!) she decided not to be a social worker any longer, was when a quirk in policy and process at her council meant that a highly distressed mother and vulnerable child clearly in need of help came through the door, and her main concern was how best to fill out the paperwork because she was concerned that if she categorised the issue as internal process required they wouldn’t be able to get the right help. She knew that the outcome for them wouldn’t be ‘what they really needed’ from that point onwards, and wasn’t comfortable with the position she was placed in.
When working with clients on a day to day basis, I always try and keep that story in my mind, because I never want to be the consultant that makes a decision – whether through ignorance, accident or even good intention– that might result in a similar perverse outcome for those delivering on the front line and their customers. That said, it is a key part of my job to sometimes develop the evidence base and make the recommendations that lead to significant changes that do impact on services, and which staff may not always be immediately happy about.
It can be easy to get frustrated by the perceived stubbornness of some services, particularly adults and children’s social care departments, when it comes to change. The oft cited ‘increased risk for our service’; ‘worst case scenario’ and ‘front line impact’ are heard so often during periods of transformation that it can be tempting as a someone from outside the service or an external consultant to dismiss it as “they always grumble about change” rather than taking on board the genuine meaning behind the resistance.
But it’s not always just grumbling. Back office cuts, which might make sense in an Excel business case, might reduce the time available for frontline delivery which would ultimately limit the face to face time for spotting things like the recent child sexual exploitation which have dominated the headlines over the past few weeks. Insufficient admin resource might lead to vital paperwork not being completed which might result in a delay to a child being taken into care, leaving them at risk of real harm for longer than they should be. Having someone non-specialised answer the phone might be fine for 9 out of 10 cases, but may mean that a customer who doesn’t explain their problem explicitly enough does not get picked up as a real and present risk, while those who recognise the subtle warning signs would have taken action. I’ve previously been told “we need to manage our own FM service because Ian Huntley was a caretaker,” which, while I refuse to take it as an argument against commissioning council-wide facilities management when everything is considered, is at least a good example of how sometimes, something which seems unrelated and an easy target for savings can have unintended consequences.
As it is, there is now no alternative but for even those most valuable front line services to feel some of the budget reduction pain. The few children’s services departments that have so far managed to remain untouched will have no choice but to participate in the next frontier of public sector savings, as one of the largest areas of local authority spend. And it is quite right that where things can be done differently, they are, and that service experts engage with the necessary change, if only to ensure the maximum information is available to mitigate the risk. However, it is also incumbent upon those working with these services to make this change safely. That means we must listen carefully and genuinely and take on board the risks that are raised by these services, as “the worst that can happen” in this case is an important consideration. As The MJ (£) noted this week “there is no room for complacency when it comes to protecting children.”