Targets, paperwork and scrutiny don’t make us better social workers

Social Work Month 2011

The Guardian: No-one ever tried to performance manage Mahatma Ghandi. Mother Teresa didn’t have to fill out quarterly reports. Martin Luther King Jr wasn’t concerned by key performance indicators. And on that basis, as great as these figures were as agents of social change, none of them would land a job in public services these days.

Two mantras I’ve often come across as a social worker are: “If you didn’t record it, you didn’t do it” and: “What gets measured gets done.” Both of which make you wonder how much more Nelson Mandela might have achieved had he been filling out the right forms.

We live in an age of accountability and, of course, you should expect a social worker to have performance targets. Everyone else has them. A friend of mine, working in a call centre, used to return home from work each night horrified that even the length of his toilet breaks were monitored.

Social services hasn’t got that far yet. But most other parameters of our work are recorded; how often we see a client, the length of time we spend with them, what the nature of each visit is. And I’m not saying this is a bad thing. We’re a public service. You have a right to know how well we’re performing.

But does it actually work?

I’d say it’s questionable. There’s often a powerful mismatch between the information an organisation wants and what frontline staff can actually provide without impairing their ability to do the job.

A belief has arisen that the more a job is scrutinised, the better it will be done. And, up to a point that’s true. But with the dawn of the computer age, when all it takes is the workforce tapping in some new data, there’s no limit to what senior managers will ask for.

Timescales for seeing clients are a big one, but you can also record how quickly documents are completed, how complete these documents actually are, how long social workers spend with clients, how long they spend in meetings talking about clients, and then, from drop down boxes, what was the purpose of talking about the client. Everything is outcome based.

But we’re venturing into a world where good judgement isn’t enough. All that matters are the statistics and how these can be used to demonstrate good performance. Yet, harvesting all this takes time, and that inevitably takes away from performance. It doesn’t add to it.

Once I attended a meeting in which a secretary with a stopwatch timed how long everyone talked so she could compile a spreadsheet. Senior staff then reviewed this at a week-long event, so they could see whether meetings could be run more efficiently.

I despair. As a public service we need to perform well, no question. But if Martin Luther King Jr had taken this approach to organise his march from Selma, he wouldn’t have got as far as putting on his shoes.

Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd


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