Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Record keeping in the public sector: has it gone too far?

The recent Times article by Rosemary Bennett, Social Affairs Correspondent (Bureaucracy stops us helping children, say social workers) raises some important issues, but side-steps them in flavour of political mud-slinging.  As the Times and its readers are basically Tory, it's hardly surprising that the article and most of the comments are political and anti-Labour. Which is a shame because herein lies an important issue that transcends politics.

The basic premise the article addresses is whether or not record keeping by vocational workers like socials workers, nurses, etc. detracts from them doing their job.

The case against record keeping (apparently) is that we have workers whose aim is to serve a vulnerable group - in this case it's children's social workers, but it could as easily be social workers who support the elderly, nurses, teachers, etc.. In every case there's the direct work that they do for the people they support. I think we all agree that this is and must be their absolute primary focus. I'm sure Mr Balls would subscribe to that view.

But we're all only human, and human beings make mistakes. We forget to do things; we can make the wrong decision sometimes; we can misinterpret; and so on. Keeping thorough records of what we do helps to prevent the forgetting, etc..

Also, we don't work in isolation. If a teacher suspects a child is being abused and can see that social workers are also involved with the family and that the child has also had several A&E appointments, it can help them to make a more considered decision about whether there is a real danger or not. So we need to share information (let's not get into the security issues as, although important, it's a side-issue).

So here we have a valid case for record-keeping. Now let's be honest here: no one likes to keep records. You've just had an emotionally draining session with a vulnerable child's single mother, and the last thing you want to do is write out and record what happened. But it is so essential.

So please let's stop railing against the need for people in these professions to keep detailed and thorough (and, yes, time consuming) records. Instead let's look at the related issues of (1) what the record keeping involves; (2) how this is monitored; and (3) capacity and resource.

(1) Record keeping rules

We do now suffer from the record keeping pendulum having swung too far. Somewhere there should be a mechanism for assessing what records are required and preventing the requirements becoming too bureaucratic. This isn’t be easy, and the present government has made a lot of mistakes in trying to improve record keeping: so this is one area where they need to be challenged. Not whether records are needed at all, but the extent to which the record keeping is now required. We need to ask searching questions about that and not get diverted by whether we need records at all.

(2) Monitoring

If we must keep records, then it stands to reason that they have to be monitored in some way. Other people will rely upon them to make their own decisions (see my earlier example about the teacher), but the workers themselves need the records to be accurate (“What was it I promised to do at that case meeting yesterday?”). So there does need to be some form of checking. However it seems to me that we have also gone too far on this one. Independent auditing by bodies like Ofsted is very dangerous because (a) the body itself starts to create an industry around an activity that should actually be as pared down and unobtrusive as possible (and that’s a fault of the organisations, not the politicians); and (b) over time the initial intentions can get obscured as more and more levels of monitoring are accreted. Again, I think the government has erred here (for the best reasons), and has not been sufficiently robust in challenging the monitoring regimes that have been set up (are they really fit for purpose?).

(3) Capacity

Finally, if we can get the level of recording and monitoring right, I suspect we’ll still get cries of “I don’t have enough time to do my job properly”. Well this isn’t an issue about record keeping, it’s an issue about capacity. If teachers have classrooms of over 40 students, or social workers have huge case loads, let’s tackle that issue and not get side-lined by the record keeping aspects of the job. And here is one area where the government have done well. They have brought classroom sizes down (my wife is a teacher), they have poured more funding into public services like social work and health.

So in conclusion, by all means let’s challenge the politicians. But let’s do it intelligently and let’s address the real issues. In the case of public sector record keeping, it’s not whether the records are needed (yes they are), it’s about the degree to which they are required and the appropriateness of the monitoring mechanisms. And probably even more important than this, is the underlying issue of whether there is enough capacity to carry out the jobs effectively.

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