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When red tape is a good thing

Ignore social workers’ claims about red tape costing lives – it shouldn’t be easy for the state to intervene in family life.

Ken McLaughlin

Topics Politics

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One of the most worrying social trends today is the way in which informal, unregulated human interaction is being replaced by bureaucratic measures that outline how we should relate to each other. Nowhere is this more pronounced than within social work where procedures, regulations and inspections are often given more priority than face-to-face interaction between social worker and client. This has not gone unnoticed.

According to social-policy professor Eileen Munro, who has been commissioned by the government to look into child-protection services in England, the safety of children is being compromised due to social workers spending too much time form filling rather than spending time with families who require support. The British Association of Social Workers likewise feels that lives could be saved if government action is taken to reduce the administrative burden faced by social workers. The government appears to be receptive to such arguments: trials in Cumbria, Knowsley, Westminster, Hackney and Gateshead will allow social workers to work ‘in ways that they think would benefit children most without the restriction of having to satisfy statutory guidance’.

Now there is certainly an excessive amount of paperwork in social work leading social workers to spend more time interacting with their computers than with families. For instance, one social worker complained that she was reprimanded for failing to record the outcome of an assessment in the time required by policy. And why was it late? She had stayed an extra hour to console an upset child. In cases such as this, the paperwork can be seen as more important than the welfare of children. So, in this respect, the drive to reduce the administrative burden can be viewed as a progressive step within both governmental and social-policy circles.

However, there are a number of problems with both the presentation and implementation of this anti-bureaucratic programme. For example, the argument that the rise in red tape puts children at risk is not as clear-cut as is claimed. In fact, the exponential rise in bureaucratic and procedural measures within social work (and many other workplaces) has coincided with a decline in child abuse-related deaths, which now stand at their lowest level since records began. No doubt the reasons for this fall are complex and may not be related to the rise in proceduralism within social care. But if increased red tape may not necessarily have influenced the fall, it has certainly not led to a rise in the number of children being killed.

The rise in unhelpful bureaucracy needs to be seen as a symptom of a wider societal pre-occupation with risk minimisation. Hence many of these procedures have little to do with the protection of children or adults and more to do with protecting the agency in the event of something going wrong. Such procedural attempts to mitigate risk ultimately lead to defensive practice, a focus on what could happen rather than a more sober assessment of what is likely to happen. In this respect, the rhetoric of risk can be used to argue for and against a reduction in red tape.

So, whenever some sensible suggestions are made to cut superfluous bureaucracy, it is often from within social work that most resistance is encountered. For example, the General Social Care Council (GSCC) will be disbanded in July and its role transferred to the Health Professions Council (HPC). Unlike the GSCC, the HPC does not register students, and recently declared that it did not intend to do so when it takes over the regulation of the social-work profession. However, such a move to reduce pointless bureaucratic measures has been criticised as being likely to put vulnerable people at risk.

Moreover, while the rise of petty and illiberal measures that regulate our everyday interaction is something that needs to be challenged, within social work the same arguments do not necessarily apply. Some procedural measures are needed not only to protect the small minority of children likely to suffer significant harm, but also to protect individuals and families from unwanted state intrusion.

When it comes to intervention in people’s lives, which can ultimately lead to the removal of children or detention in a psychiatric hospital, much of the ‘red tape’ is actually about the protection of freedom and liberty. At times – and I have experienced this myself when working within a mental-health team – this can mean the social worker not being able to take what they believe to be the best course of action. While this can be frustrating, and can lead to a deterioration in someone’s quality of life, it is preferable to having social workers being able to do as they please based on what they think is best for someone else.

So, by all means let’s cut the superfluous, risk-averse bureaucracy that has arisen around social work and social care. However, to do this will require a more sober assessment of risk and a more robust view of citizens than many within the government, GSCC or social work are seemingly capable of.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. His latest book, Surviving Identity: Vulnerability and the Psychology of Recognition, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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Topics Politics

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