Munro review: we need less bureaucracy, more social work

Stop looking for a magic bullet to help protect children and let social workers do their job, says Munro adviser Sue White

In April of last year, I wrote a piece for the Guardian’s Joe Public blog about the reforms to children’s services rolled out after Lord Laming’s report into the death of Victoria Climbie in 2003. I noted that the centrally driven, performance management regime and rigid practice model had promised the social work profession a safe 4×4 in which to negotiate its complex work, but instead they left us down a muddy track in a Reliant Robin. So, I urged my profession to ‘get out and walk’.

The dysfunctions and unintended consequences of the reforms became widely debated after the reporting of the death of Peter Connelly in Autumn 2008. The publication of Eileen Munro’s interim report The Child’s Journey last week seems to mark a sea change in understanding about the ways safe practice and safe organisations can be most effectively supported.

At this point I have to be honest and say, mine is not an independent viewpoint. I currently serve on the reference group for the review, so it is unsurprising that I support the arguments in the report. But I do believe that the report is clear that there is no magic database, IT system, or inspectorial regime which will protect children and support vulnerable families.

Rather it emphasises human factors; professional judgement, in all its cognitive and emotional complexity, and systemic thinking should be allowed to work towards the design of safer organisations. It signals a move towards a relaxation of the arbitrary timescales and targets that have dogged children’s services for the last decade and which my own research has shown have created dysfunction and distraction. Several “journeying” authorities are trialling a new approach which allows them to deviate from the current timetables, and I am sure that the April report will build on their experience and learning to suggest a different way forward.

The current report promises that the evaluations by Ofsted of serious case reviews will end “in due course”. Personally I hope that means just about now, as the process is hugely detrimental to the real learning that needs to take place when a child known to services dies as a result of abuse or neglect, or is non-accidentally injured.

However, there are significant challenges ahead if the change in orientation is to reach fruition. Many of the changes of the last decade do not easily reverse. The complexities of the reform of the IT systems is well-documented and is proving expensive for local authorities in increasingly strapped times. Many local authorities have centralised their “front door”, taking social workers out of the communities in which they work, often using hot desking and “agile” working as a means to increase cost-effectiveness and keep capital costs down. But given the renewed emphasis on relationships and local knowledge and the welcome rediscovery of helping, this does not look like a optimal service design.

In a recent survey by the trade magazine Community Care 73% of social workers said they would like to return to working a patch, yet the trend is in the opposite direction. So, how will we turn the juggernaut round? First by recognising what it is wrong – agile working, may well be better known as fragile working if it inhibits the sort of reflective, analytic professional supervision we know is needed to ensure that human factors are an asset, not a liability.

The first step is to start to design safety back in – and it is not impossible to do so within the warehouses that have become commonplace homes for social work teams, but it does require imagination, flair and honesty about the in-built challenges of such structures. No more head in sand, no more hubris – let’s get our design caps on and make our practice safer. The profession is agile enough to cope with agile working, but only if managers harness their own talents and those of their social workers. This needs openness to criticism and mutual respect – and the latter has to be earned through thorough engagement with and proper understanding of the real business – the work with children and families. With more autonomy comes more responsibility – let’s show we can take it.

Professor Sue White teaches social work at Birmingham University and is part of the reference group for the Munroe Review