Saturday, 19 March 2011

Communication strategies.

I've been planing to write about technology and social care for a few weeks now. I'm still formulating that one, but once again something written on the topic (in the Guardian as ever) has caught my attention and forced my hand. It was a call to harness the power of the Internet to aid communication between organisations and service users more of whom the article assumes will be using individual budgets.

The crux of the article is summarised neatly in one paragraph:

Complimenting this is the interaction between organisations and their clients, cementing online communication as superior to other mediums. The modern Internet holds the potential for service providers to reassure people by offering easy, quick and cheap methods of communication. Being able to receive and respond to feedback, offer online advice and allow vulnerable people to apply for help from their homes are now basic communication requirements in an inter-connected world.

As the commenter's (myself included) point out there are many issues around using the Internet, not least the fact that certain groups have greater access to it than others; Though the article suggests that more people, particularly in the older persons bracket are getting online, the phrase 'digital divide' still seems apt. Another issue is that in my experience for social care email is quite possibly the worst form of communication. Mainly because the conversation is one sided making it very hard to make a quick assessment of a situation. Much more preferable is a telephone call allowing you to get much more info in a shorter time as well as judging a persons state from their tone of voice; scared, upset, confused? Not so easy to tell by email. Top of the tree is a face-to-face visit where you can read a whole set of non-verbal cues and see a person in their surroundings.

The one thing the article does get right is that email is a cheap method of communication. I know a few years ago some authorities still visited almost everyone who asked for assistance to carry out a face-to-face assessment, but it became increasingly common to find 'contact centres' being set up where initial assessment was done by telephone, with some being 'screened-out' so never receiving a visit. Undoubtedly this trend was driven by a need to stretch resources so its quite possible that email or self-assessment via a website will prove hard to resist for cash strapped authority's and rather than helping "people feel closer to those who provide key services" it erects yet another barrier between them.

It's not that I'm some kind of Luddite. I believe that the Internet and email does have a valuable role to play in social care however, as usual I have a number of concerns. Just a couple of years ago for instance my authority announced it was phasing out information leaflets; those ones you see in racks on the wall of a GP's surgery waiting area, or just inside the door of a community centre. It reasoned that they were a costly and inefficient way of communicating with people, so save for a couple they were to be only available on the website in PDF format. In part the authority had a case, keeping the leaflets up to date was a costly exercise (also arguably environmentally unfriendly) and there was no control over the numbers of out-of-date leaflets in various locations all with the wrong information and old phone numbers belonging to teams which have since been re-organised at least 5 times. They also decided to pahse-out the leaflets in various languages, again they could well have had a point as in the office we did have a filing cabinet bursting with leaflets in Polish which never saw the light of day due to there being no demand for them. The councils proposal was that instead translations of all the leaflets would be carried out on request.

Clearly, apart from the cash saving, none of this been thought through. What if people don't have Internet access, and will people at possibly the most vulnerable time in their lives manage to navigate the complexities of a councils web site to find the right leaflet, or is it more likely that they'll spot it in a GP's surgery? Yet again an assumption has been made that the service user is an informed consumer just like someone shopping around for the best car insurance deal when often this is not the case. As for the language issue the situation is even worse. The piles of unused leaflets were not the problem, rather they were the symptom of a wholesale failure to engage with minority communities, particularly the most vulnerable among them; making leaflets only available on request (along with pulling funding from the jointly funded post of a sensory services minority outreach worker and cutting funding for neighbourhood advice centres - where face-to face advice and information leaflets both in a range of languages were easily available) would make matters much worse than they already were.

Fortunately I did notice a leaflet recently in a GP's surgery so unless its an out of date one there may well have been a u-turn on the leaflet policy. I hope so as for all it's promised advantages we need to be careful that new technology does not mean people are left behind.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

When is a social worker not a social worker...

When is a social worker not a social worker? Apparently the answer is when they're impersonating one as Tracey Smith, an 'unqualified assistant social worker' found to her cost resulting in a conviction and fine of £230. I won't dwell on the particulars as it's all in the original Guardian article, but just to say the deception seems to have been mainly based around job references and CV 'creativity'in which she had claimed to have been a social worker.

Ethically this is rather dubious and of course not defensible in any way, but I wonder if the question over what is a social worker is quite so clear-cut. I always remember my first day working for social services; being shown around my biggest shock was that most people were not social workers, in fact apart from the team manager there was only one qualified social worker in a front-line team of 12-15 people. The rest held job titles ranging from admin to information officer, contact assessor and unqualified care manager.

One thing which struck me about my time in public service was the importance attached to job titles. For every visiting professional, dignitary or student social worker we introduced ourselves in turn by name and job title. Each title had a carefully worked out job role courtesy of HR and fitted into a well defined pay structure, not to mention office hierarchy as hilariously demonstrated by this Clare in the Community cartoon (Scroll down to October the 10th).

Despite their importance within the organisation, to the general public such distinctions didn't matter, most would differentiate between admin and a social worker, but almost all, like I had before I joined, just assumed that everyone else was a social worker. Sometimes though this assumption would break down. My first role was answering the telephone, the system broadly operated in the following way: I would take down a persons details and an outline of their particular problem then pass this onto the social-worker who would then call them back or put the form in a tray for one of the other unqualified workers to deal with. Occasionally I would be asked if I was a social worker...

Caller: are you a social worker?

Me: No, I'm a receptionist

Caller: So you can't help me then?

Me: I can see if I can help you, would I be able to take some details from you, then I'll pass them onto the social worker?

Caller: No, I need to speak to the social worker. Now.

Me (to social worker) Umm, I've got someone who says they want to speak to you.

Social Worker: I'm busy I'm afraid, tell them I'll call them back. Take some details.

Pretty much whenever the assumption that I was a social worker broke down the whole system went out the window.

So this poses an interesting question, I was not impersonating a social worker, but to do my job I was relying on peoples assumptions that I was a social worker. My bosses I hasten to add were fully aware of this fact as I told them this many times. Eventually my old job role of answering the phone was shipped out to Capita, would people then stop assuming they were speaking to a social worker when they called in? every so often we'd be told by someone, sometimes even from a professional, that they had spoken to a 'social worker' the day before when in fact the person they had spoken to was based in the call-centre.

Aside from all this within the organisation, job roles though strictly defined on paper also have a habit, especially in times of staff shortages, of developing grey areas round the edges. I've seen safeguarding adults work being done by what we called 'unqualifieds' and it's also not unusual for a newly qualified social worker in a small team to be under the wing of a more experienced but unqualified worker for up to a year.

It was all brought home to me when I was having a conversation with a French Canadian chap and his girlfriend in a hostel on the continent. We were talking about our jobs over dinner. I had described my day-to-day job role to them, but the girlfriend had struggled with some of the language and terms I was using. She asked her boyfriend to help interpret. I picked out two words among what he told her....... 'social worker'

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Gadaffi and the LSE

This may of course just be an isolated case, but am I alone in wondering whether the much vaunted and terminally embarrasing link between Gaddafi regime and the LSE rings alarm bells when it comes to the plans of exposing much more of the public sector to market imperitives and the influence of filthy lucre?