Bad Management #1 – Social Work and Serious Case Reviews

I’ve had in mind to write this series of ‘bad management’ for a while now.  I’m happiest when there is a ‘bad guy’ in my research, unpicking a plot with neoliberalism locating Dr Black and Miss Scarlett’s doctor-patient relationship in the market or managerialisation constraining the academic autonomy of Professor Plum in the higher-education institution.  Management is however a fairly broad ranging set of approaches and tools, some arguably in some cases might be more suitable to the public sector and others less so.  What I’m interested is when the wrong management tools are applied for the wrong reasons.  Firstly, why do policy makers and ‘managers’ only go to the management toolbox?  Secondly, we have to see the application of management tools within the managerialisation of the public sector based on the ideology and process of managerialism, defined by Newman and Clarke (2009: 109) as,

an assemblage of practices, strategies, techniques and knowledges [with the] capacity to colonise other forms of power, reassembling alternative rationalities within its own logics.

Managerialisation/ managerialism locates the selection of particular management tools within political and ideological projects: the privatisation of the public sector and the neoliberalisation of society.

All this came to mind when the media filled, yet again, with the face of a smiling toddler next to the graphical representation of the bruises and wounds inhumanly inflicted on him or her and the country turns briefly to consider who or what is to blame.  The boy was Keanu Williams, a 2 year-old boy beaten to death by his mother.  Keanu’s name joins an ever-growing list of lives lost far too soon: Daniel Pelka, Baby Peter, Victoria Climbie and many more alphabetically anonmized children.Screen shot 2013-10-09 at 11.11.55

After such incidents a serious case review is ordered (read this year’s here).  Since Maria Colwell’s death in the 1970s report after report have detailed the failings of social or children’s services to share information and present a joined-up response to spot and act on abuse.  In Keanu Williams’ case the ‘familiar failings’ as reported by the BBC were:

  • “Professional over optimism”
  • A lack of “professional curiosity” in questioning information
  • A lack of confidence among professionals in challenging parents and other professionals
  • Poor communication between and within agencies.
  • A lack of analysis of information
  • Shortcomings in recording systems

As pointed out by Eileen Munro (2005) these professional or human based factors locate the blame with the professional, and feed into the media discourse of failing public sector organisations that can’t keep children safe from abusive parents.  Munro pointed out the difference between the way in which child death was investigated and reported in relation to the systems theory that is used to understand catastrophic failures such as plane crashes or nuclear power plant failures.  The nub is, in systems theory there is no such thing as ‘human error’ but in social work the entire focus has been on human error.

Locating the responsibility or culpability with the social worker the response in the UK has been to develop supposedly robust tools and scrutiny procedures, the application of particular management tools rather than others – such as systems theory – as part of the managerialisation of social work, to manage risk.  Then when a child dies these provide the framework for blaming and punishing professionals who did not, while working in an incredibly complex and challenging environment, work according to a clockwork world of timescales and tick boxes in which all children are kept safe.

Screen shot 2013-10-09 at 11.12.19

Munro outlined an approach that started with the individual factors but went beyond these to consider the resources, constraints and organizational context in which the professional was working.  We should also attend to the role of the social worker as a bulwark between the vulnerable child and adults in an increasingly unequal society with parents living chaotic lives.

There are signs that within children’s social work that the agenda is shifting in how these incidents are investigated,

minister of state for children has recognised that the process of serious case reviews is inadequate. He has asked for analysis in Coventry of cause – the “why” questions – rather than a focus on retrospective description of “what” happened. (Ray Jones 2013)

There are many issues that can be extrapolated from this debate.  One way to describe the managerialism of the public sector is that it’s 20-years out-of-date management from the private sector.  This is true for performance-related pay or the ‘bring in and burn out the bright young things’ that we’re seeing in education. In social work it involved applying processes, tools and procedures from management that sought to de-professional and reduce professional autonomy and judgement replacing them with management-accountability measures. However, systems theory is a well-established management approach so why favour particular management tools that focus on procedures, audit and accountability rather than another more useful management approach, in this case systems theory? This seems to add an extra dimension of the managerialisation thesis that it is the application of particular types of management technologies over others for whatever reason, or more likely as part of the privatisation and neoliberalisation of public sector organisations.

Another question is why do we always go to management tools and techniques developed in the private sector?  One reason is that there is a huge industry devoted to developing the practical tools and techniques but also discourses that enact and promote private sector rationalities, and so the public sector basically borrows and steals ideas developed elsewhere.  The significance of this is that systems theory was developed purpose-specifically to understand catastrophic incidents with the intention of stopping them happening because crashed planes and nuclear meltdowns are bad for business, society and politicians.

So instead of applying techniques developed in other contexts those working in the public sector should have the time, capacity and resources to develop purpose-specific approaches to engage with the challenges they face.  As a society we might have to face up to the fact that individual professionals cannot be expected to, what ever the procedures claim to do, protect children from harm from adults when we as a whole care for neither until it’s too late.

James Duggan

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