Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The fake lure of efficiency

The Guardian looks back at the social work system, one year on from the Baby P case. A lot of this sums up what Into The Machine is all about - how the use of technology affects our ability to actually do the job. For instance, one social worker complains that:

"It is obvious to social workers that the orders from above are focused on a social worker's ability to fill in forms"

while Helga Pile from Unison notes:

"When I speak to social workers in child services, excessive workload is the top problem they face and a big part of this is the integrated computer system, which is making work very difficult."

This highlights the function that top-down, "efficiency" management attitudes play in the failure of the system.

We should emphasise the word "top" in that last sentence. This is not middle-down management, this is a system put in place by those who see an organisation in terms of money-saving, rather than output-production. Compare this to our attitude towards management more broadly:

"Sixty-eight per cent said they had fallen into the role by chance."

"And 40% admitted they had not wanted the responsibility of managing people at all."

What is this about spending most of our efforts on managing our efforts? At what point does management become a vicious circle? The idea that one should get one's own affairs in order to offer a better service is a noble, and indeed proper one. But it is useless if that improvement is a lip-service publicity sham, or has no sense of time, or changes direction continuously.

It is useless if it loses sight.

Should we stop seeing "management" as the outcome of "promotion", and instead see it as being the same thing that we set up IT projects for - i.e. the transmission of a ruleset and the enforcement of systemic norms?

Should we ask whether these rules and norms are for the good of the people the system was set up to support?

Should we start questioning whether "efficiency" is actually more desirable than "improvement" if this "efficiency" starts to eat into the very purpose and sustainability of the service it is meant to support?