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Equality without paperwork

In a guest poster the blogger Systems Thinking for Girls advises on on what councils could really do to reduce discrimination

Equality Impact Assessments are worse than polishing a turd. They add a new turd.

Take the case of Adult Social Care. A council buys hundreds of level-access showers at a discounted price for disabled people. This is done in the name of efficiency - economies of scale. The council says to disabled people, “you can have anything you like, as long as it’s a level access shower”. But not all disabled people want or need a level access shower. Some people have one because it is ‘free’, others have one but find it’s too complicated to use. For many, a new shower is unnecessary because they would prefer a modification to their own bath. But no matter, this is the council, they’ll get what they’re given.

This service costs the council a lot of money. It is universally poor because it does not treat disabled people as individuals with different needs.  The job of a social worker is to get the assessment form filled in and get back to the office to put it into the system to meet the target. Never mind what the person needs, a service shaped solution is pushed onto everyone because the procurement specialists think in terms of unit costs. Social workers can only recommend solutions off the standard menu. Meanwhile, people’s basic needs go unmet and the council has to pay to store hundreds of unwanted showers.

The additional turd is added when, in an attempt to shield the council against legal action, the manager writes in the Equality Impact Assessment under the ‘Disability Section’:

“A Plain English version of the Joint Commissioning Strategy for Vulnerable Adults Executive Summary and Action Plan will be developed”

Great! What a treat. You can’t have a wash but at least you can read the Joint Commissioning Strategy for Vulnerable Adults - the very strategy that recommended buying all those duff showers! Absurd.

Two turds. Two costs.

The first cost - providing a service that doesn’t meet peoples’ needs. A cost that comes back to bite you because people return later with more serious problems that cost more to deal with.

The second cost - paying someone to write and monitor an Equality
Impact Assessment that doesn’t deal with the cause of the first turd.
This is not unusual.

Who wants to equal access to read a document about a universally bad service?

A good Adult Social Care service recognises that we want:

  • Help when we need it.
  • To be understood.
  • To be listened to.
  • To be treated with respect.
  • Not have to repeat ourselves or fill in loads of forms.
  • Not be passed from pillar to post.
  • To deal with the same person

How does a manager do this within the budget?

It’s simple:

First, get rid of everything that stops the frontline workers from meeting someone’s needs. In the case of adult social care:

  • The requirement to fill in databases.
  • Only being allowed to offer services from standard menus of equipment or care (commissioned based on the flawed logic of economies of scale).
  • Only being allowed to do certain things (more than my job’s worth).
  • The requirement to meet government targets.
  • Filling in endless assessment forms.
  • Eligibility criteria (you’re not vulnerable or ill enough yet, come back when you are).
  • Pressure to save money in the short term

Second, social workers spend only 26% of their time with their clients – the rest of the time they are feeding the system with forms and data for the following people to process:

  • Procurement officers (the ones who buy hundreds of duff showers)
  • Data entry officers
  • Policy officers
  • Strategy officers
  • Access teams
  • Referrals teams
  • Personalisation officers
  • Equality officers
  • Performance officers

If social workers stop filling in databases and forms, the back office won’t have much to do. What should they do instead? How about retraining them to help social workers instead of getting in their way?

Now you have two lots of people available to do a proper job. The original social workers and the ex pen pushers.

Train both lots of staff in professional social work - dealing with people on a case by case basis, in their own homes and contexts, helping them to live the lives they want to lead. Once the assessment forms, templates, targets and procurement rules have gone, social workers can spend time in people’s homes understanding what they need.

They can work creatively with people to help them solve their problems and where possible, help them to lead more independent lives. If it’s legal and ethical, professional social workers should be trusted to get on and do it.

This approach reaches the hard to reach every day, not twice a year via a survey. Equality is designed in from the beginning. Everyone is understood as an individual, not as a category or number to meet a target. Social workers learn. The service becomes truly person-centred and not procurement or legislation centred. It’s cheaper because you only spend money on what people actually need instead of wasting money on stuff no one wants. Staff feel good because they get to do a good job.

Treat people as individuals and equality on the frontline looks after itself.


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