The future of social working today?

Mobile phone, flexible working


The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service [Cafcass] has made a huge turnaround in the last three to four years, harnessing the power of technology and culture change to increase its efficiency, boost satisfaction rates for its service users and 1,800 staff and innovate.

Daryl Maitland, Senior HR Manager, says: “By our own admission, Cafcass was an underperforming and failing organisation, but it has been transformed into a high-performing one.” A major part of that transformation is down to an overhaul of the organisation’s flexible working patterns and a relaunch of a more agile way of working, tied to clear performance targets.

In November 2010 Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said Cafcass – which advocates for children within the family court system – had failed to challenge “fundamental weaknesses in its culture, management and performance” and was “not fit for purpose”. It had been rated “inadequate” by several Ofsted inspections and was, as Maitland admits, “in a bad place”.

Fast forward five years and it has just been shortlisted for the Working Families awards for its exemplary work on flexible working and has got outstanding for its national leadership from Ofsted, with the inspectorate being particularly impressed by its approach to health, well being and flexible working.

Effecting change

To get from where it was to where it is now has involved a lot of work on its work culture and management structure. Part of the problem, says Maitland, was that expectations about day-to-day performance levels were not clearly communicated. The organisation created a rigorous new framework which involved staff having face to face meetings with their managers every six weeks where they would be assessed and appraised. People were prevented from working from home for a time. “They felt isolated from the organisation and had lost any sense of the organisation’s expectations, culture and performance levels,” says Maitland. “We had to rein in that flexible working so that we could communicate our expectations and standards effectively.”

Once Cafcass had done this, they starting getting better ratings from Ofsted and could begin to relax and support a more flexible culture. Cafcass – the largest employer of social workers in England – also changed the way managers supervise staff. Now supervisions only take place once a quarter, although everyone has to attend team meetings once a month in the office.

The organisation has also invested heavily in technology. All social workers have laptops and tablets with 4G and Blackberries so they can work remotely. Yammer is currently being piloted and other interactive networks such as SharePoint have been implemented. Due to a sophisticated information modelling system, Cafcass has been able to monitor employees’ workload better as they can work out which cases might take different amounts of time and effort. “One of the problems for managers with regard to remote working was trust. Now they have a system for understanding how much work a particular case might take, it has helped them retain a sense of control and understanding of staff workloads without the need to see them in the office each day,” says Maitland.

Kevin Gibbs, Senior Head of Service, who manages services across 16 counties in the south west of England and the Thames Valley, says social workers get a number of benefits from using mobile appliances like tablets. Firstly, the young people they work with identify with them more and they break down potential barriers between them and social workers in ways that using traditional pen and paper doesn’t. They can write down their views and engage better through interactive programmes on the tablets so social workers have a more direct link to what they feel and think. “It is more immediate and less bureaucratic,” says Gibbs. Such transparency and directness can help reduce what can be an anxious experience for both young people and adults, he adds.

Technology also means social workers can work more flexibly. By using video and telephone conferencing as well as training webinars, they can reduce the amount of travel they have to do. That makes it easier and quicker to organise meetings as people don’t have to check their diaries to see when everyone can arrange to meet in a certain place at a certain time.

Moreover, young people can text them at any time, but they don’t have to reply outside normal working hours. If they want to, though, for instance, if they have taken time out of their day to do school pick-ups and need to make that up they can do so. They can also upload information, check emails and write notes through their tablets at any time, anywhere. And they can book holiday or claim expenses online and get a quick response from their manager. This means they can use dead time, for instance, when they are waiting to go into court, to do admin work and save time later. “It puts them more in control of their work. This has definitely increased their health and well being. “When we talk to local authority social workers about how we work we do get longing looks when they see how we have cut down on bureaucracy,” says Gibbs.

New social workers

In terms of induction to the new ways of working, new social workers spend more time in the office than their colleagues initially so they can get to grips with all the systems. They are buddied up with a mentor to talk them through how Cafcass works, including its overhauled quality assurance model. In the past, every time a social worker finished some work it would go to their line manager to be quality assured before it was filed, but now if they have met the correct standards for three reports in a row social workers can file cases to court on their own. The same system is in place when cases are closed. Managers do a dip sample of two pieces of work per quarter. “New recruits are helped to understand this culture, which is based on greater freedom and autonomy,” says Maitland.

All case files are now electronic so staff can get access to them on the move, whether at home, on visits or in court. Cafcass’ IT systems are subject to strict security controls to keep service users’ information safe wherever staff need to use them. Cafcass is continually developing its systems and has reduced login times and increased ease of use for staff while maintaining high levels of security.

Maitland says the changes have been good for Cafcass’ work and for staff – over 90% of the work completed is assessed internally as good compared to just 30% a few years ago, and when Ofsted inspected in 2014 they validated Cafcass’ own assessments. Furthermore, more than 80% of staff felt Cafcass cared about their health and well being.

Gibbs, who is in charge of customer services and complaints and partnerships with the voluntary sector, says the number of complaints Cafcass gets from service users has fallen by more than a third in the last year. Currently, less than 1% of service users make complaints about dissatisfaction with the service it offers. He puts this down to an indirect consequence on new, more efficient ways of working. Social workers discuss with service users how they want to communicate. Most communication tends to be by email and text rather than written letters. Kevin says both children and adults prefer this as it is more immediate and means they get answers quicker. Information for service users is also put on their website so people can access it 24/7.

Future developments

The organisation is, however, keen to improve on its work culture and so last year when feedback from some staff suggested the remote model made them feel less like part of a team they set up a social support network. This involves charity events at the weekends. Some offices have a social secretary. This year Cafcass is trying to ensure all staff can be involved and is putting on more family-based events.

Maitland says it “would be a contradiction not to have family friendly procedures in place”, given the nature of the organisation. These include a health and well being plan which covers everything from access to dental care to sports massage. Children are covered for free and a partner can be added at a discount.

Asked whether he is worried about government cuts, Maitland says “the cuts have been tough, but we try to see the positive side – having to make savings gives us the impetus to think more innovatively”. He says the new way of working also helps to save money without affecting frontline services. Cafcass has been asked to find savings of £20m in the last six years, but so far the number of social workers has remained stable. Flexible working has delivered a lot of savings, for instance, through a shrinking real estate. Five years ago Cafcass had 93 offices and now it has 42 and operates a hot desking system on a ratio of one desk per 10 members of staff. “It works well as generally social work staff are at home or on the move and spend around 30% of their time in the office writing up reports,” he says.

Another saving has come through developing a pool of flexible experts to deal with an often volatile workload. This includes bank workers, who are allocated cases on an ad hoc basis and paid by the hour, and who get all the benefits of permanent staff on a pro-rata basis, and self-employed social workers. An increase in using self-employed social workers has enabled it to reduce its reliance on agency staff in the last three years and this is ongoing.

Maitland adds that the organisation is shortly switching to smartphones for staff, which, by the end of this year, will include apps and mobile site links for time off, expenses and the company’s benefits package. Video conferencing facilities will also be available through these, for both interviewing service users and to join internal meetings remotely. An interactive online game will also be launched that helps young people better understand the court experience.

Staff will get a choice over the technology they use – and training. For instance, they will have a choice of five different smartphone handsets. “We want them to feel that the technology is not being imposed on them,” says Gibbs.

“It’s all about where staff work, how they work and when they work,” he says. “It allows people more autonomy and that increases their sense of well being.”

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