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Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics…Social Work by Numbers

November 3, 2011

Minister Fitzgerald has recently called for “better data collection on child cases” , stating that the current level of data recording is insufficent…and she’s right. The level of data recording, both the quality and quantity of data that is available for planning of services, for understanding the world of social work, is minimal. Add to this the atomised nature of Local Health Offices and things only get worse. Rich data allows us to know what works, what doesn’t, what needs to change.

However well-intentioned this new crusade of the Ministers is, it will fail.

First is the problems collecting data. The HSE IT system is a lumbering beast that everyone is terrified to update in case it turns into another PPARS style disaster. Somehow the will bolt the Standardised Business Processes onto this thing, but its wavers on the point of collapse. But on a more basic level, Local Health Offices don’t speak the same language or use the same definitions so all we would be doing at the end of the day is a useless job of comparing apples and oranges. There are some moves to change this, but the are also very slow and difficult.

The bigger problem is the simple fact that this data will become a stick to beat social workers and line managers with. Stats will become a game, a political game. They will be kicked around by politicians for their own ends, and they will become targets to be reached and not used to understand what is really happening. very quickly services will be geared to the numbers instead of the knowledge being used to focus services. Improving the stats does not mean improving children of families lives, but it will mean you are doing your job in some perverse way.

This already happens, and will only expand. The stats gathered about care plans and reviews have become targets. The quality of the work doesn’t matter as long as he hit you quarterly target of care plan reviews. It doesn’t matter about waiting lists, unallocated cases or gaps in staffing or service provision, just get your numbers right. So instead of the figures being able to highlight areas to be improved they are pawns inane game of political chess.  I have dealt with residential units who go to all sorts of lengths to make their occupancy and discharge figures look good, not for the kids sake but to make the numbers look good. Don’t get me wrong some units are flexible to meet the complex needs of children, but some are simply playing the stats for thier own benefit.

Rich, detailed data can drive change and improve services, if done right. I fear it wont be done right. The little that is done now isn’t, why would more of it be any different.

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