Obsessed with Paper!

I watched a programme on TV last night called ‘Dispatches Undercover Social Worker’, it was a secret camera type investigative report where a reporter had gone to work for Surrey Social Services department for 3 months as a support officer. It was disturbing to see that people who by and large cared about what they were doing were hampered by having to fill in a lot of forms after having visited a child at home. A lot more time was spent form filling than in actually helping the child, with many of the workers feeling distress and frustration at a system which values form filling over the protection of the children themselves!

In one segment the reporter showed 6 paper reports that are meant to be filled in after each visit, taking far longer than the actual visit. Reports that nobody would read anyway! He then went on to pull out a file on a child which was full to the brim, he wanted to move some of the forms out of the file and was told that to do that he’d need to fill in a form to have the forms in the file moved, bureaucracy gone mad!

I’m continually amazed at the obsession with paperwork which seems to filter down from the establishment (I’m talking not just government but large corporations as well, they are just as bureaucratic). In the case of this report it’s clear that the paper trail was all about providing evidence to show that children are being visited, that boxes are being ticked it seems that it almost doesn’t matter what the content is just so long as the piece of paper is produced.

This obessession seems to be at epidemic proportions, as a school governor for a local primary school I’ve seen at first hand the reams of paperwork that a school must produce. From an endless number of policies (some of which repeat themselves) to the need for the teachers to fill in forms for the evaluation of the school and the pupils. These forms are needed because when OFSTED do an inspection they aren’t so interested in sitting in on the lessons to assess their quality, but are only really interested in the paperwork that provides evidence of the performance of the school.

There are many similar situations where people in authority are only interested in seeing paperwork which they then accept as ‘evidence’ of a given action or that a requirement has been fulfilled. As small business people we too are infected by it, how many of us are recording the fact that we’ve had a fire drill, tested the smoke alarms and lets not forget PAT testing? In some ways it amuses me, as apart from these records there is no real evidence that the recorded action occurred, and of course nobody would make it up, would they?

Not only that but in order to win public sector contracts we are supposed to have all sorts of policies in place, these are then created to provide the necessary evidence, but like the social workers reports are never looked at until the next time the business is tendering for a contract. It seems that the only ones who really care about these policies are the authorities and those who like policies because it gives them a sense of being in ‘control’.

There’s no doubt that there is something seriously flawed with the system, the creation of all this paper must be costing vast amounts of money, and is resulting in vulnerable members of our society not receiving the protection they need because the paperwork comes first! There are many questions we need to be asking, such as why is all this paperwork necessary? Does anybody read it? And why can’t it be replaced by database systems which allow the input of data to be streamlined, and for alerts to be raised where action needs to be taken? Systems that could provide authorised individuals the means to keep case files up to date in a fraction of the time, perhaps without the worker even needing to be in the office, perhaps even while visiting the family.

I know that the technology exists, modern databases can handle vast amounts of data in fractions of second, and the mobile infrastructure could be used to provide the means to update reports without visiting the office. It just needs to be applied effectively but not in a massive government IT project costing hundreds of millions of pounds contracted to a large corporation – those projects are too ambitious and doomed to failure as recent history has shown again and again.

Originally posted by Richard Isaac – Managing Director, Convallis Software. 8/6/2010