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How do social workers make decisions?

11th Jul 2016

Reform of the children’s social care system is a key priority for the current Government and last week the Department for Education released a policy paper setting out their vision for the sector. This paper included details of the Department’s ongoing programme of reform, including workforce accreditation and new structural models of accountability and delivery.

Against this backdrop, we at the Behavioural Insights Team have been considering how behavioural insights might help social workers to make decisions in what is often a high-stakes and high-pressure environment.

In April 2014, we published our first report in this area, which examined the “front door” of social care using qualitative methods. The “front door” of social care – the point at which children are referred to local social services by other professionals, such as teachers and doctors – is of particular interest as social workers are often required to make decisions very quickly at this stage. Often they will also be required to make these decisions on the basis of very limited information. As many as one in five children may be referred to social services by the age of five. For each of these cases, social workers must decide whether the referral should be sent for a more formal assessment, and these decisions clearly have a profound impact on the lives of children and their families.

Last week, the Department for Education published our second report on social workers’ decision-making in children’s social care. Using data from around 120,000 cases dating from 2010 to 2015 from three Local Authorities, we examined the factors that seem to be influencing social workers when they make decisions about whether to refer a child’s case for further action

In the first part of the report, we explore whether certain factors impact on the likelihood that social workers progress cases for further action (for example, conducting a full Child and Family Assessment) and whether subsequent, more serious steps are taken (for example, putting in place a Child Protection Plan). In total we examined ten sets of factors, including: the day of the week cases come in, who makes the referral, family history with social care and the child’s age. In the second part of the report, we look at whether the use of particular words by social workers in their case notes was associated with a decision to take further action.

In both cases, we took an exploratory, correlational analysis approach. This means that rather than approaching the data to prove or disprove pre-existing assumptions, we examined every factor for which we could find data and looked at whether or not it was correlated with cases progressing (controlling for other differences). The limitation of this approach, as opposed to running a randomised controlled trial for instance, is that we cannot explain the cause of any of the interesting relationships we identify.

With this caveat in mind, the main findings of the report are:

  • The impact of a number of key factors actually varied (both in degree and in kind) across the three Local Authorities we looked at. For example, in some local authorities an increase in team caseload or a child’s age was associated with an increased chance of a case progressing. However in others it was associated with a reduced chance. This is interesting as it suggests that the effect of these factors on decision-making might be moderated by other contextual factors, which would be an interesting topic for further research.
  • However, there were some factors consistently associated with an increased or decreased chance of progression across all three Local Authorities. For example, in all three areas there is a lower likelihood of cases progressing to further action when the referral was received at a weekend.
  • Similarly, referrals received by email (or another written form) were also consistently less likely to progress to further action than those received by more immediate or personal means (phone calls or personal visits, for example). Further research would be required to investigate the causes of these differences, but this could be because other professionals like doctors and teachers are more likely to pick up the phone or visit in person when they judge a case to be more serious.
  • In the second part of our report, a range of text terms were associated with a higher chance of further action being taken by social workers. Particularly interesting was the finding that some terms such as ‘gambling’, which social workers have not always traditionally considered to be an indicator of a serious case, were associated with this increased chance.

These findings indicate that there is considerable, currently untapped, potential in exploring these datasets and we would encourage every council to consider new ways of exploring the vast quantity of data they hold.  From our side, we would welcome further conversations with any council interested in exploring how to use this data to best effect. We will also continue to explore the possibility of partnering with local authorities to test whether we could use behavioural insights to support social workers at the “front door” of children’s services to best make the challenging and critical judgements they are required to make every day.