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The similarities between social work and Piri Piri chicken

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My wife and I are lucky enough to be mystery customers at a number of restaurants. We get sent an address, a questionnaire and some spending money, and report back to the company around what we find. The restaurant is scored on how well it does in various areas. Our favourite visit, before it was no longer possible (more on that later), was a restaurant known for its Portuguese chicken.

We soon knew the questionnaire by heart. How long was it before we were greeted? What was the name of the greeter? How long did it take before the food arrived? Were we “upsold” sides or desserts? When we left the restaurant, did someone give us a friendly goodbye wave?  Every question had a number of points attached. The higher the final point value, the better the restaurant.

But this is a blog about social care, not medium spiced chicken pittas with pineapple and halloumi cheese. What can we learn from the mystery shopping model, and how does it apply to our social care metrics?

On some visits, the restaurants were like a well-oiled machine. The restaurants that did well had shared their previous reports with staff. The staff knew the questions on the form. They knew their roles, what would give them a high score and therefore what was expected from them. Some staff saw it as a personal challenge to get the highest score that they could.

Can we say the same about our social care staff? They might be nominally aware of the timescales they have to meet but are they aware of everything that they’re measured against? Are they aware how they are doing? More and more authorities now are giving staff access to their own personal performance data. The very brave are also letting them compare their performance against others, or at least against the average. The hope is that this will improve transparency, and in turn improve the performance of both individuals and teams.

More than a few times we would complete the visit questionnaire and marvel at the low score at the bottom of the form. We’d have had a great visit and a lovely meal, but they just hadn’t ticked the right boxes. On one visit, the wait for food was slightly too long, so they’d provided us with free sides while we were waiting. This meant that they didn’t just lose points for the food wait, but also because we weren’t then upsold the sides. The restaurant had gone above and beyond, but this wasn’t reflected in the statistics. Thankfully the mystery shopping company were aware of anomalies like this and allowed for plenty of spaces to record comments and explanations to make sure the full story could be told.

The same leeway must be made for social care statistics. Are we willing to spend the extra time to find an adoptive placement for a hard to place child, even though it will mess up the timeliness in the adoption scorecard? If a child has had a Child Protection Plan for nearly 2 years, are we willing to keep them there a little bit longer if it will clearly make sure the child is safe? The performance metrics are important, but they’re not the entire story.

I still remember our final visit, even though it was years ago. As part of the form we had to fill in the date and time of our visit and provide a receipt. We were warned that most restaurants would check their CCTV to ensure that our report was accurate, and that therefore we had to be honest. What we hadn’t worked out is that they could also use this information to work out who we were.

Our final visit was a routine take-away order and pick-up. We rang in advance, placed our order, and walked in to collect. The restaurant was obviously very busy. We were told our order would be another 25 minutes. The staff member was extremely apologetic and showed us to a couch where we could wait.

A moment later, another staff member walked over, looked at us, and whispered in the welcomer’s ear. The welcome tripped over herself to come back over, apologised again and said the food would be available in 5-10 minutes.

The food arrived almost instantly, with additional chocolate mousse (yum!) and a big smile from the server. We turned around to leave and there were five different staff members standing at the door, cheerily waving us goodbye. We rang the company the next day and agreed not to do visits to that particular chain of restaurants anymore. The restaurant got full marks on that visit, but we’d clearly been rumbled!

The temptation is there for us in social work too. Slight tweaks to workflows can improve performance indicators without necessarily improving actual performance. For example a number of authorities have uncovered the habit of planning follow-up strategy meetings to “restart the clock” if an Initial Child Protection Conference can’t be arranged within timescales, or arranging review conferences as a series of meetings in order that the first part can be within timescales, even if that first part was just a phone conversation between the IRO and the social worker. There are, of course, legitimate reasons for both follow-up strats and multi-part conferences, but we need to avoid the temptation of doing these things just to ensure targets are met. As we all know only too well, some success in social work cannot actually be quantified. It is about the ‘experience’ for the child and family. Performance stats can be a blunt instrument when you’re working with people, so as ever, common sense rules.

That’s enough from me anyway, I’m off for a half chicken and a bottomless frozen yoghurt.

Author: David Wilson, Children’s Product Analyst and Management Information Lead, Liquidlogic

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