Solutions that work, not fixes that fail

A recent Guardian article reported spiralling Council spending on social work agency workers.
In this blog, Ben Hartridge takes a closer look at the issue through a Systems Thinking lens. 

This weekend, The Guardian reported that local councils across England are spending millions of pounds on social work agencies. The most extreme cases see agency social workers making up almost 50% of a council’s workforce.

This is a problem for two reasons. First, agency staff are, at least in cash terms, more costly to councils than permanent social workers. Second, you get a lower quality of service from short-term agency social workers because the continuity of care for looked-after children is disrupted.

This begs the question: Why are councils hiring so many agency staff? We can’t answer this question without taking a holistic view of the system that produced this problem. This is exactly why at the Lab we advocate for thinking in systems.

Deeper understanding: a systems perspective on agency social workers

The Lab has been using system dynamics to help local councils in England to boost analytic capacity and deepen their understanding of their own children’s social care system. System dynamics is an approach that goes beyond the surface level of challenges and delves into the complex, messy systems that lie beneath. It views human-centred services like children’s social care as adaptive systems that self-regulate meaning that patterns can emerge over time without anyone intending it.

An archetype is one of the tools in the system dynamics box. Archetypes are patterns that we see repeated in systems again and again. They are built from feedback loops, which occur when the knock-on effects of a change to one part of a system either balances or reinforces the initial change. The increasing reliance of local councils on agency social workers is a classic example of one of these archetypes, commonly called Fixes that Fail.

It goes something like this. Hiring agency staff is a response by councils to a problem. They have vacancies that they need to fill in order to deliver statutory services to the children in their care. In the short term, this response works. This is depicted in the balancing loop below, where the blue arrow represents a change in the same direction (i.e. as vacancies increase, so does the hiring of agency staff) and the red arrow a change in the opposite direction (i.e. as more agency staff are hired, there are fewer vacancies). So far so good. 

However, in the long run, this response has unintended, knock-on effects that make the initial problem worse. First, as the Guardian article emphasises, a high proportion of agency social workers leads to worse outcomes for children because their continuity of care is constantly disrupted. This creates problems further down the line that require more social workers to deal with. Second, when we listen to social workers, we often hear about how more agency staff can upset the team cohesion that is so important for retaining social workers. Agency social workers are paid more in cash terms than permanent workers and don’t have time to build good relationships within social work teams. This can affect staff retention and recruitment efforts. 

Both of these unintended consequences increase the number of social work vacancies in a local authority. The immediate response for a local authority to a high number of vacancies? Hire agency workers to plug the gap. In the language of system dynamics, this is a reinforcing loop. The initial change, an increase in agency workers, ends up having knock-on effects that replicate the change again.

What next?

Recognising the archetypes within our own systems is a significant step towards finding sustainable solutions because we know there are general strategies that deal with different archetypes. Prominent systems thinker, Daniel Kim observes that “Breaking a ‘Fixes that Fail’ cycle usually requires acknowledging that the fix is merely alleviating the symptom, and making the commitment to solve the real problem now.”[i]

In the case of agency social workers, local councils do recognise that agencies are a short-term fix. But two more commitments are needed. First, councils need to mitigate the unintended but problematic consequences of hiring agency staff. That might mean being smarter about which tasks are given to agency social workers to minimise disruption to children’s care. Second, to meaningfully address the issue of social work vacancies, investment is needed to tackle the underlying causes, namely, the recruitment and retention of full-time, permanent social workers.

Articles like the Guardian’s are welcome because they shine a light on the challenges faced by local authorities trying to deliver a high-quality service to the children in their care. However, if we are to develop meaningful solutions to these challenges and deliver better outcomes for children, young people and families, we have to take a systems approach. That’s why, at the Lab, we use system dynamics to gain a deeper understanding of local children’s social care systems. We aim to create solutions that work, not fixes that fail.

You can read more about some of our system dynamic modelling work in relation to children’s social care here.

If you are a local authority interesting in learning more about applying these ideas in your area, get in touch via info@dartington.org.uk.

______________________

Ben Hartridge
Researcher
Dartington Service Design Lab
@benhartridge


[i]Kim, D. (2000), Systems Archetypes I

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