Friday, November 14, 2008

Baby P and the impossibility of elimating risk through administrative process

Simon Jenkins, in the wake of the tragic Baby P case, has a thoughtful piece in the Guardian today about how it is impossible to eliminate risk through ever more administrative processes.

"Infanticide is an extremely rare crime in Britain, rarer by far than of old, but it does occur. The media's search for people to blame, other than the killers, reflects a strange obsession with securing an absolute avoidance of risk through ever tighter government control of personal and family life. Yet when such interference is visited on ordinary citizens they are enraged...

Baby P did not lack for attention or bureaucratic coordination, being seen 60 times by social and health workers. Each one meticulously recorded their concern... All appear to have conformed to Laming's procedures.

As the social work professor Harry Ferguson wrote in this paper yesterday, Baby P appears to have been a classic instance of administrative diktat superseding human intuition. The system becomes "too bureaucratised, too much about information management and not enough about focusing on core tasks and complex relationships with families". As the London School of Economics' Eileen Munro said on the radio: "Haringey had a beautiful paper trail of how they failed to protect this baby."...

When the human element in any frontline service gives way to quantifiable process, something crucial is lost. The belief has long been bred in the bone of the children's minister, Ed Balls, that any computer can solve the world's ills at the click of a mouse. It is a dangerous lie...

In every walk of life, the computer screen has become a professional comfort blanket. It distances carers from the sensibility of clients. It demotes the value of informal contact with colleagues. Provided the screen has been filled and the boxes ticked, officialdom regards itself as in the clear. Risk is eliminated not by personal application but by process.

The Baby P case appears to be the result of individual human failings all along the way. But the outcome will be to make social and health workers more obsessed with preventive intervention. Ever more children will be taken away from their parents because that is what the computer says. Ever more reports will be sent to ever more terminals and ever less time will be spent trying to understand problem families. "

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