A case of collective madness?

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Help! Inter-agency working is spawning meetings, meetings and yet more meetings. Are they really necessary ? asks Martin Whittaker

Does meeting need mean we need so many meetings? Or is it an inevitable side effect of the inter-agency working to improve children's services at the heart of the Every Child Matters agenda? One youth work professional has seen a dramatic change to his working week. His role involves supporting a range of youth and voluntary organisations - when he can find the time to do it.

"Originally my job was to help organisations to find funding, improve policies and training," he said. "Now because of what's going on with the Every Child Matters agenda, it means well over half of my time is spent going to meetings to make sure the voluntary sector is recognised and valued in this whole process.

"At the moment it's a nightmare. A lot of people are finding that they're having to go to meetings on spec, because you don't want to be missed out.

"From our point of view it's taking people away from other functions that they really should be doing."

It was inevitable that the momentous upheaval involved in changing local authorities to inter-agency working would bring challenges. Professionals from education, social work, health and the voluntary sector suddenly found themselves having to sit at the same table, working to a collective agenda and not that of their home agency. They have had to overcome cultural barriers and to learn to work in new flexible ways. And having spent years mastering the language of their own profession, suddenly they have to contend with the jargon of others.

According to a guide on partnership working produced by the Government Office for the South East, one of the difficulties raised by many in multi-agency working is the sheer proliferation of meetings.

It recommends measures to streamline the process, and some of these are not rocket science. For example, it includes such commonsense advice as holding meetings involving many of the same people on the same day and in the same place to reduce travelling time. And at least one authority in the throes of integrating children's services is actively considering ways of streamlining the number of meetings and committees for its education and care professionals.

There are good reasons for wanting to make the multi-agency machine run more efficiently. A national evaluation of Children's Trusts found that barriers to their development have included lack of time, multiple initiatives and targets, changes in management personnel and problems recruiting and retaining staff.

Professionals involved in inter-agency working might also take heed of a recent study by Alexandra Luong of the University of Minnesota and Steven Rogelberg of the University of North Carolina of the effect of too many meetings on the wellbeing of employees.

The research found that, despite the fact that meetings might help achieve work-related goals, having too many meetings and spending too much time in them may have negative effects.

Their study likened meetings to "hassles and interruptions" for employees, and argued that because employees have to attend meetings in addition to their work tasks, they can have a disruptive nature similar to other workplace hassles, such as computer failure or administrative chores. Are there guidelines to help inter-agency professionals to organise their time and arrange their crowded diaries? Yes, said Rosalind Godson, professional officer for school nursing with the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association. "There are lots of toolkits available," she said "But it's finding the time to read them."

The British Association of Social Workers, in its submission to the Department for Education and Skills' consultation on the Children's Workforce Strategy, says that too often inter-agency working is not made part of job descriptions and the time needed is always underestimated.

"And, when time and work demands within an organisation are at a premium, it is too often seen as a luxury which has to be ditched rather than as part of the solution to work pressures," it says.

Social work is also beset by staff shortages and bureaucracy. A recent survey by Community Care magazine found that half of social workers spend at least 60 per cent of their time on administrative work as opposed to direct client contact.

Ian Johnston, director of the British Association of Social Workers, said:

"Where there are problems, they are very substantially to do with people not really appreciating the responsibilities and perspectives of other professionals.

"So the more closely people work together, the better they will understand one another. But it takes time to achieve that."

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