The accumulation of small details about the clientele of a service distributed across time and space may be far more revealing and authentic than isolated, formal requests for feedback.
In the context of a project sponsored under the Bulgarian-Swiss Cooperation Programme, our colleagues from De Pasarel hosted a conference in Sofia at the European commission Information Centre.
The conference was broken into three sections each with a specific theme –
- Quality is achieved when the social service has achieved its purpose
- Quality as development – principles, criteria and indicators. Applicability in the delivery of social services.
- Tools for quality assessment – methodological framework and a variety of options
Each theme was explored before a large audience under the guidance of expert panellists and Equilibrium was represented in the third panel by David who had the advantage of being the last speaker of the day.
David only had three slides. The first contained narrative – a quote from a 2008 report on social services from the Bulgarian Centre for Non-profit Law – “A social service is of good quality when it positively influences the well-being of its users and has a real impact on the quality of their lives.”
David asked the audience whether on the basis of the day’s discussions it was reasonable to assume that everyone agreed with the statement. This was confirmed.
Coming to cope with organizational and operational diversity among service providers is a major challenge for those responsible for assessing impact. There is a catalogue produced on the basis of research undertaken by the 28 regional social assistance directorates. It lists “social services” active in Bulgaria. However, these services are categorized on the basis of types of facility and the target groups catered for in these buildings.
David illustrated the difficulty with the help of two images – the first revealed the neatly packaged contents of a refrigerator, the second a montage of exotically shaped puddles of paint.
If you were contemplating a trip to the supermarket, would it be meaningful to classify the dwindling contents of the fridge on the basis of the types of containers you can see and conveniently classify? Now, imagine yourself at the supermarket. How easy is it to be deceived by packaging and labeling? David pointed out that the catalogue lists 91 centres of social support but there is no such thing as a “standard” or “typical” centre.
Containers are useful of course. In this context, they permit the “containment” of broad-ranging concepts. The definition of social services involves dealing in broad-ranging concepts (eg Early Intervention). Activities can be performed by different people (providers), at different times and in different places to / for or with other people (recipients) who need not always be present. The expressions can mean different things to different service providers.
David argued that we have to rethink the idea of professional accountability to embrace diversity and complexity. However convenient and reassuring it might be to work on an assumption of homogeneity, it fails to acknowledge reality and leads to the promotion of models of best practice that fail to take account of the specificities of different operational contexts. A preoccupation with the universality of working models combined with a focus on monitoring against minimum standards does not promote an improvement culture, far less the pursuit of excellence.
Leaving this point hanging for audience members to contemplate, David turned to the issue of drawing down feedback from “naïve users” of services – those who can be alienated by formal requests for information and the pursuit of “high quality information”. He referred to ethical misgivings about assisting beneficiaries to cope with formality and the pressures that lead to selectivity and exclusion meaning that data is not truly representative of entire groups. Giving the example of Ambient Awareness as identified by social psychologists, David explained how the proliferation of seemingly trivial messages using digital connectivity helps build an extraordinarily revealing cumulative picture of a geographically scattered group. The accumulation of small details about the clientele of a service distributed across time and space may be far more revealing and authentic than isolated, formal requests for feedback.
Both Equilibrium and De Pasarel are fully aware of the challenges involved in designing a system for monitoring social services that focuses on their impact. We will continue to coordinate our efforts in a joint approach to those challenges.