Pithouse, A., Broadhurst, K., Hall, Chris, Peckover, Sue, Wastell, D. and White, S. (2012) Trust, risk and the (mis)management of contingency and discretion through new information technologies in children's services. Journal of Social Work, 12 (2). pp. 158-178. ISSN 1468-0173

Summary: While UK social work’s core purpose in children’s services continues to invoke the ready virtues of universal care, protection from significant harm and a child rights led approach as foundational to effective intervention, there is a ‘real-world’ context of organizational practices that inevitably mediate who gets what services and why. This was ever thus. What has changed however is not so much the claims by social work to a virtuous purpose (the ethic of care offers a durable discourse from which to cast service users as worthy and our efforts as honourable) but that new risk-reduction technologies are exposing a worrying gap between the rhetoric of a humane-oriented project of care and the actionable decision-making of professionals drawing upon administrative targeting systems that seek to reduce organizational exposure to error, blame, reputational damage and unwanted external scrutiny.

• Findings: The article exposes a gap between core values and risk management by examining the erosion of trust in professional social work and consequent shift towards new information technologies which intend to generate system confidence, such as the Integrated Children’s System (ICS) which seeks to provide a more accountable management of contingency. Drawing on data from our recent multi-method research of frontline practice funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council, we challenge the view that the uncertainty and ambiguity of risk-immersed social work can be more safely moderated by computer-based technologies for reporting and decision-making.

• Applications: The findings of this study suggest the need for significant reform of the ICS system. Our explorations in front line decision-making suggests that the IT workflow systems that channel and shape the way need is responded to in order to make actions and their often distributed ownership transparent and justifiable, have the unintended potential to obscure risk. We outline ways in which risk in its institutional and personal contexts in children’s services may become less evident and tractable to moderation by the ICS systems that seek this very purpose. In doing so we consider the balance between professional trust and system confidence and consider whether the time has come to shift the balance back to the former if we are to re-engage more fully with the occupation’s humane mission

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