I've just realised that it's now over thirty years since I was first let loose on the unsuspecting public as a young Social Work student on my first placement. I spent most of the first half of 1981 at Brisbane's Royal Childrens' Hospital, supposedly providing social work support to the families of children in the hospital. In actual fact, I was so shy and underconfident that I spent a lot of time hiding, trying to screw up my courage to approach parents on the ward.
I partly thought of this because I just spent two days helping to run a conference for alcohol and drug organisations here in Brisbane. One of the speakers, a long-time university teacher and researcher, revealed that while she likes her students be capable of really helping people, she often passes them on the basis that at least they won't do any harm. I think that was probably me - in fact I'm almost certain it was because one of my lecturers told me so at the time. In hindsight, it might not be a bad philosophy. I've lasted 30 years and I like to think that as I've got more mature I've progressed from not being dangerious to actually doing positive good.
The other thing that inspired these thoughts is that someone recently did a risk management audit for our church. I'm glad they did it because otherwise I might have had to. While I understand the importance of risk management it bores me witless. It also makes me wonder, and what I wonder is this.
When I was a young social worker we never heard anything about risk management. In my first three years after graduating, I worked in the State child welfare department, dealing with child abuse, juvenile justice and children in out-of-home care. Of course we had lots of policies, contained in a foot-thick policy manual. We also had huge case loads and constant demands on our time so none of us ever had enough time to actually read this manual, and we basically copied what the people around us did - or if we weren't sure, we made it up as we went along. I'd like to say that no-one was hurt but this was child protection so I know for a fact that quite a few people were - but not by us, and I seriously doubt that following the manual more closely would have resulted in us uncovering that hidden abuse or finding a more appropriate placement for that troubled teenager. The resources just weren't there.
I found my heart's home three years on when I went to work in an emergency housing organisation. I'm still working in housing now, 25 years later. I was the organisation's first staff member at the ripe old age of 25, and we were pretty much a policy-free zone. Aside from inventing a few forms and coming up with some procedures to resolve key issues in the work, we pretty much did what we thought was right. I'm quite sure I didn't do any harm in that job, and I'm also sure I did a lot of good - people came into the office with nowhere to live, and left with somewhere. It probably could have been better, but it was certainly heading in the right direction.
Fast forward 20 years or so and I now work as a consultant, with many of my clients the same type of organisation I went to work for in 1986. They all have policy manuals that run to hundreds of pages. I've written a number of such manuals myself. One, for an organisation with three staff, runs to over 250 pages with attachments.
All this policy writing is an attempt at quality improvement. If we have good, detailed policies, the reasoning goes, our work will be better, less will be left to chance, we will be more accountable. I think somehow we feel if we have everything written down we have it under control, we have factored out the uncertainty, we have made the world a safer place.
Yet I wonder. How often do the staff of that organsiation refer to the manual? In their busy lives, overwhelmed with demands from desperate families, do they look at their beautiful manual any more often than I did in the Childrens Services Department in the 1980s? Or do they, like me, respond to the situation as best they can, using their judgement and common sense? If they do this, do they do positive good? Do they at least avoid making things worse? And do they sometimes, in the inspiration of the moment, do something so brilliant that no policy manual could ever compare?