Chapter Two: A week in the life of a Social Services Department

"They are playing a game. They are playing at not playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I shall break the rules and they will punish me. I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game." R.D. Laing, Knots


This part of the report is novel in the field of information behaviour research and, to some extent, within sociological research generally.

We decided upon this approach of a narrative 'week in the life of' a department as a way of presenting the richness of the data obtained through observation, since statistics alone are relatively unhelpful in this respect. Our aim is to show what work within social services departments is like and we see several uses to which the information presented here may be put:

  1. the newcomer to the field can obtain some vicarious experience of life in a social services department to the extent of being able to understand the context within which information needs arise;
  2. it may have an educational or training function in Schools and Departments of Library and Information Studies, to the same end, providing a richer account of the research environment than is customary;
  3. it provides the context for the recommendations we make on potential information service innovations later in the report.

Doubtless readers of the report will put different emphases upon these uses and discover other uses of their own.

Jack D. Douglas (1976) notes that one of the goals of understanding and reporting in field research is 'evoking the setting' for outsiders and he comments:

Sociologists have almost never achieved... the evocation of the setting for outsiders and... they often move to a language that is already so oriented to the abstract, preconceived ideas of sociological theory that the members have no interest in it and may not even understand it.

On the task of presenting research data in such a manner as to evoke the setting for members and outsiders he goes on to say:

The form is difficult and so new that sociologists and other researchers, given their preconceived ideas about sociological books, find it strange.

We hope that what follows is not too strange a mode of presentation and that those with 'preconceived ideas' will suspend judgement until they have satisfied themselves on the extent to which the narrative account increases their understanding of the field and of the context of information transfer problems.


What follows is an attempt to present a consolidated 'week in the life of a social services department, based on observation data drawn from five departments and twenty two subjects. The department itself is a fictitious amalgam of some characteristics of real departments. Each 'character' is based on one observation subject but because the characters are drawn from different departments and because the dominating themes of observation weeks varied, it has sometimes been necessary to 'adapt' the information. Such adaptations are, in every case, grounded in observation experience.

In order to distinguish between the various types of presentation adopted here certain conventions have been used:

Material derived directly from observation and presented in its ocorrect' context has been typed using a normal typeface, as in this statement.

Direct quotation of observation subjects in context is given in italic style, as here.

Material derived directly from observation but for which the context has been changed and material which has been invented for linking purposes but which was derived from general observation experience, has been enclosed in bold style, as here.

We have tried to make the incidents included in this narrative as representative as possible of the range of activities observed. Routine or humdrum items have been included as well as events which were of special interest from the point of view of information use.

The Department

Exshire is a large county divided into three administrative zones, each based on one population centre. These three population centres account for about three quarters of the one million population of the county, the remainder is scattered in a series of isolated villages and small towns. The social services department maintains its headquarters in the city and administrative centre, and zone offices in both the large towns. The city zone office shares accommodation with the county headquarters in a tower block about 400 metres from county hall. A total of fifteen detached sector officers are equally distributed over the three zones. In the case of city zone they ring the city in various suburban areas and in north and south zones they are placed in strategic towns. An organizational chart is shown (Figure 4) for relevant parts of the department.

dept. chart

Figure 4: Organizational chart

The county headquarters offices house the department's central filing system and a small library staffed by one qualified librarian and an administrative assistant. This library forms part of the department's research section. A local government information unit based within the county reference library at county hall provides a daily news digest service consisting of photocopies of relevant newspaper articles and a weekly j ournal contents list t. These are widely distributed at headquarters but only ten copies of each are sent on the daily van service to north and south zone offices. The department librarian produces a monthly bulletin consisting of department news items, occasional contributed articles and abstracts of some relevant journal articles and other publications.

Pre-observation interview

Interviews were held between the five observers and their respective subjects before fieldwork started. A summary of one such interview is given below to indicate the kinds of information gathered in advance.

Charles King was interviewed in his office ten days before observation commenced. They face each other across a meeting desk which occupies a large part of the room. The director is tall and relaxed, aged about forty-five and his manner is friendly, but purposeful; he suggests a thirty minute duration for the meeting, which is adhered to. After each general question he pauses to give it consideration, and when the interviewer inadvertently 'prompts' a line of reply by asking if the director is aware of any serious gaps in the information available to him, he refuses to be led and stresses that his major problem is one of avoiding information overload.

Some of the subject's responses about his information behaviour may have been influenced by the fact that the project is based in a School of Librarianship and that the department librarian had championed the project. (Two references are made to the county librarian, one to the Dewey classification scheme and two to the department librarian).

A provisional timetable of meetings for the observation week is outlined and the director reports that his normal working hours are c 8.30 - c 19.00 and that he normally has working lunches ("Every day for the last three weeks").

Information habits

The subject says that so much material crosses his desk that he has to be selective. He adds that:

"One of my major jobs is making sure that the paper goes to the right person who is working on it and also that different branches of the department have got the information or document they require so that a lot of my responsibility, when dealing with the mail in the morning, is deciding the route. There is a constant choice and dilemma between adequate information and information overload. It's a very real problem, particularly when you've got something which peripherally concerns three different branches, and the decision is whether to send it straight into the assistant director, or whether to relay it to someone key. Just to illustrate, a circular which we've been awaiting a long time, on secure accommodation, came in yesterday. I didn't know whether to send it straight into the assistant director, or to the principal administrative officer responsible for the capital programme. In the event, I thought it ought to go through the assistant director, even though this would mean a delay of a couple of days reaching the PAO who would take action on it. These are the sort of decisions..."

The director shares with his deputy a filing system which has recently been reorganised on the Dewey model. "We keep some current stuff there that I'm working on." Specialist material is kept in appropriate sections, and he occasionally has recourse to the department's library or very occasionally ("not more than once a month") to the county librarian.

"I tend to keep stuff I'm immediately working on around me... I suppose everyone's gob their own personal system. I'm not a very tidy person. It's one that has a personal logic to me. It more operates on a base of who to go to, having an instinct, because we operate pretty openly, pretty informally, what you lose in having a system is compensated for by the openness of communication."

The subject lists his main contacts as the deputy director, then the three assistant directors about equally. Asked whether he operates a rigid appointments system, he says:

"I keep open house, but we try to organise our use of time. I would expect to have 5 or 10 minutes with assistant directors on issues which they wished to raise with me, or I with them. If we've got a lot on, we arrange a special meeting, but we try to get our management group fairly organized There is obviously a lot to communicate. The whole focus of the operation is the management group and the other meetings which feed into this."


The control of information flow is clearly seen by the subject as being a major element in his work:

"My problem is dealing with the information overload. Making sure that someone who is capable is working well on a particular issue. It's managing the information I've got, making sure that the right issues come up at the right time, and that they are interrelated with housing and education and elsewhere, because it's up to me to chart the direction of the department, which means, of course, that I mustn't have too much detailed information. Occasionally I do go home with two cases full to read over a weekend, but I really don't enjoy that. I rely on the assistant directors to fill me in on the principles in relation to policy. I feel that I can get all the information I want when I want it from various sources... it's like playing an organ, you've got an instinct, you know where to go for it, it may be a colleague director of social services, DHSS, departmental library, chief librarian, county hall or whatever. By operating the system, or a system, you know where to go."

Education and experience

After taking a degree at Oxford, the subject obtained diplomas in social administration, and in applied social studies. He worked as a probation officer and senior child care officer for a total of eight years before working in an advisory position with the DHSS. He took up his present post upon local government reorganisation in 1974.


The subject says that his secretariat is, in a sense, an extension of himself and on completing the interview the observer spends about twenty minutes talking to the director's secretary. She is engaging and helpful now and throughout the observation period.

She admits to being somewhat unhappy about the recent reorganisation of the filing system (carried out by the administrative officer with whom she shares an office). She feels that the new categories are too formalized and arbitrary and has difficulty in locating files in the lateral filing cabinet. She confirms the general outline of the director's working habits and says that he makes frequent trips to other parts of the building. She sees a large part of her job as re-routing enquiries to more appropriate members of staff. everything was now ready to begin with observation.


  • Douglas, J.D. (1976) Investigative social research: individual and team field research. Berkeley, CA: Sage.

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