Chapter Three: Observation data

"Make the investigation I ask of you, Sancho, and do not worry about any others, for you know nothing about the colures, lines, parallels, zodiacs, ecliptics, poles, solstices, equinoxes, planets ... which are the measures of which the celestial and terrestrial spheres are composed. But if you had that knowledge, or part of it, you would clearly see how many parallels we have cut, how many signs seen, and what constellations we have left behind and are now leaving. Once more I ask you, feel and fish!" Sancho obeys, raises his head, looks at his master and says: "Either the test is false or we haven't got where your Worship says."
[Cervantes. Don Quixote]


In the previous chapters we described some of the problems in gathering observation data and tried to show what sort of picture of social services departments emerged. For reasons outlined at the beginning of chapter two, we did not confine ourselves to a traditional report, consisting of tables and a linked commentary. Various forms of narrative report were tried, including the one presented in chapter two, in an attempt to convey the holistic view of information in its organizational context gained by the observation team.

The fact that Project INISS observation was to some extent structured enabled the observers to collect certain data systematically. Subsequent analysis of these data revealed characteristics which were not immediately apparent during observation as well as adding weight to other observation impressions. For this reason we have not spurned the 'traditional report' and what follows in this chapter is based largely on observation data. It should be repeated that the observation data are not statistically significant because the subjects chosen could in no sense be regarded as a random sample and their number is too small to adequately represent the entire field. However, some of the more interesting propositions derived from the observation data were tested during the next phase of the project. This consisted of structured interviews with a stratified random sample of staff drawn from four departments. The results of these interviews have been reported elsewhere (Wilson and others, 1978; Streatfield and Wilson, 1980) but occasional reference is made to them below.

In this chapter we have presented data on the context of information need, on aspects of the work of social services staff, on their specialized knowledge, and on their attitudes towards the organizational climate, then we have looked at the general communication processes in the departments to show the processes into which information-seeking and information transfer must fit. Thirdly, our findings on information needs and on the use of official and personal information stores are presented.

Context of information needs

One of the assumptions of Project INISS is that information behaviour must be related to the ordinary work of the people under study.

In this section certain aspects of work in social services departments are highlighted: these are the roles performed at different levels in the organization, the fragmented nature of the work, and the specialized knowledge that those filling these roles acquire. In addition, an attempt is made to assess the effect of the 'climate' of the organization on information behaviour.

Work roles

The types of work performed in social services departments are summarized below:

The director is responsible for the development of services and works with other directorate staff to decide how best to implement statutory requirements and departmental policies. Other directorate staff are responsible for the performance of aspects of the service and work closely with field-based staff. Advisers have to keep up to date with developments in their field, maintain contacts, advise the director and sometimes act as a consultant for other staff.

Zone and sector directors are responsible for planning, organizing and coordinating the activities of social workers who are in turn responsible for provision of a range of services to their allotted clients.

The work roles of observational subjects were:

directorate staff4
zone/sector management6
social workers (all grades)5
administrative support staff2
Table 1: Work roles of observation subjects

and those of the interview subjects, by department, were as follows:

 Dept. ADept. BDept CDept DTotal
Line managers233311
Admin. support staff628

Table 2: Work roles of interview respondents

Fragmented work

Fragmentation of the working week, with frequent interruptions and changes of theme, was characteristic of all the observation periods and the proportion of relatively brief information exchanges was consistently high. 36% of all observed events were completed in one minute or less and almost 75% of events took up five minutes or less. Only one subject, a research officer, spent lengthy periods of time (up to 248 minutes) on single activities, when preparing research reports, but even these activities were subject to frequent interruption. At all senior levels of staff very brief events (one minute or less) were somewhat more likely to take place in the subject's own office than elsewhere, and this was particularly marked in the case of directorate level staff where 72% of events took place in the subject's office but 86% of very brief events were located there. The difference between the proportion of events in the subject's own office and the proportion of very brief events taking place there decreases down the hierarchy from the directorate, through the advisers and line managers and the trend is reversed with fieldworkers.

Staff category% of all brief events
in own office
% of all events
in own office
Line managers65.362.1
Total events15183797

Table 3: Information events lasting for one minute or less and total information events

What information activities did these brief events involve? The difference between the proportion of events involving each major information activity and the proportion of very brief events associated with that activity is set out below:

Information activity% of total events% of total events lasting 0-1 minuteDifference between % of very brief events and % of events
preparing, annotating or moving docs. etc.5.96.4+0.5

Table 4: The proportion of events and of brief events for each activity and the difference between them

The table clearly shows that information receiving activities are much more likely to be 'brief events than other activities and that information exchanging activities are likely to occupy more time than other activities. When the figures for different staff levels are examined the only significant point to note is that directorate level staff engaged in a higher proportion of information receiving events (relative to total events) than did other categories.

A similar examination of the relationship between managerial role and brief events shows an anticipated association: 'monitor' activities (which are essentially information receiving or seeking events) showed a higher proportion of brief events than other roles, while decisional or leadership activities were more likely to involve lengthier communication events.

Preparing, etc.
Total percent(101)(101)(99)(100)(100)
Chi2 = 323.72 20df. sig. at better than .001 [Discrepancies in % column totals in this and subsequent tables are due to rounding errors].
Table 5: Information activities by work role

72% of all information receiving events observed were completed in three minutes or less. The implications of this finding for people providing formal information services to social services department staff should be obvious, but insufficient attention is still apparently being paid to the problem of designing the products of information services so that they can, be digested, or at least assessed for their longer term reading value, within a brief space of time. The fact that other observed activities such as giving, seeking or exchanging information were usually a little less rapidly accomplished, may suggest that information officers in social services departments should be prepared to adopt a more extrovert attitude in their work and to exploit the informal communication network.

Expert staff

Two types of specialist staff were identified before observation commenced: those with a specialist role within the department calling for some type of professional expertize, such as research, information or training staff; and those employed as management advisers for some aspect of service delivery, such as an adviser for adoption and fostering. It was apparent that such specialist staff had a potentially important information role within the department and for this reason, two of the observation staff chosen were 'specialists' and a further three subjects were 'advisers'. Significant aspects of their communication behaviour are described in appropriate sections below.

These two categories of staff might be described as official experts but two further types of specialist were also identified, one of which might be labelled as unofficial experts and the other, in terms of the Seebohm-inspired reorganization of social services, as acknowledged experts. A number of unofficial experts were called upon by observation subjects for information or advice. One such person was employed as an assistant director for research and development, but because of a combination of personal interest and the accident of chairing a particular working party, had become the department's authority on mental health topics. Another person, a social worker, was called in to attend a zone level discussion on community work because of his known personal interest in that field. The phenomenon of the technological gatekeeper has been described elsewhere (for example, Allen and Cohen, 1969) and it seems scarcely surprising that in departments which place heavy reliance on informal communication, some staff should come to be regarded as particularly useful contacts. What became apparent during observation was that in addition to highly regarded contacts, the number of unofficial experts who might be consulted by colleagues from time to time was large, indeed the majority of staff who had been in post for any length of time seemed to be used in this way. A similar comment could be made in respect of particular knowledge of department procedures which itself formed a significant field of expertize.

Turning to the other category of unacknowledged experts it was obvious that despite reorganization along generic lines, social workers did tend to specialize by maintaining caseloads which were heavily biased towards particular categories of clients, such as the elderly or children. These specialisms were universally recognised at sector level and in some departments were invested with semi-official status. One observation subject, for example, was the sector specialist on adoptions and fostering and handled both the adoption records for the sector and such matters as advertising for potential adopters.

Our observation experience led us to propose two hypotheses.

Hypothesis 1: That the majority of staff claim specialised knowledge of some aspect of their work.

Hypothesis 2: That people with expertize are not always recognised by other members of staff and may therefore not be used.

Interview respondents were asked if they had specialised knowledge relating to any aspect of their job. 81% of the respondents claimed to have some kind of specialised knowledge, confirming hypothesis 1. The areas within which their knowledge was claimed are shown in Table 6 below.

 DirectorateSpecialistLine ManagerSocial WorkerAdmin.Total
Category*No. %No. %No. %No. % No. %No. %
Client service needs6100.01463.61090.9 6461.5337.59764.2
Service delivery 466.71045.5436.41716.34 50.03925.8
Departmental procedures116.7 836.43 27.398.7225.023 15.2
External organizations 116.7522.7327.32524.0112.53523.2
Other areas233.3731.8327.329 27.9112.54227.8
* These categories are not mutually exclusive    Chi 2 = 20.39; not significant
Table 6: Types of specialised know!edge claimed by respondents

None of the differences between categories shown here are statistically significant except those between social workers and all other staff, but additional comment is provided below to help clarify the picture. The most frequent claim for specialist knowledge was in the client service needs area (apart from replies by administrative support staff). Not surprisingly, directorate staff claimed a high level of knowledge on aspects of service delivery, as did administrative support staff. There was a fairly low level of reporting on specialist knowledge of departmental procedures, specialists/advisers claiming knowledge of this area more frequently. This low response could be partially explained by a tendency to take procedural information for granted, as comments from respondents showed.

"Not really specialised - no more than anyone else."

"No more than you would expect from someone in my position."

For those at a higher level in the hierarchy, other areas of specialised knowledge reported tended to relate to their managerial position, for instance:

"Something more intangible in what is possible in an overall financial and political sense." (directorate)

"Managerial experience of other areas outside local government." (line manager)

"A backup knowledge in training, research and development." (directorate)

Other areas of specialised knowledge reported by specialist/advisers tended to be very specific and related to their role:

"Survey design, data collection, computer development within social services." (research officer)

"Other research that has been done ... also people want information on how to collect information and what they should be looking for." (research officer)

"Staffing matters - terms and conditions, and welfare rights." (adviser)

"Central building programme and knowledge of nearly every other department of the county council who are involved. All aspects of the buildings." (planning officer)

In the case of social workers, the 'other' areas of specialised knowledge reported tended to be based on previous experience or training, or some type of voluntary activity.

"Experience as nursing assistant in adolescent unit of psychiatric hospital."

"Academically - fairly strong on the clinical psychology and psychiatry side. Also education psychology as I qualified as a teacher as well."

"Training in psychotherapeutic groups. I run education groups on casework methods for other social workers in the area."

"Youth work through personal involvement."

"Sub-cultural groups. I've lived with the West Indian population."

Other areas mentioned by social workers were based on their current Interests, such as community work, group work, welfare rights, legal procedures and legal aspects of social work (e.g., marital problems and law related to mental health).

The frequency with which respondents were asked for information on their specialism, is shown in Table 7.

 DirectorateSpecialistLine ManagerSocial WorkerAdmin.Total
 No. % No. % No. % No. % No. % No. %
Not asked----19.16 5.8--74.6
Monthly or less frequently233.329.1218.2 1514.4112.52214.6
Weekly or more frequently--731.8218.2 3533.7--4429.1
Daily or more frequently233.31150.04 36.42120.2450.04227.8
No specialist knowledge--14.519.1 2322.1337.52818.6
Not definable in these terms233.314.519.143.8--85.3
Total699.92299.911100.1104 100.08100.o28100.0

Table 7 : Frequency with which respondents were asked about their specialism

The most common frequency with which respondents were asked about their specialist knowledge was 'at least once a week', followed by 'daily or more frequently'. These frequency patterns tend to support hypothesis 1.

Only limited support can be offered for hypothesis 2 in that seven respondents (a line manager and six social workers) claimed expertize about which they were never asked by other people in the department for advice or information and a further twenty-two respondents reported that they were asked monthly or less frequently.

Respondents with little experience in social services predictably tended to report having specialised knowledge of aspects of their work less frequently than their experienced colleagues.

With 81% of the staff interviewed claiming specialised knowledge relating to some aspect of their job and 57% claiming to be consulted about their specialism at least weekly, the suggestion that most people in departments have some kind of significant information role is given added weight. From the point of view of systematic information service provision these results might be regarded as bad news, since the very small scale services at present provided could not cater for the special interests of such a high proportion of the staff. Fortunately, it seems unlikely that systematic information provision to all staff with specialised knowledge, over and above any general dissemination of information in departments, is necessary. The fact that these people are, or claim to be, consulted regularly, demonstrates at least some awareness of their specialisms on the part of their colleagues. Some of the information required to maintain specialised knowledge should get through; whether enough of this information reaches the people with any interest in it is considered below.

Organizational climate

Previous studies (for example, Schuler and Blank, 1976) have suggested a positive relationship between organizational climate and information flow. Questions were included in the interview schedule to assess respondents' attitudes towards other people in the organization, the management of the organization and the structure and procedures of the organization. Mean scores were produced for each of these variables. On cross-tabulating organizational climate variables by work role and by work strata (using the Rowbottom and Billis (1977) work stratum model) it was seen that tone towards management scored lowest in the lower Rowbottom and Billis strata (the fieldwork end of the range). None of the other tables produced statistically significant results, nor did cross-tabulating organizational climate variables by individual types of information needed or by mean scores of need.

We were unable to establish any significant correlation between organizational climate and information need, nor did we find a significant relationship between organizational climate and work role except in the instance reported.

Organizational communication activities

It has been one of the basic premises of Project INISS that information activities, in the sense understood by librarians and information workers, cannot be usefully divorced from communication practices in general. Accordingly, in both the observation study and the interview phase, attention was given to the collection of data on the channels of communication employed in social services departments; on the extent to which oral communication figured in information transfer, and on the kinds of written communications used.

Channels of communication

At various times in the past fifty years (possibly beginning with the paper by Steiner, 1923) social workers have been described as having an overwhelming preference for informal methods of communication, especially face-to-face conversation. Project INISS observation offered qualified support for this view but it remained unclear whether social services staff were reluctant to read published material or whether staff did little reading because they had very limited access to collections of publications. Evaluation of the Social work information bulletin response rate suggests that a sensitive documentation service will be used and that social services staff are not necessarily reluctant readers (Streatfield and Wilson, 1978).

Oral (face to face)265445.5
Oral and telephone30.1
Writing and reading3756.4
Oral or telephone with writing or reading63010.8
Other combinations721.2

Table 8: Channels used during observation events: 22 subjects

60% of all events observed were conducted without reference to written forms of communication. On the other hand 28% of events involved combinations of reading and writing only. With the exception of one subject whose working week was disrupted by mechanical trouble with his car, preventing him from attending several meetings, the ratio of 'oral' to 'written' channels was fairly consistent across all subjects.

Fig 5 Sector director A

Figure 6: Sector Director B

The way in which some observation subjects apportioned their time between various types of contact is shown in the pie-charts for two county sector directors and a social worker (Figures 5, 6 and 7). The first two subjects were substantially involved in meetings but the sector director who inspired Figure 6 spent greater time in travelling, reflecting the more centralized system of management in force in his department, necessitating attendance at headquarters level meetings. Figure 8 shows the time apportionment (on a slightly different basis to emphasise types of activity rather than contacts) for a director.

Figure 7: Social worker
Figure 8: Director

These observations led to a further hypothesis:

Hypothesis 3: That social services staff spend the majority of their time in oral forms of communication.

The interviewers asked respondents to estimate what proportion of time in a typical week they spent on different activities. A summary of the results for all respondents is shown in Table 9.

% of time spent in...client contacttalkingtelephonereading/scanningwriting/data testingtravellingother

Table 9: Proportion of time spent on different activities: percentage of respondents

52% of respondents reported spending more than 20% of their time in client contact, 40% said that they gave time above the same minimum level to talking face-to-face (excluding formal meetings) and 18% to writing or listing and entering data.

Figure 9: Time spent in various activities

Figure 9 supports Hypothesis 3 in that the majority (79%) of social services staff reported spending less than 30% of their time reading and writing, whereas 76% of respondents reported spending more than 60% of their time in oral activities.

Oral communication

The observational phase of the investigation showed that 71% of all events involved the oral communication of information, opinions or advice. further analysis showed that formally constituted meetings accounted for a significant proportion of these events, that communication with subordinates or superiors was also significant, and that staff at some levels, or in certain positions had frequent communication with outside agencies.


It would be difficult to over-estimate the significance of scheduled meetings for information communication, particularly at senior management levels, during the observation periods. All categories of staff were involved in some scheduled meetings for the periods of time shown in Table 10. This table makes no allowance for unscheduled meetings or for pre- and post-meeting discussions.

Work-roleNo. of staffNo. of meetingsAverage no. of meetingsAverage Duration (hours)Average hours per person
Line managers6437.21.813.0
Social workers 5
Admin. support231.50.40.6
Totals22 1416.41.59.0

Table 10: Time spent in scheduled meetings

* Includes one subject who was subordinate to an assistant director but performed functions normally undertaken by directorate level staff. He had no line management responsibilities and provided advice to field staff as one of his functions. For other purposes this subject has been treated as an adviser.

Scheduled meetings accounted for 21% of all observation events. A further 35% of events were taken up in unscheduled meetings. Meetings involving line managers were usually arranged by their line superiors, rather than by staff within their sphere of direction.

Two further hypotheses were generated:

Hypothesis 4: The amount of time spent in meetings varies with the work role; those higher in the organizational hierarchy spend significantly more time in meetings than those lower in the hierarchy;

Hypothesis 5: Meetings are seen by participants at all levels as an important vehicle for obtaining information.

The significance of formal meetings to staff is amplified by the interview data. Only one fieldworker and one administrative officer did not regularly attend meetings as part of their job. Table 11 shows the percentage of a typical week claimed as being spent in formal meetings, for the various categories of staff interviewed.

Percentage of working week spent in meetingsDirectorateSpecialistLine ManagerSocial WorkerAdmin.Total
No.%No.% No.%No.%No.%No.%
1-10--8 36.4 1 9.1 67 64.4 6 75.0 82 54.3
11-20 - - 8 36.4 2 18.2 27 26.0 1 12.5 38 25.2
21-302 33.329.1654.55 4.8112.51610.6
31-40116.714.5218.22 1.9--64.0
41-50233.329.1--3 2.9--74.6
51 +116.714.5---- --21.3
Total6100.022100.011100.0 104100.08100.0 151 100.0

Table 11: Percentage of working week spent in formal meetings

This table supports hypothesis 4 in that the majority of fieldworkers, administrative support staff and specialists claimed to spend less time in formal meetings than the directorate and line managers. All the directorate staff said that they spent more than 21% of a typical week in formal meetings, and for half of them meetings were said to occupy more than 41% of their working week. The significance was tested by applying a chi-square test to the figures in table 11. The result was a figure of 60.8 with 20 degrees of freedom, which gave a significance level of .0005.

Those respondents regularly attending meetings were asked how useful they found these meetings for picking up information relevant to their jobs. The results are given in Table 12.

 Total respondents
Not very useful138.6
Very useful5737.8
Not applicable (do not attend meetings)21.3

Table 12: Reported usefulness of meetings

Hypothesis 5 is supported in that 85% of respondents felt that meetings were useful or very useful for picking up information relevant to their work. This average was exceeded by all categories of staff apart from directorate (50%) and administrative support staff (75%).

Comments made about meetings included:

"County Hall meetings tend not to be useful as affecting our work. We tend to be faced with decisions already made - mock democracy. It is an area where a lot of seniors and [sector] directors feel that great improvement is necessary. The question is one of the status of the information gathered. Once we've got it, it's pretty important." (social worker)

"Often in a meeting you think it's useless but the knowledge you realise you would have missed if you hadn't been there is very significant." (social worker)

A number of respondents singled out particular types of meetings for condemnation or praise. One social worker, for example, said:

"General team meetings are a waste of time, management meetings and staff meetings make for smoother running of the job, the working party on alternative ways of running the duty system is useful."

In view of their level of time commitment to meetings, 'uncertain' responses by two directorate staff and the refusal of a third to respond to the question in the form presented, deserves comment:

"Variable - sometimes there is a formal necessity to attend, sometimes a continuing basic necessary link. The others - I'm invited or through my wide remit, therefore, I try to be selective in what I'm getting out of a meeting. It also depends on the abilities of people in meetings themselves." (assistant director).

"They vary enormously, parts of most are of use, otherwise we'd miss out on what's going on. With committee meetings it's what do the councillors get out of it, not us." (director)

"I'm normally giving information rather than picking it up. Some are invaluable, some really doubtful." (assistant director).

The eleven social workers who found meetings 'not very useful' tended to view them as intrusions upon their time:

"A dead loss, a waste of time. I've other ways to use my time. At the end of the day you come up against a brick wall - no changes, nothing achieved and as I'm a long-serving person I've seen it all before. They are only useful for getting to know colleagues."

Some comments were also made about the limited value of general staff meetings for communicating information, because of the particular focus of discussion, ("discussion of a specific client so you get no overall information, which as a newcomer is what you are looking for"), the large numbers of people involved or because ... "they have a dead atmosphere. If they do get heated then it's only opinions not facts that are passed on."

We deliberately chose to focus on the perceived value of meeting for 'picking up information relevant to your job' but we have not lost sight of their value for conveying information and reaching decisions. The interviewers went on to ask about the types of meetings attended because it was assumed that different categories of staff would attend different types of meeting, and it was felt of interest to determine which types of meetings were attended, and whether there was much overlap in attendance between staff categories. See Table 13.

Of particular interest in this table is the degree of formal representation of line managers at meetings of a higher hierarchical level. Line managers appear to perform an important linking role between the operational and managerial levels of the department. The implication of this linking role and the organizational model on which it is based, are discussed later.

Some directorate, specialist or line management staff maintain a presence at meetings of lower hierarchical levels. Their comments suggest that the purpose is either to explain a particular matter to staff or, more usually, to monitor the activities and problems of lower level staff for their own purposes.

Meetings obviously form an important means of communication in departments but observation experience suggests that considerable improvements could be achieved in using meetings to pass on information. Implementation of these suggestions might also improve the level of decision taking involved.

The sheer quantity of meetings involving department staff may tend to encourage under-preparation for all meetings, however significant. One observation subject was singled out by his colleagues as being unusually thorough in his preparation for meetings, a claim which he disputed. During observation he set aside time to read meeting papers in advance and called for some statistics to illustrate the department's position over one issue. This did amount to unusually thorough preparation in our observation experience. We frequently observed meetings at which no minutes were taken and no agendas circulated and relevant position statements or discussion papers were seldom available. The result at managerial level was that no authorized record of decisions reached was readily available for consultation by others and at the operational level, to quote a social worker interviewed:

"The information given at team meetings is not consolidated. It is read out and' then disappears."

It would be dangerous to assume that everyone concerned has a primary interest in improved communication during meetings or at other times. Where the demand for resources heavily outstrips supply, field workers may be reluctant to pool their knowledge about such matters as the availability of places in children's homes. An another level, at least one example was observed of a meeting being successfully manipulated by the chairman because he was the only person present with a full knowledge of the facts on an issue under discussion. By witholding this information he was able to obtain the decision which he sought.

Three key areas for improving the effectiveness of meetings as vehicles for information dissemination are:

  1. the servicing of meetings by preparation and distribution of adequate agendas and documents and the subsequent preparation and circulation of minutes to appropriate staff (not necessarily those who attended the meetings);
  2. provision of training in committee chairmanship and in meeting participation;
  3. provision of discussion papers on key topics for meetings at policy making and policy implementation levels, where the majority of the investment of time and resources appears to be concentrated.


75% of all observed events involved contact with other staff of the department and a further 6% involved contact with staff of other departments in the same local authority. Of this first group of events the highest proportion took place with other staff of the same category except in the case of the six line managers, who as sector or zone directors had most contact (29%) with fieldworkers. The significance of vertical lines of communication begins to emerge when the managerial relationship to the subjects of the other departmental staff involved in events is examined. Line subordinates featured as the most frequent contacts in the case of directorate staff (62%), line managers (57%) and social workers (all grades) (29%). Advisers and specialists had their most frequent contact with non-line subordinates (42%). Figure 10 gives a schematic representation of these information flows for each category of staff.

Figure 10 - contacts
Figure 10: Information flows among social services staff

Social services departments can be viewed, on the basis of these data, as a series of hierarchical levels each of which is characterized by a considerable degree of local horizontal communication. Vertical communication takes place between these levels, predominantly downwards to a number of subordinates but also upwards to a smaller number of line superiors, giving an appearance of a series of conjoined pyramids (see Figure 11). There appears to be little tendency to communicate across or beyond the department to other groups at a similar hierarchical level below the apex of each pyramid. An exception occurs in the case of a particular client moving from one geographical sector to another resulting in same necessity for local liaison. Zone level scheduled meetings, especially if chaired by a zone level line manager, have the effect of sanctioning sector level contact by subordinate staff across sector boundaries. A similar consideration applies to the involvement of zone and sector staff at department-wide scheduled meetings. Some measure of control is exercised from the apex in both these latter instances so that the significance of apex positions in internal communication is underlined.

Figure 11 Pyramid
Figure 11: Pyramid model of communication between organizational levels in departments

This 'territorial' approach to communication led a newly appointed social worker to comment:

"You could have asked something about the levels of communication... the [sector] director is not too bad but the [zone] director is inaccessible, so I don't feel a member of a team or a department in that sense. [Zone] directors don't seem interested in staff, don't visit offices, don't seem approachable."

On the other hand, communication within the sector or section was frequently seen as good:

"In [sector] teams one of the strengths is that we tend to be a closed little group. There are various sorts of communications and understandings going on."

There is already a substantial literature which suggests that communication across organizational boundaries is inefficient (for example, Tushman, 1977) and in terms of this literature the sectors of a social services department might almost be regarded as discreet organizations (raising the question of whether such entities as social services departments in fact exist!).

Advisers and specialist staff do not readily fit into the pyramid model because they usually had no line management responsibility apart from their own immediate subordinates. Like other categories of more senior staff they showed more tendency to communicate with subordinates than with peers or superiors but non-line subordinates predominated as the principal other parties in their information events. The five specialists and advisers were involved with other staff during observation as follows:

 No. of events %
Administrative support staff18724.1
Other specialists/advisers17322.3
Field workers13016.8
Line managers273.5
No principal other party identifiable658.4

Table 14: Principal other parties in information events of specialist and advisory staff

The administrative staff were primarily the specialists' own clerical and secretarial staff. Examination of the data from other observation periods shows that advisers and specialists were in their turn the principal other parties in the events of other observed staff as follows:

 No. of events% of 'departmental' events
Line managers1268.8
Field workers325.1
Administrative support staff81.5

Table 15: Specialists and advisers as the principal other parties in information events: all other observation periods

Advisers and specialists emerge as a group of staff who are involved in considerable work with directorate staff and in smaller amounts of activity with larger numbers of field workers.

96% of interview respondents (all but six, one administrative support officer, one specialist, two line managers and two fieldworkers) reported having contact with organizations or individuals outside the department within the past month.

The frequency of contact by work role is shown in Table 16. 'At least once a week' was the most frequently reported level of contact, but a high proportion of social workers and administrative support staff contacted external organizations on a daily basis or more frequently.

 DirectorateSpecialistLine ManagerSocial WorkerAdmin.Total
Monthly or less16.718.227.37.725.01811.9
At least once a week50.045.545.441.312.56241.1
Daily or more frequently16.727.
Response not definable in these terms16.7*4.5-1.9-42.6
* = Refusal

Table 16: Frequency of contact with external organizations

Social workers (62%) and line managers (56%) were more likely to have contact with legal agencies than were specialist (14%) or directorate staff (17%) and to have considerably more contact with central government agencies (81% and 67%) than were specialists or directorate staff (27% and 50%). More senior grades of staff were possibly more likely to contact regional or national offices, whereas at fieldworker level it has been reported elsewhere that:

"contact between SSD area teams and DHSS arose almost exclusively from supplementary benefit matters raised by clients or members of the public seeking advice on financial matters from social workers, or where social workers need to liaise in respect of their casework." (Department of Health and Social Security, 1978)

Directorate staff had high contact with 'other agencies' which included professional associations. Members of Parliament and councillors, and, not surprisingly, social workers had relatively low contact with this group.

As the observation data had shown limited communication between the different organizational levels of the department, the interviewers set out to discover if a major part of a respondent's job consisted of exchanging information with staff based in a different tier of the department. For example, zone-based respondents were asked about their communication with both headquarters and sector staff. If such contact constituted a major part of their work, respondents were then asked if they experienced any problems in exchanging information with those groups of staff.

The somewhat complex results can be expressed as follows:

 positive responsesdifficulties reported% of positive respondents
contact with one level down
   (HQ to zone: HQ to sector (2 tier); zone to sector)
contact with two levels down
   (HQ to sector (3 tier only))
contact with one level up
   (ie sector to zone; sector to HQ (2 tier); zone to HQ)
4331 75.6
contact with two levels up
   (sector to HQ (3 tier only))

Table 17: Staff who saw communication with other organizational levels as a major part of their work

These questions were asked in order to test:

Hypothesis 6: That information in departments tends to flow vertically through the network described in the organization's structure chart.

Hypothesis 7A: That difficulties will be experience by responsible headquarters staff in communicating down through the hierarchy to zone and sector level staff and by zone staff communicating with sector staff.

Hypothesis 7B: That difficulties will be experienced by zone and sector staff in communicating up through the hierarchy to higher organizational levels if this forms a major part of their work.

Hypothesis 8: That a smaller proportion of field-based staff will be involved in communication with higher organizational levels (i.e., zones, headquarters from sector level) as a major part of their work.

76 (50%) of all respondents reported that exchanging information with staff in other organizational levels constituted a major part of their work and a number of other staff reported that some contact took place. "It's not a major part of my work but it is increasing." Since most social workers are positioned at several staff levels below the sector director (the obvious first point of contact between sector and zone or HQ), hypothesis 6 is largely substantiated by these results. 12 of the headquarters staff did not feel that contact with zones or sectors constituted a major part of their work but 86% of those who did reported various difficulties. (46% of all HQ staff interviewed reported difficulties). Hypothesis 7A appears to have been heavily substantiated by these findings although zone level staff reported relatively little difficulty (33% of all zone staff) in this respect.

77% of sector level staff involved in 'major' upward communication to zones or HQ provided support for hypothesis 7B but the sector staff reporting difficulties amounted to only 29% of the total. Hypothesis 8 was only partially substantiated in that a statistically significant difference (of -2.35) was found between sectors and zones. The difference between sectors and headquarters was not significant. The types of reported difficulties included limitations in the postal or telephone system, difficulties in contacting people, procedural delays, problems in coping with the quantity of information received, and difficulties caused by differences in perception between various groups of staff, To illustrate the last point an adoptions officer explained that, "social workers find it hard to know why I want Information as I'm not a caseworker. The areas don't know the role of the HQ staff." A senior social worker saw the main cause of trouble as the HQ staff: "Our comments are ignored. They accept our information but not our interpretations of what we require."

Headquarters based specialist and advisory staff provoked some comment 'from below' and it appeared that their roles were frequently misunderstood. Two comments may serve to illustrate this:

"Advisers are difficult to contact. When you make contact they don't add to the information already available ... it's all one way traffic." (social worker)

"It's not clear whether [advisers] are advisers in the sense of information givers." (senior social worker).

Comments made at other points in a number of interviews suggest that some clarification of the work roles of professional and advisory staff, and in particular of the extent to which management advisers are available for consultation by field staff, would be beneficial.

Each sector, zone or headquarters functional division appears to operate largely as a discrete unit, suggesting that headquarters-based library/ information staff, in consultation with their supervisors, have three basic options open to them in developing their services:
  1. Librarians or information officers may decide to restrict their services to some or all of the headquarters sectors. Involvement outside headquarters might either be curtailed or limited to responding to specific requests. Examples of departmental information services which appear to operate along these lines have been identified but the situation has not usually been made sufficiently explicit to guide field-based staff in their information seeking.
  2. Services may be offered to field-based staff using the formal system of communication through the organizational hierarchy. Examples of such services might include provision of staff bulletins, list of library accessions, circulation of journals or limited selective dissemination of information services. Ihe majority of department libraries/information units visited appear to favour this option or a combination of this and option 1) above.
  3. Information staff may seek to broaden their network of contacts and to establish direct links with field-based staff, both directly and by exploiting the prestige of their advisory or line management colleagues in ways which will be described later in this report. This approach will inevitably result in some friction and possible distrust on the part of some line-based staff, of the type already experienced by non-line management advisers attempting to intervene in the field, but the potential benefits of such an approach in providing alternative sources of information on a wide range of issues for field-based staff are considerable.

A further option of establishing field-based information officers has not been developed here because the full implications of such a scheme are not likely to be faced in the present economic climate.

Client contacts

One way of viewing social services departments may be to look at the extent to which client contact permeates the staffing levels but any attempt to divide staff into 'office staff and 'social workers' would be misleading. Line managers, advisers and even directorate level staff who still maintain a vestigial caseload are not unknown and although we found it convenient, in examining the work roles of senior social workers, to distinguish between 'supervisors' and 'caseworkers', 71% of the former group maintained a small caseload. Some social workers had no clients of their own, either because they were new to the department or because they performed special functions such as organizing good neighbour schemes.

Given that the observation subjects included 5 social workers and that other staff observed, such as the two administrative support staff, came into contact with clients or their relatives it may seem surprising that clients or relatives accounted for only 130 information events with observation subjects. (2% of the total observed events).

The information transfer or exchange value of client contacts in observed encounters was, however, frequently limited and even when social workers conveyed or sought specific information from clients there was sometimes a considerable gulf between the apparent information activity and the likely purpose of the encounter. 66 observed events were categorized as practitioner role events, a device which we developed to deal with this contingency.

A more helpful view begins to emerge when the target group of each observation event is identified. 2353 events (40%) were focused on a particular client or group of clients; services to clients formed the theme of 1925 events (33%). These figures take no account of events focused on the deployment of staff to meet client needs or of management matters likely to have a direct bearing on client services. (See tables 21 and 22 below).

The client focused events were dissected to see which service was under consideration in each event. When the target was families, the discussion usually focused on counselling/support/benefits (28%) or resources (25%); with children the attention tended to be on the adoption or fostering aspects of community care (23%); and with young people 44% of events centred on supervision. With old people events usually centred upon management of homes etc. (24%) or residential care (22%) and with the disabled 42% of events featured resources such as aids and adaptations.

Apart from social workers, the majority of respondents (60%) reported having no contact with clients, and only 3 respondents (6%) other than social workers reported spending more than 10% of their week with clients. Estimates of time spent by social workers in this activity are roughly comparable with those in other studies (such as, Carver and Edwards, 1972); 26% of social worker respondents claimed that they spent more than 40% of their time with clients.

The obvious implications of these findings for those offering formal information services are that:

  • for substantial periods of time social workers are removed from the direct influence of such services, and
  • when they are open to reception to services, information on methods of counselling, resources and benefits available and problems relating to the provision of specific services, such as the legal interpretation of statutory obligations, are likely to be of interest. Although the specific interests of social workers vary it appears likely that a service concentrating on the widespread dissemination of information on the topics mentioned would be of general use.

Written communication

40% of observed events involved reference to some form of published or written information. Letters and memoranda (16%) predominated and contact with unpublished documents occurred in a further 7% of all events. The other notable point is that even if the categories employed are interpreted generously publications emanating from external sources were only referred to in 3% of events. An attempt was made to identify the subject matter of written communications but letters, memoranda, agendas and minutes did not lend themselves to ready categorization and were eliminated from Table 18.

At least 54% of these kinds of written information could be classified as 'regulative' (procedural, internal statistics, client records, internal personnel etc. records), reinforcing the impression of social services departments as service bureaucracies in which great attention is paid to the control of procedures.

Type of information No.% of 'kinds'
Legal (eg act of Parliament; DHSS circular; legal monograph)252.0
Procedural (eg dept. procedural note; management text)1007.9
Central government and other non-local statistical information (eg DHSS statistics)90.7
Internal statistical information 443.5
Client records, referrals etc. 26621.0
Internal personnel or finance records27421.7
News of developments in social work, internal changes, happenings etc.13310.5
Research in social work302.4
Reports on experience or ideas in social work695.4
More than one kind18814.9
Total 'kinds of written information'1264100.0

Not applicable (oral, letters, memos, agendas, minutes)4575 

Total number of events5839 

Table 18: Kinds of written information used in information events

The use (or rather non-use) of journals as a means of keeping up to date was of particular interest during observation and gave rise to a further hypothesis.

Hypothesis 9: That only journals aimed specifically at social services staff as their target audience will be widely circulated within departments.

As observation had suggested that even basic journal provision in departments was by no means systematic, an interview question sought information on journals and magazines seen regularly, and how they were obtained (eg bought, circulated in the department). All but 16 respondents regularly saw journals. The majority of directorate, specialist and line management staff saw 4 journals or more whereas the majority of fieldwork and administrative staff saw 3 or fewer. One specialist, an information officer, saw as many as 22 journals regularly. Evidence in support of the hypothesis is given by the list of most frequently cited journals (Table 19).

The actual use made of journals seen can only be inferred from observed behaviour or interview comments but it seemed that social work journals were looked upon as sources of news, information about completed research, case studies and 'technical' articles on implementation of legislation or social work methods in relation to clients. Our work with the Social work information bulletin is likely to throw some light upon the kinds of use made of journals. In passing, it is interesting to note that at least some readers of journals recognised them as vehicles for specific information. (An analysis of requests for information in the letters columns of Community Care has recently been published by Streatfield and Messenger, 1980).

 Respondents seeing Journal
Journal Title No. %
Community Care 110732
Social Work Today 9462
New Society 65 43
Social Services 57 38
Social Worker and Residential News 28 19
Department house journal/information bulletin 28 19
Nalgo News 16 11
Health and Social Services Journal 13 9
Residential Social Work 12 8
British Journal of Social Work 10 7
Social Work Service 6 4
Clearing h ouse for local authority social services research 5 3
NB As this was an open-ended question there may have been some under-reporting of departmental house journals and Nalgo News.

Table 19: Journals seen regularly by frequency of citation

Interview questions about difficulties in obtaining types of information inspired a number of corrments about written and published material. These could be summarized in various categories:

Not received/supplied

"I recently had problems in getting hold of a DHSS circular - there wasn't a copy available in the department." (Homes adviser)

Wrong type

"The emphasis at present is on procedures, it should be more on resources." (Senior social worker)

Inadequate control

"I don't know if a file exists of copies of circulars and memos that come around. There could be - no one's told me about it." (New social worker)

Finding time

"I don't consider it's allowable in work time to go to the University library and dig something out myself. So if I do it has to be a weekend and I have to make the effort." (Social worker)

Committee minutes attracted a number of comments:

"It's mostly irrelevant except decisions about this area. It would be most valuable if such things were picked out for us." (Senior social worker).

"Getting hold of committee papers can be difficult, I don't really know who to go to. Also the minutes taken at such meetings are not a sufficient account of what happened. Their circulation can be haphazard." (Social worker)

Social services staff make little use of externally published material and relatively low use of internal documents, reports and publications. Considerable difficulties are encountered in locating procedural instructions and other guidance documents when the need arises. Project INISS work with the Social Work Information Bulletin indicates that staff may make use of externally published material if it is offered to them in a convenient form, but in general this is very far from being the case in departments.

Even the provision of mainstream social work journals is haphazard: Community Care (the most frequently seen journal) was distributed on a controlled circulation basis, the basic address list was out of date; Social Work Today was usually obtained through membership of the British Association of Social Workers but was also circulated to colleagues in departments and can now be bought; New Society was the journal most likely to be bought by respondents (32% of the people who reported seeing it regularly); and Social Services was widely available in multiple copies but was still less frequently seen than the other journals mentioned.

Staff of a departmental library might well find a purpose in helping to introduce externally published material into the department and acting as a focal point for people seeking written and published information. They might also help to systematize the provision of procedural information and rationalize the purchase and circulation of journals within the department as a whole.

One interview respondent said, "since we've closed for lunch I've certainly read more journals." The effect of such an apparently minor change in departmental organization on the information behaviour of the respondent raises a number of questions about the relationships of organizational procedures to communication generally. Some of these questions are being considered in the current phase of Project INISS.

Information need and information-seeking behaviour

In this section attention is given to three main areas: the kinds of information activity engaged in (e.g., whether giving, receiving or seeking); the information needs of staff in terms of subject areas and types of information, the degree of satisfaction experienced and the difficulties involved in getting relevant information; and finally, the use of official and personal stores of information.

Information activities in general

All observation events were categorized by the principal information activity thought by the observer to be associated with each event.

ActivityNo. of events%
Preparing, annotating, moving documents3455.9
The first four categories should be read as, "[Receiving, etc.] information, opinions, advice, etc."

Table 20: Principal information activity associated with each information event

Further analysis of the observation data revealed that:

  • directorate level staff were involved in a smaller proportion of document moving, annotating and preparation events;
  • line managers were involved in a larger proportion of information receiving and exchanging events and in a smaller proportion of information giving events;
  • fieldworkers engaged in a larger proportion of information seeking events; and
  • administrators engaged in a larger proportion of information giving events and in a smaller proportion of information receiving and exchanging activities.

This pattern of activity led naturally to a hypothesis:

Hypothesis 10: That most social services staff regularly give information to other people in the department.

Only 10 interview respondents (7%) did not give information of various kinds to other people in the department, a fact which strongly supports the hypothesis. Kinds of information given most on a weekly or daily basis were directory information, procedural information and information on client records. 71% of respondents did not give information on central government statistics and a high proportion did not give information on internal statistics (64%), personnel/financial matters (67%), or research (66%).

Information need

It has already been argued that 'information need' is a subjective concept. The need as such can only be experienced by the subject, but others may be able to make more or less accurate predictions about those needs through observing work behaviour in general and by asking suitably phrased questions. This has been attempted by Project INISS and the results are presented below under four heads: inferences that can be drawn from the observation data; perceived needs as expressed in response to interview questions; the degree of satisfaction with existing provision of information; and the kinds of difficulties experienced in obtaining information of different kinds.

Inferences from the observation data

The content of each information event recorded was subsequently scrutinized in order to identify the target group under consideration and the service being offered or considered in each event. The results are presented in Tables 21 and 22.

Target groupsNo. of events% of events
Client groups:
     Families (inc. family and children; single parents; NAI)3486.0
     Children (aged under 14)68311.7
     Young people (aged under 17)2604.5
     Disabled (inc. disabled chilren)2674.6
     Sick people701.2
     Mentally handicapped1482.5
     Mentally ill721.2
     Minorities (e.g., gypsies; immigrants)70.1
     Severely disadvantaged (e.g., homeless; prisoners)571.0
     Other client groups and clients in general941.6
Community organizations:761.3
Social services departments:
     Staff and associates (inc. foster parents; adopters and
     potential adopters; home helps; volunteers)
     Departments as focus (e.g., admin; management; procedures127121.8
Local authorities:
     Staff (excluding social services); staff in general701.2
     Authorities as focus2183.7
More than one target group1642.8
Target groups in general250.4
Not applicable1061/8


Table 21: Target group identified in information events

47% of events in Table 21 were focused on the departments and their staff, 40% were focused on clients. Directorate staff were involved in more department focused events (56%), sector level line managers concentrated on department staff issues (33%), and the social workers were concerned with families (14%), children (18%) and young people (11%).

Service typeNo. of events% of events
Social work services:
     Supervision (statutory obligations)2504.3
     Support (inc. liaison)1622.8
     Benefits inc. benefits counselling (e.g., government monies)460.8
     Resources (e.g., aids, adaptations, grants) 4658.0
     Community care (e.g., fostering, adoption, meals on wheels)2344.0
     Day care (e.g., lunch clubs)831.4
Other services:
     Financial (e.g., budgeting, salaries, expenses etc.)4918.4
     Personnel matters (e.g., appointment, leave, resignation,
     Administration/management (inc. client addresses,
     policy, effectiveness etc.)
     Servicing for meetings etc. (i.e., dates, minutes, agendas etc.)62010.6
     Care in general3395.8
Not applicable621.1


Table 22: Service identified in information events

Events in Table 22 concerned with 'social work services' accounted for 27% of the total and organizational matters (financial, personnel, administration etc, servicing) featured in 61% of events, reflecting the overall bias in selection of observation subjects towards managerial staff. Directorate level staff were even more involved with organizational issues (78%), but line managers were less so (55%) and social workers gave rather more of their attention (51%) to 'social work services'.

More detailed analysis of these data revealed that line managers spent a high proportion of their events in quickly approving resource allocation decisions made by their line-subordinates, especially in relation to the elderly, and there was little information giving included in this activity. They worked mainly with other line managers and fieldworkers (mostly line subordinates) on matters relating to children and the department as targets, and on resource services, finance, personnel management/administration, meetings servicing and service provision in general.

Perceived needs from interview data

Consideration of the perceived needs of interview respondents was inspired by our next hypothesis.

Hypothesis 11: That information needs will vary according to work role.

To test this, respondents were asked how often they felt a need for information of different kinds (as opposed to making use of information). 80% of respondents perceived a daily need for 'directory' information, i.e., names, addresses, telephone numbers, and similar factual data. Such information might relate to clients, foster parents, officers of the same local authority, external agencies, and so on. 53% of the respondents needed client records daily. In the next frequency category (i.e., 'weekly') the most needed kinds of information were:

news of developments in social work48%
procedural information35%
legal information33%

28% of respondents said that they 'never' needed central government statistical information: this was the highest recorded proportion of any of the information types.

In cross-tabulating these data against work-role two forms of work-role classification were used. One was a 'commonsense' classification into directorate, specialist adviser, line manager, fieldworker, and administrative support staff roles. The other was Rowbottom and Billis's (1977) work-strata classification.

Cross-tabulation revealed statistically significant relationships for the following information types using both work-role classifications:

chi2 sig. at better than
legal information.005
training information.005
personnel and financial information.001
internal statistical information.001
client records.001

In all five cases the analysis by work-strata shows that the difference relates to 'management' versus 'fieldwork' staff: fieldworkers experience a more frequent need for legal information and for client records than does management, whereas management experiences a more frequent need for the other three types of information. In the case of training information the more detailed ' cormionsense' categorization of work roles reveals that specialists and line managers have the most frequent need, whereas directorate level staff have the most frequent need for internal statistical information.

It can be said, therefore, that the hypothesis that need for information will vary with work-role is upheld in relation to the five types of information listed above.

As in the case of the inferences drawn from observation, these results are not particularly surprising. However, they do point to potential benefits (in terms of satisfied users) which may come from information services differentiated by information type and by client group. Clearly, not everyone wants the same kind of information nor does everyone want it disseminated to them with the same frequency, or in the same way.

Some of the points that arise from the data relate to the 'traditional' concerns of the librarian/information scientist with externally-produced literature. Thus, news of developments and legal information are frequently needed and come from sources outside the department: a service which covers these two types effectively would find a ready audience. Some other information types originate within departments: personnel and financial information, internal statistical information, client records and procedural information. Here, it seems that the role of the information worker should not be to disseminate services covering these types but, through cooperation with others in a department, he should seek to improve the organization of this information and help to devise improved methods for access and retrieval of data. In relation to these types of information the role of the information worker may be thought of as an internal 'information consultant' .

'Directory' and 'training' information present special problems. Both may involve external and internal information sources, but whereas directory information involves compilation, presentation, and up-dating problems, training information presents problems of currency, dissemination, and access to all relevant training organizations. In both cases there is a need for coordination with other sections of the department: with the administration section (among others) for directory information and with the training section for training information.

What emerges, therefore, is the need for carefully differentiated services with the full cooperation of other sections of the department. Further conments on the other information types are made in the following sections.


Most observation subjects commented from time to time about specific types of information and observers were able to form an impression of whether they were generally satisfied with the amount of information received. Some, like an assistant director, felt harassed by paperwork:

"I just hope I can pick out the stuff that needs dealing with on the day it comes in."

Others, such as an adviser who specialized in adoptions and fostering, wanted more information:

"I want social workers or teams to tell me about children needing homes because unless they tell me I don't know what I am looking for. Even if I can't find anything immediately I still need to know what the demand is. I'm trying to build up a folder of information on kids needing homes."

It was apparent that people at the apex of each department, zone or sector pyramid (see Figure 11) received a good deal of written and published material passed down for procedural reasons, presenting considerable problems of assimilation and dissemination. Social workers, on the other hand, sometimes complained that not enough basic information was getting through to them:

"Somebody up there must know what's going on but the message never gets through to us unless we go looking for it."

or that upward comnunication was ineffective:

"He [the assistant zone director] hasn't got a clue what the admin. situation is like. There is a lack of knowledge about what is going on in the [sector]."

Two hypotheses suggested themselves:

Hypothesis 12A: That directorate and line management staff who do not get the right amount of information are likely to get too much information, some of it of dubious relevance.

Hypothesis 12B: That social workers who do not report getting the right amount of information are likely to get too little information.

A general question was asked about the amount of information respondents obtained or received and the results are shown in Table 23.

 DirectorateSpecialistLine ManagerSocial WorkerAdministrationTotal
 No.% No.%No.%No.%No.%No.%
Too little--627.319.13028.8112.53825.2
About right350.01254.5218.23836.5675.06140.4
Too much116.7313.6436.41716.4112.52617.2
Complex reply233.314.5436.41817.3--2516.5


Chi2 = 18.44, not significant
Table 23: Amount of information obtained or received: categories of staff and all respondents

40% of respondents reported that they 'get about the right amount' of information. Of those who did not, directorate staff and line managers usually reported getting too much or gave a more complex reply. Those replies could be sumnarised as 'too much irrelevant and too little relevant information.' In addition five of the line managers who got too much or about the right amount of information made comments about the limited relevance of some information received. One assistant director added:

"I accept the complexity of the situation I'm in. Everyone thinks we get too much information, I accept it as inevitable but - too much."

Although the distribution of responses across categories in Table 23 is not significant, the summary given above provides seme support for Hypothesis 12A.

29% of social workers reported that they got too little information and a further 17% provided more complex replies which are summarized below:

  • Too little of the right sort, too much of the wrong sort, (10 respondents) "It's not always bumph, information without context."
  • Too little information and not of the right sort.
  • Not presented in the right form (3 respondents). "It might as well be the wrong amount as far as I'm concerned if it's not in a digestible form."
  • Too little of some, about right of others. (3 respondents) "Too much random, not enough that matters and no ordering of priorities in the way written information is sent. Verbal information is too informal." (Senior social worker)

A respondent added:

"There's danger of the furore about lack of information resulting in getting too much. Better to get what you want when you need it." (Social worker)

and five people who got the right amount of information suggested that

"If we want it we find it. You don't get it without looking for it... some we do get in the normal course of events."

Another social worker refused to answer this question:

"Silly question. People in the social work situation don't always know where to get information. They can't assume that information will automatically come to them. People who have had recent academic experience are better at seeking it out."

and a respondent who reported getting too much information added another layer of complexity by remarking

"I would feel cheated if it wasn't available."

Some of the additional ccronents made by people who reported getting too little information reflected seme of the frustration which resulted:

"Too much bumph. Changes in legislation we don't get, nobody is told until a warrant is issued in the following year. I can only get it by reading the journals, nothing is sent down. I'd like to see information sent down from HQ."

Support for hypothesis 12B is evident, if people who reported receiving the wrong sort of information are regarded as under-served. It is interesting to note that 14 of the social workers who reported receiving the right amount or too little information made additional comnents about the provision of irrelevant material whereas with directorate and line management staff these comments are usually associated with 'too much' responses.

Difficulties in obtaining information

Numerous incidents occurred during observation which suggested that staff experienced a range of difficulties in obtaining and making the best use of information.1 Extreme examples were seen; for example, a social worker attempting to phone the Dublin police in order to find out the address of an equivalent social services organization there. She then spent time trying to locate a copy of the Social Services Yearbook to obtain the same information but failed. (Her sector director had a copy in his office but the appropriate addresses for Eire were not listed.) Much interesting case material of this kind was gathered during observation and the comments of observation subjects about their information habits or problems were recorded, but we were unable to assess how representative were the incidents that occurred.

Our suspicions about the situation were summarized in the next hypothesis.

Hypothesis 13: That a considerable proportion of social services staff experience difficulties in obtaining the information they need to do their work.

Interview respondents were asked how often they felt the need for (as opposed to making use of) information of certain kinds. The kinds of information chosen were the main kinds recorded during observation.

The kinds of information respondents needed most frequently were directory information and various types of client records. Those needed least frequently were central government and internal statistical information and training information. The need for news of developments in social work was quite frequent (usually reported as weekly) and more frequent than the need for evaluations or information on research.

Ninety-nine respondents (66%) reported experiencing difficulties in obtaining one or more of these types of information, when they needed them. (See table 24). Their comments made it clear that staff of all types are aware of gaps in their provision of information. (Directorate staff made comparatively few comments about shortcomings'). As already noted, 66% of respondents reported experiencing difficulties in obtaining information, amply substantiating hypothesis 13.

Several comments were made about the particular difficulties of new members of staff, such as:

"I feel I've lost out on experience and information gathered during training. It becomes too day-to-day and you lose out on new experience and ideas." (Social worker)

"The basic administrative information given to social workers (as against social work information) is not adequate for new entrants. The department assumes too much about local conditions is already known." (Social worker)

"If you were new to the department you would have a hell of a job learning where to get information at headquarters." (Sector director).

Type of informationNo. of respondents reporting difficulties%

      e.g., departmental procedure note or manual
      e.,g act of Parliament, DHSS circular
News of developments in social work,
      including internal changes, whether written or oral
      e.g., information on course syllabuses,
      course materials
Records relating to clients, foster parents, adopters3121
Evaluations of experience or ideas in social work3121
Research in social work2517
Names, addresses, telephone numbers,
      i.e., 'directory information'
Internal statistical information2013
Central government statistical information
      e.g., DHSS statistics
Internal personnel and/or financial records
      e.g., staff lists/ budgets

Table 24: Reported difficulties in obtaining information when needed

Implications for information service provision are considered below in relation to the comments made during interviews. (The comments have not been recorded here for reasons of space).


It is inevitable that difficulties will occur in interpreting legislation in departments which exist largely to fulfil specific statutory functions. Some authorities provide staff trained in law (usually based in the legal department) to advise social services department staff on issues which arise. Part of the difficulty in social services departments is that the social workers are responsible for particular clients with the result that they are more likely to seek an interpretation on behalf of a client by means of direct contact with a presumed expert than to refer the case up through the hierarchy (which would have the effect of limiting contact between departments to more senior staff levels). Since legal consultants will inevitably perform other functions it becomes doubly important to ensure that they are willing and able to deal direct with social services field staff and that their services are known to all fieldworkers. It may even fall to the lot of the social services information staff to provide an information service to consultants in the legal department or other experts used by social services staff, to ensure that they are fully conversant with the latest regulations and interpretations. In-service training courses on major areas of social services legislation may also help to improve the knowledge of field staff and to bring specific problems to the attention of legal advisers. Many departments mounted such courses following implementation of the Children Act, 1975, but areas of older legislation may be less systematically reviewed.

News of developments

Many of the complaints made might be met by a combination of regular staff meetings (where these do not take place already) and improved house journals. One department house journal attracted six positive comnents under this heading.


One department in which interviews were carried out, had a relatively low level of complaints about information on training. A monthly training bulletin is produced by that department as a "digest so that social workers can see what is on offer from all sources -very useful." [Assistant director]. Publication of a training bulletin should at least ensure that fieldworkers can no longer complain of not seeing training course information.

Evaluation of ideas

Abstract bulletins such as the Social Work Information Bulletin or Social Service Abstracts might help to plug this gap, if staff could be persuaded to scan them and if adequate back-up facilities could be supplied.


Again an abstract bulletin service, supplemented by copies of the Clearijng House on Local Authority Social Services Research (perhaps distributed to sector offices) might help. Additional copies of the Clearmghouse title page and contents list are usually supplied for circulation. Considerable extension of this distribution might produce an interesting level of response. Various comments were made during interviews by research staff who felt themselves isolated from the operational area of the department and by social workers who saw headquarters research staff as inaccessible. One possible approach which could improve the flow of information from sectors to headquarters, and enable appropriate responses to local research needs to be considered, would be to re-deploy or second research staff to zone or sector level in departments, or to assign responsibility for a zone or sector to individual research staff.

Departments which do not already have research committees, with representatives drawn from various categories of staff, might find this a useful way of reinforcing links with the service delivery areas of work.

Directory information

Compilation of directories of names, addresses and telephone numbers is time-consuming and unrewarding work. Unfortunately our experience in department suggests that directory compilation is also essential work which is not being carried out because nobody has an overall responsibility for such information, with the possible exception of information staff who are usually heavily committed in other directions. It seems likely that the savings in staff time which could be achieved by compiling and distributing such directories would be considerable. To be effective such publications would have to be kept up-to-date, perhaps by introducing an annual publishing cycle. Minimal contents for such a directory would be:

  1. names, job titles, addresses, telephone numbers and areas of responsibility of key staff in other departments of the authority;
  2. similar information for department staff;
  3. selective address list of voluntary agencies in the area;
  4. details of other agencies (police, probation, AHA etc.) and key contacts with them.

Such a directory might be fashioned into an index of 'official' and 'unofficial' expertize within the area.


There appears to be widespread distrust in departments about the reliability of existing departmental and government statistics. Most, if not all, attempts at compiling adequate statistical data about services and clients founder on the inability or unwillingness of social workers to devote time and attention to reporting back this type of information for management use. The only prospect of improving this situation appears to be through a direct relationship being established between returns made and resources allocated so the field-workers would have a direct interest in providing data in order to influence decisions about resources. Attempts made to employ such an approach have so far met with limited success at best.

Department managers sometimes appear to assume that social workers are not interested in seeing such performance data as are available about their department (or that they should be discouraged from doing so). A straightforward statistical presentation of performance data, using approximate graphic aids, might help to change the climate within the department towards "the numbers game".

In the meantime, the zone director who commented that "we don't know what we don't know", appears to be stating the overall case fairly accurately on the use of management statistics in departments.

Personnel or finance records

Most of the corrments here came from people who were aware of potential developments in the use of management statistics but also recognised the great distance yet to be travelled before any kind of integrated management information system is achieved.

Other difficulties

Some of the other comments raised problems which could presumably be solved by an adequate departmental information unit (for example, through provision of copies of MIMS, a controlled circulation bulletin provided for general practitioners and describing the medical effects of drugs, to sector officers).

New staff

The difficulties described by newly-appointed staff suggest that, in addition to whatever orientation training is considered appropriate, information packs should be prepared and handed to new staff on arrival so that a core collection of basic information is immediately available to them.

Some academic staff express concern about outmoded professional techniques being retained by the 'apprenticeship' method of re-conditioning of new staff for departments at the elbow of a more experienced colleague. The possibility of a recognised training centre supplying an information support service to its former students after they have taken up appointments in departments and thus helping them to maintain 'current professional values' is an intriguing one but the possibilities of conflict in such an experiment are manifold. On the other hand, information staff in departments might well adopt newly qualified staff as one of their key target groups and attempt to fill the gap created by their recent detachment from a variety of document and publication sources, when they completed their training courses.

Use of information stores

The term 'information stores' was coined to denote all files or other receptacles of information in either documentary or other forms which were known to be available in social services departments and which could be used by staff to satisfy work-related information needs.

Official information stores and their difficulties

A number of internal, departmental stores of information were located before and during observation but most of the official stores such as libraries, central records systems or procedure manuals were seen in use only sporadically. Other records collections were heavily used by the responsible staff (such as a sector finance officer) but appeared to be little used by members of the department outside that section. Certain other stores such as team message books were in heavy local use during observation and personal information stores varied widely in use from occasional reference to a book in a subject's own private collection to almost universal use of diaries and regular use of notebooks for various purposes.

One departmental library maintained a special record of enquiries received from all sources during the observation period, resulting in notification of 38 enquiries, and the reference library of a public libraries department attempted to keep a similar record but whether because of inability to distinguish social services staff from other users or because of low demand from that source, only one enquiry was recorded during the observation week.

For interview purposes, two hypotheses were offered:

Hypothesis 14: That a substantial proportion of social services staff using officially provided information stores will experience difficulties in using them.

Hypothesis 15: That information stores within departments are rudimentary and little used by staff.

The most frequently used types of store, as reported by interview respondents, were client records, followed by (for those to whom it was applicable) the team diary and the area case record book.

A fairly high proportion of people never used the financial or personnel records, training library or area library.

Sixty-three respondents (42% of the total) reported having difficulties in using one or more of the information stores. Table 25 shows the types of stores for which difficulties were reported.

Hypothesis 14 was supported by 42% of the respondents although no particular official store attracted a high level of dissatisfaction. The rudimentary nature of the information stores (notably the area office libraries) could be assessed by referring to the comments of dissatisfied respondents although their remarks did not constitute validation of this part of hypothesis 15. Twenty percent of the respondents used four of the stores or less and 38% used eight or more stores.

Type of storeNo. of respondents reporting difficulties%

Departmental library or information unit2617
Headquarters records system, including e.g.,
     correspondence, committee papers,
      internal reports
Client, foster parent, adoption records1913
Procedure manual 1913
Area library107
Training library75
Team library64
Financial or personnel records53
Team case record book/index/referrals register43
Area case record book/index/referrals register32
Team diary/message book 21

Table 25: Reported difficulties in using official information stores

Negative comments about departmental or training libraries were balanced by a similar number of positive and unsolicited comments about these services. Apart from the wish for an information officer to "produce extracts" or to "keep pace with developments", the main problems mentioned were those of distance from the headquarters location of most libraries, and of the inadequate size and level of services provided. All the libraries under review had very limited resources and it is our contention that considerable extension of department library and information services along lines which will be set out in the next chapter, should make a discernible difference to the communication of information in departments.

Both headquarters records collections and client records systems attracted inevitable comments about lost records, inaccessibility and problems with filing. Centralized and de-centralized (zone or sector-based) systems both came in for attack even when the records were as specific as those relatingto foster parents. It may be dangerous to suggest that a rate of dissatisfaction of 13% is itself satisfactory, but in view of the frequency with which client records systems in particular are used (43% of the respondents reported that they used this service daily or more frequently) the level of dissatisfaction is relatively low.

None of the departments involved in interviews had an up-to-date and comprehensive procedures manual and few of the other departments visited could boast one either. As with internal directories procedures manual compilation is a time consuming and uninspiring task, compounded in this case by the need to involve senior staff in setting out and vetting instructions. The problem of updating manuals is also more complicated than with directories because of the expense involved in withdrawing and replacing a comprehensive manual, (although the introduction of word-processing devices could help to overcome these problems in both cases). If amendments are issued there is no certainty that the directories will, in fact, be amended (even if specific staff are assigned to this task) and the problems of setting down a procedure which is correct, locatable and comprehensible to the fieldworker, have prevented or seriously delayed the appearance of manuals in some departments. Even if reliable manuals are published, there still remains the problem of persuading field-based staff to use them in preference to repetition of incorrect practice or direct contact with an expert. Staff time could undoubtedly be saved by providing fieldworkers and others with intelligible and comprehensive manuals. How much time would be saved would remain problematic until evaluation had been carried out after their introduction.

Area and team libraries visited could generally be dismissed as virtually useless, raising the question of whether fieldworkers would make more use of published material if it was accessible to them.

Personal information stores

Several observation subjects maintained personal information collections, giving rise to the next hypothesis.

Hypothesis 16: That some staff maintain personal stores of information, particularly book, pamphlet and document collections, because they are dissatisfied with the provision of official stores.

The most frequently used personal information store, as reported in the interviews, was the personal diary, used daily by 95% of respondents. Personal address books were normally used daily (72%) as were personal notebooks (58%). Only 9% of respondents did not maintain a personal collection of circulars, agendas and documents, and 83% used their own library of books, pamphlets and reports. In view of the high incidence of personal pamphlet collections and libraries, which were used at least weekly by 52% and 54% of respondents respectively, it was anticipated that some staff kept such collections in the absence of an acceptable official collection. Thirty-two percent of respondents claimed that one or more personal stores served as substitutes for officially maintained services. The stores mentioned as substitutes were:

  • case index information on other teams (Senior social worker)
  • procedures manual (Senior social worker)
  • sector library (Ten respondents)
  • sector pamphlet collection (Twenty-six respondents)
  • all or most personal stores seen as substitutes "for an adequate system of filing information". (Zone director; Social worker)
  • departmental address book (Seven respondents)

The interview sample was selected with a view to providing comparisons between staff levels rather than departments but it is noted in passing that there is little apparent variation between departments in response to most questions. One exception is found in response to this question about substitute personal information stores. The responses by department were as follows:

DepartmentPositive respondents% of total



* i.e., percent of total respondents

Table 26: Staff in specific departments who reported that personal information stores acted as substitutes for official stores

Significant differences were found between the responses of departments B and C and between departments C and D. Department C is a London borough and departments B and D are non-metropolitan counties. A highly subjective impression formed during interviews was that welfare rights enquiries gave rise to more difficulties in the London borough than elsewhere, although such enquiries were not necessarily more frequent. The proportions of respondents reporting need for legal and procedural information daily or weekly in department C are virtually identical to those in other departments. However, the proportions of respondents reporting difficulties in obtaining these types of information are higher than for other departments as follows:

 Department C
No. of positive
% of. totalAll other depts
No. of positive
% of total

Legal information16412119
Procedural information14362623

[Although the results are not presented here, comparison of the responses from department C with those of each of the other departments showed a significant difference]

Table 27: Respondents reporting difficulties of information when needed: department C and aill other departments

Three possible explanations for these differences are that the types of problem encountered in London in relation to legal issues of all kinds are more complex than elsewhere; that the staff in London were relatively inexperienced; or that information on legal topics was not readily available in the department because of shortcomings in the organization. It seems likely that all these factors had an influence on this problem. Relatively complex problems were encountered during observation in department C; the fieldwork staff in department C were relatively inexperienced (27% of the social workers had three years or less experience against 19% in all other departments), and comments by staff in that department suggested that there were difficulties in obtaining expert advice and in keeping up to date with DHSS circulars and legislation, although these types of problems were also experienced elsewhere.

Positive responses to this question came more frequently from social workers than from other categories of staff, as is shown below:

 DirectorateSpecialistLine managerSocial workerAdmin.Total

Yes233.3313.6218.24139.4 4831.8

Chi2 = 10.81285 with 4 degrees of freedom, significance = 0.0287

Table 28: Respondents' views of whether their personal stores of information acted as a substitute for officially maintained systems

Hypothesis 16 is substantiated by these findings and it is further suggested that social workers may see their stockpiling activities as a means of controlling information on legal and procedural topics.

The fact that 32% of the staff interviewed were unhappy about the level of provision of official information stores is evidence of considerable potential for development in this area. In particular, sector collections of pamphlets and documents relating to welfare rights and related topics might well be developed.


  • Allen, T.J. and Cohen, S.I. (1969) "Information flow in research and development laboratories." Administrative Science Quarterly, 14, 12-20
  • Carver, V. and Edwards, J.L. (1972) Social workers and their workloads. London: National Institute for Social Work.
  • Department of Health and Social Security, Central Management Services and London Borough of Islington, Personnel Department. (1978) Joint review of relationships between the social services department... and local offices of the Department of Health and Social Security handling supplementary benefits work. London: London Borough of Islington.
  • Rowbottom, R. and Billis, D. (1977) "The stratification of work and organisational design." Human Relations, 30, 53-76.
  • Schuler, R.S. and Blank, L.F. (1976) "Relationships among types of communication, organizational level, and employee satisfaction and performance." IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, 23, 124-129
  • Steiner, J.F. (1923) "The reading habits of the social worker". Journal of Social Forces, 1, 477-487
  • Streatfield, D.R. and Messenger, V. (1980) "Dear Sir, Would any of your readers...?" Community Care, 304, 26-27
  • Streatfield, D.R. and Wilson, T.D. (1978) "We have ways of making you... read?" Library Association Record, 80, 62-64
  • Streatfield, D.R. and Wilson, T.D. (1980) The vital link: some current research on communication in social services departments. London: Community Care and the Joint Unit for Applied Research in the Personal Social Services.
  • Tushman, M.L. (1977) "Special boundary roles in the innovation process." Administrative Science Quarterly, 22, 587-605
  • Wilson, T.D., Streatfield, D.S., Mullings, C., Lowndes-Smith, V., and Pendleton, B. (1978) Information needs and information services in local authority social services departments (Project INISS). Final report... on stages 1 and 2. October 1975-December, 1977. London: British Library. (British Library R & D Report Series No. 5453. 2 vols.)

Home Page | Contents Page | Chapter 4