What's the Word?

A version of this article, under the title "Skill Waters Run Deep", appeared in "Community Care" magazine on 28 January 1999 and appears here with the agreement of the editor.

Social services people are, generally, not good with information and it continues to do us, and those we serve, much damage. We can learn a great deal from the information professionals. Keith Fletcher sets out the agenda.


Seen by many social services people as the main enemy journalists, nevertheless, know many things of value to us. They know that the story is written for the reader, not the writer. They know that the first word in an article is the most important; the first sentence is the most important; and the first paragraph is the most important. They also know that many readers never reach the last paragraph.

A good journalist writes a story which tells you who, what, where, when, how and why in language which you understand. Think how much the average social work file would be improved if it met those criteria.


Another despised group in public service circles marketers know, above all, that you don’t just leave your information lying around in the hope that someone will pick it up. You have to decide who you want to communicate with; gain their attention; excite their interest; stimulate their desire; and prompt them to action.

Think how much the average committee report would be improved if it did all that. Imagine how much the image of social services would be improved if public interest were addressed in that way.

Librarians & researchers

It’s hard to overstate the value of this neglected body of skills. Librarians understand the systems by which information is catalogued and listed and know how to find things in libraries and electronic databases. They also know how people think about information and therefore where they are likely to put it.

Think how much social work decision making would be improved if social workers were able to use those skills to find the research and literature which related to each new challenge. Even to establish that there is no useful information in a particular case is helpful.


Academics are sometimes drawn in to apply their skills of analysis, organisation, process and evaluation to help agencies develop their policy  or practice. But many social workers appear to qualify and quickly forget the basic application of those skills to their work. Perhaps they never acquired them. Perhaps the daily grind extinguishes them.

It isn’t just the major policy changes which need (but don’t always get) the application of these skills. They are just as important in day to day work and for comparatively minor changes in policy and practice.


The skills of negotiation are vital for the effective use of information and are learned just like the others. Good negotiators understand the relationship between each other. It is not a competition but a search for agreement. They use information to understand what they want and to infer as clearly as possible what the other person wants. We usually know what changes we want other people to make. Negotiation is the art of understanding what will induce them to make the changes.

So what?

There is an implied fallacy at the start of this article: social services people are information professionals themselves. Like all the others they need to learn information skills. “Information” in our world is usually associated with catatonic words like “management”, “strategy” and “technology”. In fact its most important associates are the people words, “skills” and “culture”. If we are to break out of the prison of being the least understood public service we must learn the skills and develop the culture.

Until we take that seriously we won’t know how to develop a strategy and the technology will be of little help.

Keith Fletcher is the author of “Negotiation for Health and Social Services Professionals” (Jessica Kingsley) and “Best Value Social Services” (SSSP Publications)

Last update 14 March 1999