Saturday, 25 January 2014

The National Autistic Society Autism Accreditation programme - time for a change of policy?

The National Autistic Society has an Autism Accreditation programme that provides "autism specific quality assurance" to over 300 organisations throughout the UK and across the world. The aim of the programme is to improve the quality of care for people with autism by:

 "providing a unified standard of excellence in both policy and practice"
"presenting a systematic framework for continuous self-examination and development"
"giving guidance and support to the services who use our programme so that they can meet the established criteria required for accredited status."
Many different kinds of organisations have been accredited, including local authorities, NHS trusts, schools, education authorities and private companies. 

These aims are laudable and we support the NAS in its goal of improving services for people with autism and their families.

However, there are significant downsides to how this process works. Autism Accreditation doesn't publish the "established criteria" that must be met in order to be accredited. How high or low are these standards? We don't know. So how can families be assured that an accredited body is meeting a good standard, when there is no substantive information about what accreditation means? 

A more serious situation can arise if an organisation goes through the accreditation process and then fails, or passes but with weaknesses. There is no requirement on the part of the organisation nor Autism Accreditation to publish the service audit. In fact the opposite applies. The NAS website states:

"Autism Accreditation has gone to great lengths to make this [accreditation] process as fair and transparent as possible.."
"The evidence collated by the review team and the review team's findings are a matter of confidentiality between the service and Autism Accreditation and will not be shared with third parties without your consent"
Fairness and transparency only work one way though- to the benefit of the paying client and to the detriment of the service user. Certainly some organisations do voluntarily publish accreditation reports, but many do not. Why would an organisation that failed accreditation publish? Where does this leave service users and their families? Do they not have a right to know whether the service they are using is good or poor?

This was brought into sharp relief by a decision made by the Information Commissioner's Office on 6 January. It concerned the NAS's Autism Accreditation service and North Yorkshire County Council. NYCC asked Autism Accreditation to audit its service in 2012 as part of a strategic review. A local parent group asked to see the audit so they could respond more effectively to the Council's then consultation on autism services for children. The Council refused, and the parent group appealed to the ICO. (It is worth noting that a public body spending money on a public service did not deem it in the interests of the public to see how well that service was run.)

In his decision in favour of the parent group the Information Commissioner cited the following reasons:

  • Failure to disclose [the audit] could potentially indirectly discriminate against autistic children as they would not have the benefit of knowing which schools the auditors consider to provide the best performance to meet their children's particular needs or if their child's school could be performing better as regards to the needs of their child. 
  • There is a strong public interest in allowing the public access to information on how schools compare to each other and whether they provide as good a service as others. 
  • The local authority can be called to account by parents. 
  • Allow parents to make an informed choice as to the most appropriate schools for their children
  • Allow for a more informed dialogue between parents and local authority. 

    We believe the forthright reasons given in this case apply more broadly to the work carried out by NAS Autism Accreditation, particularly concerning potential discrimination. Given this clear decision by the ICO, and the unacceptable levels of confidentiality applied to audits, we are calling on the NAS to change its policy so that the default position is timely public disclosure of all audit/accreditation documents and evidence on public bodies written or collected by NAS Autism Accreditation . 

    It is time to put people with autism and their families first, not paying clients.

    Our letter to the NAS is attached.

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