A man for a ruck

Colin Mackenzie, the new president of the Association of
Directors of Social Work, knows he has a tough job on his hands
leading the profession in Scotland.

The next 12 months promise to be some of the most controversial
in the history of Scottish social work with the 21st century review
of the profession due to report its findings to the Scottish
executive in October and ministers likely to act on them soon

On top of the political negotiations Mackenzie will take the
lead on, he also has to move the association and profession forward
during his time in office and keep his day job employers –
Aberdeenshire Council where he has been head of social work for
nearly 10 years – happy. Mackenzie is aware of the size and the
scope of the job.

“I’ve been talking a lot to Alexis Jay [the previous president
who is now head of the Scottish Social Work Inspection Agency].
She’s an extremely hard act to follow. You’re trying to do three
different jobs and it is about getting a balance between the
national and local issues,” he adds.

But it will inevitably be the Scottish social work review that
will dominate much of Mackenzie’s time.

But relations between the ADSW and the review – headed by
specialist public sector management consultant Willy Roe – have not
got off to the best start.

The interim report by the group carrying out the review has
already set tongues wagging: it criticised both social work
practice, which it said was outdated, and social work departments
for becoming too bureaucratic and process driven. There is a
risk-averse culture throughout the system that is stifling
innovation, the group added.

These findings angered the ADSW. It argued that it was too early
in the review process for the group to be making such assured and
critical statements and that its research to date was too

A bullish letter from the ADSW was published in the Glasgow
daily The Herald. It appeared to question Roe’s ability to
understand the issues and to suggest that he is following an
executive-driven agenda. But Mackenzie plays down the feud.

“There has been a misunderstanding,” he says. “I have had
detailed discussions with Willy Roe and civil servants since the
interim report was published about how we have a wider debate on
the issues.”

Mackenzie prefers to focus on the main themes he believes have
come out of the review already and which are likely to be developed
further: the rights and responsibilities of service users, the
development of person-centred planning and the balance between
prevention and crisis services.

“We should be moving away from the term ‘service users’ – people
are investors in the services they receive.

They bring more to it [the relationship] than we sometimes
acknowledge. We have been working on person-centred planning for a
long time but we need to look at things in a more holistic way.

“We also need to develop our capacity to do preventive work and
to do it at the same time as helping those people that require
intensive services. Local authorities already have a lead role in
developing community planning in Scotland and this will be one of
the important parts of that,” he says.

And Mackenzie is also warming to the idea, floated at the
Convention of Scottish Local Authorities annual conference last
month, that councils could play a greater role in planning,
managing and providing health services.

“It is a medium to long-term strategy, but the situations that
people live in, such as employment and good housing, all impact on
people’s health,” he adds.

Achieving a balance between people’s rights and responsibilities
needs “wide debate” Mackenzie says. Roe has also identified this
during the review process.

Mackenzie says: “I agree with Roe – people turn to social
services when all else fails. We need to have a debate about what
people’s responsibilities to themselves and their communities

Another issue the new president will have to grapple with is how
to tackle the shortage of social workers in Scotland. His
predecessors have had some success on this in recent years but the
review still identifies it as a major hurdle that needs to be
overcome if services are to improve.

“The review identified that social workers are an effective but
scarce resource. Staff vacancies are gradually reducing but the
number of [government/executive] initiatives have resulted in
vacancies. The issue is how quickly we can fill that gap.”

More “grow your own” schemes; better training, support and
rewards for social care staff; and continuing development of the
skills across social work departments are all on the agenda, he

Another issue likely to arise, and one close to Mackenzie’s
heart, is the ever-growing problem of substance misuse. It has been
a particular issue for north east Scotland because illegal drugs
have been imported into the country through the area’s many ports.
And it will be drawn into political focus when the executive’s
three-year review of children’s social work departments launched in
response to the death of Caleb Ness is completed in October.

“Drug use is still prevalent in the area and the effect that has
on families’ lives is an issue we need to find a solution to. We
have 60,000 serious drug misusers in Scotland,” he says.

Mackenzie wants to take a multi-faceted approach to
negotiations. With the ADSW being a major advocate for a more just
society, he wants to ensure the association influences policy and
works closely with politicians, Cosla and other partners.

It will be a tough year with many uncertainties on the horizon,
but one thing is for sure, Mackenzie will be struggling to spend as
much time on his other passions in life: playing sport – he’s a big
rugby fan – his family and holidaying in Scotland.

But at least he can console himself with the fact he’s not the
new director of Scottish rugby – the game’s governing body sacked
the incumbent a few weeks ago after losing 14 of their last 17

“That’s an even more challenging role than this one,” he

Route to the top 

  • 1973: Trainee social worker in Dundee City working in criminal
    justice and child protection.
  • 1975: Child care specialist at Tayside region.
  • 1977: Promoted to area team leader at Tayside.
  • 1982: Social work manager, Grampian Council.
  • 1985: Divisional officer at Grampian.
  • 1996: Appointed head of social work at Aberdeenshire
  • 2002: Appointed director of housing and social work at
  • Why did you enter the profession? “When I was three years old
    my father died: we were destitute and homeless – it later made me
    think about the support people like us needed.”
  • What do you like most about the job? “I get the greatest reward
    from seeing the difference we can make to people’s lives. Such as
    seeing the quality of life that people who used to live in a
    long-stay hospital now have, or seeing children that have been in
    local authority care grow up and live constructive lives.”


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