The Association of Directors of Social Services could hardly have chosen a better-located president for what promises to be another year of political focus on social care. From her office on the eighth floor of Westminster City Hall, Julie Jones, Westminster’s deputy chief executive children and community services, can observe parliament, where she is likely to spend even more of her time during the next year.
Jones takes charge at the ADSS at a time of transition. The split of adult and children’s services and the rise in prominence of other professional organisations, notably on the children’s side, have raised questions about the ADSS’s role in shaping policy. So it is significant that Jones has chosen the theme of her presidential year to be “building strong new alliances”.
She believes the ADSS will still play a major role in influencing social care policy, pointing out that 60 new directors of children’s services from education backgrounds have already taken up the offer of joint membership of the ADSS and the Association of Directors of Education and Children’s Services. “Lots of learning opportunities come with them but they think there’s some added value in joining,” she says.
Jones is also in a good position to get to grips with change because Westminster has done things differently. Instead of dividing children’s and adult services, it has done the opposite with Jones taking on statutory responsibility for children’s services in June to add to her responsibilities for social services and housing.
She feels this all-encompassing role is “no bad thing” for the ADSS. “The association can continue to talk about the whole story for social care with a president who still has a foot in all those camps,” she says.
That is not to say she will do everything on her own – far from it – believing it “foolish to try”. She wants to emulate the style of her predecessor, Tony Hunter, by being accessible and trying to exert the ADSS’s influence responsibly.
Hunter is full of praise for Jones, saying she “carries immense knowledge and gravitas, but always wears her authority lightly”. He says he would have “put the cause of social care back 10 years” if he had not taken heed of the advice Jones gave him during his year in the hot seat.
A key task for Jones will be to build relationships with ministers and civil servants. Care services minister Liam Byrne, who is drawing up the joint social care and health white paper, has “made the ADSS very welcome”, and is “making a great effort to listen”. Jones will have to persuade Byrne to make the case that proposals in this year’s adult services green paper were “never cost-neutral”.
Plans for a joint white paper with health have caused worries that social care will be overshadowed by the NHS, but Jones is not overly concerned. “We were not unhappy to have a single white paper,” she says. “It’s more than about social care, it’s about well-being.”
But she warns that the drive to build alliances could unintentionally be scuppered by the government’s proposals to cut the number of primary care trusts and give them common boundaries with councils. There is concern that these could upset alliances in London, where most councils and PCTs are coterminous.
“Strategically we have done well where PCTs and local authorities are coterminous,” says Jones. “We are half way there but it could stall if we lose that trust that goes with building those relationships.”
Another of her priorities will be to maintain strong relationships with regulators, which is important given the government’s plans to scrap the Commission for Social Care Inspection by 2008 and merge its functions into other regulators. Jones hopes this will not lead to an erosion of the expertise built up over the years by the CSCI and its predecessors, the Social Services Inspectorate and the National Care Standards Commission.
She is confident that good inspection will ensure that the government’s drive to give schools more independence will not have a negative effect on disadvantaged children. “Any performance assessment has the five [Every Child Matters] outcomes for children and we have to make sure that all of those matter, that the education side doesn’t get somehow overly weighted,” she says.
Service user voices and outcomes for them must stay at the heart of social care, she says. “Compared with other public services, social services have a proud history of consulting service users,” she says. “We’ve got something to offer the rest of the public sector in that.”
Jones also wants to “inspire the workforce”, although efforts to do so are made more difficult by negative publicity. Jones laments the image the public has of social workers. “We have to tell our stories properly,” she says. “Are there any other professions that are so defined by what goes wrong? That can’t be reasonable.”
Some might say it is also unreasonable for social services to be expected to push through major reforms without extra resources, and under the shadow of the Gershon efficiency review. Jones says Gershon falls disproportionately on adult social care. She is looking forward to the results of Sir Derek Wanless’s review of social care funding for older people, expected early next year, and says social services should sell the benefits to the government of an “invest to save” programme, where an increase in investment on preventive services could decrease the spending required when people reach later life.
As well as these major challenges, Jones thinks there are other, non-traditional, issues where the ADSS can use its influence. She believes the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 will redefine what is expected of councils and that directors of adult services will be important players in work on developing responses to emergencies.
Jones and her colleagues at Westminster have experience of dealing with a major emergency, having hosted the family assistance centre set up for people affected by the 7 July London bombings. “It’s not the day one response but the day two, three, four onwards,” she says.
A busy year beckons for Jones – not that she is complaining. She regularly attends Westminster Council meetings in the evening after a full day at work, and says she has built up a lot of stamina over the years. No doubt this will enable her to “run down the road” to parliament to lobby on behalf of social care.
Rise to the top