A council sensory impairment service was set to be contracted out to the voluntary sector before new arrival Andrew Reece saw how to improve things. Graham Hopkins reports
There’s a management adage that reckons all your staff are creative, resourceful and innovative; except, that is, for the seven hours they work for you. It’s used as an unsubtle prod to seek untapped talents in your team because those skills that you so desperately seek might just be sitting across the office from you.
Indeed, a pivotal social work skill is to empower people to identify, own and implement changes they need to make. And good social work skills can provide a firm foundation for good management skills.
When Andrew Reece joined the physical and sensory impairment team at Coventry Council, first as team and then service manager, he found sensory impairment services had played second fiddle. “It was dominated by the physical impairment team. It spent 90 per cent of the budget and was very social work oriented,” he says. “When I arrived morale was low. I was told the service was underperforming and that the groundwork for outsourcing the service to the voluntary sector was under way.”
Unthinking managers, over-qualified in bravura, often like to make an immediate impact: impressing their identity on things, signalling change and taking on all-comers. Not so Reece – and commendably so given the pressure to offload the service. “Before diving in, I wanted to get a feel for what they did – particularly as I had little sensory impairment experience. I wanted to know what a rehabilitation officer was and what they did differently from social workers. It was about six months before we did anything.”
But some things could not be put on hold. “When I arrived I was told a couple of decisions had been made and so I had to implement them. I did, and a year later I’m thinking we should never have done that. It’s ridiculous. We are still mopping up the consequences of those bad decisions.”
Nonetheless, one crucial factor indicated that something was indeed wrong: an 18-month waiting list. “That wait wasn’t good enough for someone with a newly acquired sight loss,” says Reece. “They need intervention pretty quickly or else they are likely to acquire bad habits, making rehab more difficult because they would have to unlearn their self-taught strategies and relearn safer ones.”
But Reece discovered that all referrals were screened by a social worker. “They went out and did an initial assessment,” he says. “It turned out that most people needed to be seen by a rehab officer, and hardly any of them needed any social work intervention; if they did, it would usually be from a social worker from another team.”
Sometimes it needs somebody new to an organisation or service to point out the problems. Reece also recognised that the rehabilitation officers were undervalued in a social work environment. He sat down and turned the tables.
“Rehab officers have done a two-year qualification,” he says. “They have good assessment skills. So we turned the process around. The screening is now done by the rehab officers: they decide whether the person can benefit from rehab and whether they need a social work referral.”
The waiting list is now three months. “If we did nothing else that simple change would have made a huge difference.”
But Reece and the team did do other things: low morale was targeted. “In any multi-disciplinary setting to be effective you need to be line-managed by somebody who has your qualification,” he says. “So, when a social worker left we took the opportunity to create a senior rehabilitation officer post responsible for supervising the rehab officers. I think it helped improve the service efficiency and led to an increase in morale because people felt that their role was being valued.”
With plans afoot to halve the waiting list to six weeks, Reece shuns the credit for success. “It’s not all my work,” he says. “I have just helped steer them – it’s the work that the sensory impairment team have done themselves that has made all the difference. The skills were all there but no one had set them free.”
RUBBISH TIPS Contracting out will solve all your problems.