Social workers rationing services: the unhappy gatekeepers. By Simon Heng

When I was very young, and dinosaurs ruled the earth, people chose social work as a career, with altruistic hopes of helping disadvantaged people. They learned a set of analytical skills and approaches, learned how to build open-ended relationships, and to understand bureaucratic and legal frameworks so that they could steer their clients towards the help they might need. Their worst fears were that they wouldn’t be able to make a positive difference, or, if they were left-leaning, that they would become just another arm of state influence.

Increasingly, social workers have found that they have become gatekeepers and rationers of resources, which have become progressively thinly spread between ever-increasing numbers of clients, or restricted to those most in need. More and more often, social workers find themselves saying “I’m afraid you’re not eligible for…”, knowing that a small amount of support at an early stage could prevent a family from slipping into greater need, or even falling apart completely. Buried under a mountain of bureaucracy, it seems that now, the first aim of a social work team manager is to reduce the caseload – by any means possible.

The Community Care survey of social workers only confirms this impression. Not only are the eligibility criteria being tightened, but social workers also feel they are being pressured to “reassess” people already receiving services so that some of those services can be withdrawn. Hardly transparent decision-making some would call this sneaky.

It’s heartening that a third of the social workers interviewed are prepared to bend the rules so that their clients become eligible, meeting under-handed management diktats with a little under-handedness of their own, at the risk of being disciplined. They should be praised for sticking up for their principles.

Of course, we all know that the main reason for all of this rebellious behaviour in the profession isn’t inefficiency, but a simple lack of money. The government’s response of “it is for individual local authorities to manage and direct their own resources…” is hypocritical. Central government has taken increasing control over local government finance since the 1980s, and its current stance on financing adult care services is a bit like giving a thirsty man a small cup of water, and, when he complains about still being thirsty, telling him that he should drink less.

Simon Heng is a wheelchair user and is involved in user-led organisations.

Related articles
Social workers consider ‘bending’ rules for clients

Are you a rationer of services?

This article appeared in the 8 November issue under the headline “Unhappy gatekeepers”


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