Lifting social work morale after public criticism

When the death of seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq hit the headlines recently a collective shiver would have gone down the spines of social workers everywhere. The case could have been met with nothing but shock and horror from all who heard of it but for those on the frontline the question of “what if Khyra had been on my caseload?” is likely to have stayed with them for days.

When social workers are involved in cases concerning serious tragedy or failing services coming to terms with the situation is difficult enough but the likelihood of being publicly criticised, be it by judges, inspectors or the press, makes the experience even more traumatic.

The ensuing effect on morale, for staff and the department as a whole, can be immense, perhaps resulting in social workers losing all confidence in their own practice and the authority they work for.

Former social services director Ray Jones, now professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s Medical School, says councils need to quickly refute unfair allegations but be honest if mistakes have been made in order to keep their staff and the public’s faith. “If a council doesn’t feel the public criticism is justified or fully justified it needs to make public statements saying this,” he says. “If it thinks that some of the criticism is justified it should hold its hands up and decide how it’s going to change what needs to be changed.”

Damage limitation
Matt Dunkley is the director of children’s services at East Sussex Council. In May, the council was heavily criticised by Court of Appeal judges in an adoption case (see East Sussex case study). Following the publication of the judgement the council quickly put out a statement but, as in many such cases, its ability to defend itself was weakened due to the confidential nature of much of the information, Dunkley explains.

“In that case there was a lot of information that never went anywhere near the press and the judges that you need to know to understand what happened,” he says.

He adds that, although councils need to comment, they also have to decide how much to do so, as too much can be to their detriment. “We limit the damage by saying what we can to defend ourselves but doing what we can to kill the story. If you keep issuing statements people can keep on reacting to what you are saying. There’s an issue about giving a story ‘legs’.”

When a council feels it has been unfairly criticised, the urge to respond can be great but, in order to retain credibility, it must ensure the information it puts out is accurate. Kate*, a manager in a children’s services department, has worked in authorities where public criticism has been managed both well and badly. She says that holding statements can be useful when councils are still working through what has happened.

“Things need to be tightly managed,” she says. “I have been involved in stuff [concerning a case] coming out that shouldn’t have done. It’s not helpful with the family.”

Being in the spotlight and having their decisions publicly questioned is one of the most harrowing experiences a social worker can face. Given that resources are tight and caseloads high they need to know their managers recognise these restrictions and feel confident that they won’t be left to their own devices if a tragedy occurs.

p15 19 June issueRelationships
Jones sees close relationships between senior managers and frontline staff as key to maintaining morale. “The closer senior managers are to the staff at the frontline and the more that senior managers recognise the limitations and resources issues for such staff the more there is a feeling that we are all in this together,” he says.

He adds that if such relationships are strong this will also help local authorities in the difficult task of supporting their staff while simultaneously assessing whether bad practice has occurred.

For Kate strong leadership from senior managers at the point when things go wrong is essential. She says councils need to take the initiative and use inquiries as opportunities to explore issues, treating them as a learning experience and putting structures in place. “When they do it badly people tend to wash their hands [of a situation]. When it is done well the lessons learned are disseminated and an action plan put in place,” she says.

Extreme pressure

Nicky Pace is deputy director for vulnerable children and young people at Essex Council. In summer 2005, the council was heavily criticised in the Daily Mail. The paper misrepresented a case involving the removal of children from a couple with learning difficulties, portraying social services as automatically prejudiced against such couples. The pressure faced by the social workers in the case was extreme, the Mail threatening to publish their names.

Pace says Essex has had other cases where social workers have been publicly named and that some have had to take precautions to ensure their safety. “We have had cases where social workers’ names have been put on websites and some have had to ensure they park close to the building at night and they don’t leave on their own,” she says.

Pace agrees with Jones that social workers must feel supported by their managers for morale to remain intact and says that the council must ensure only senior members of staff are put forward to talk to the press.

Lack of communication

Despite some managers supporting staff in the face of criticism this is not always the case. Lucy*, a social care professional living in northern England, says there was a lack of communication in a local authority where she worked when a baby died.

“My experience of higher management supporting staff after we had a baby die was them ignoring the issue of staff morale,” she says. “This was to the extent that the day it hit the press they remained at the civic centre all day until late afternoon, when they knew few staff would be around, then entered the building, walked into the manager’s office, ignoring the staff in the main office, and didn’t leave until we all had.”

In terms of morale, internal communications are as important as external. The staff concerned, elected members and local MPs need to be briefed fully on the facts, and the council’s view – including if any of the criticism is justified. This will enable the staff directly involved to feel supported and prevent Chinese whispers across the authority.

Jones says it is pointless for councils to try to deny serious failings to its staff as this would backfire in the end.

“If something is wrong the frontline staff will recognise that and it’s not sensible to be ignoring issues when they need to be faced up to,” he says.

Lead member

In Essex some local politicians supported the couple’s allegations, worsening the situation for the council. And in the Khyra Ishaq case, Birmingham Perry Barr MP Khalid Mahmood publicly questioned the actions of the city’s social services department.

Pace says politicians, together with the whole department, must be kept fully informed. “You need to make sure that the staff involved are supported and managed but also that the rest of the department are aware of what the issues are to protect the authority,” she says.

“There is also the whole business about how you keep your lead member involved and making sure they know about certain things and how you get that understanding. Sometimes they overstep the mark and can use their position inappropriately.”

The effect of public criticism on social workers cannot be underestimated – some of the professionals involved in the Essex case left the frontline as a consequence.

Dunkley says social workers get things right in 99% of cases but they have yet to find a way of getting this across to the public. “I don’t think there is a sector of public life apart from some doctors where people manage the scale and volume of risk that social workers manage. They make life or death decisions and they get them right in most cases. They are far more successful than businesses in managing risk. I think we have to keep saying those things.”

*Names withheld to protect identity.

Case study


Forward planning dampened adoption case fallout

• In May, judges in the Court of Appeal criticised East Sussex Council for rushing through an adoption case to prevent a challenge by the child’s father. The judges ruled that the council had acted lawfully when it proceeded with the placement a day before the child’s father was due in court but condemned its conduct and said it had deliberately set out to prevent the father being heard.

Matt Dunkley, director of children’s services at the council, rebuts the criticism and says the council acted quickly to defend itself. “We had four days’ notice of the judgement. We had no idea [of what it would say] before we saw the transcript of it and the judges had launched into 45 pages of ill-informed criticism of us.”

Dunkley says that after the judgement he sent an e-mail to all of the staff in the department telling them about the context of what had happened and what the council was going to do next. Senior managers spoke to the individual professionals working on the case and the council also provided support to the foster carers involved in caring for the child.

Dunkley says the council had a strategy to minimise negative press coverage of the case. It drew up a basic statement and a Q&A sheet for the press office to use to respond to further questions from journalists.

He says: “We took the view that having interviews with me would feed the story. The best thing was to have this background sheet with the press office. We worked hard in those four days [before the judgement was made public] and that story disappeared in 24 hours.”

Dunkley says that having a strong communications team works not only to reduce negative coverage but also reassures staff that the council will not leave them at the mercy of the press, helping to maintain morale.

He explains that the council was well prepared, having been caught by a previous case a few years earlier.

“We had a particular case where we were severely criticised by the judge,” Dunkley recalls. “There was a media frenzy but until the media contacted us I didn’t even know about it. I had been in post a month and it was a baptism of fire. At 2pm I was told about the judge’s criticism and at 5pm I had to choose from doing live interviews with Sky, the BBC and all the national media to defend myself.

“There was a failure of communication between us and the police (which led to officers releasing dramatic footage of the search of a family home, fuelling the story) and we learned some tough lessons from that.”



E-mail to staff put the Mail’s story straight

In March the Daily Mail ran a story alleging social workers from Stockport Council had removed a baby needlessly and that the professionals had been over-zealous. Dominic Tumelty, service manager for early intervention and family support at the council, denies the Mail’s version and says that a judge said the local authority had acted fairly.

He says that, although the newspaper asked the council for a comment, it failed to print those it provided and ignored quotes from the judge which the authority was allowed to release. The council was also restricted in what it could say due to the confidential nature of the information in the case.

In response Tumelty took a twofold approach, which had differing results. “I wrote to the Daily Mail in an attempt to correct the situation. Unsurprisingly, this was never printed. More effectively I e-mailed all staff in children’s social care, highlighting to them that the story had appeared, that it was causing stress to staff and that it was less than accurate, instead giving the real story.

“This had the double effect of allowing the workers to feel supported and at the same time stopped colleagues needing to ask questions and thereby getting ‘gossip syndrome’. This was copied to the council press office and the senior management team.”

A week later the local paper, the Stockport Express, picked up on the story and again the council felt portrayed the case unfairly.

“In this instance the chief executive of the council wrote to the editor and sought to put the record straight,” says Tumelty. “This was published the following week and was helpful in demonstrating to staff that if they do the job well and in the right manner, we will support them all the way to the top of the council.”


• Community Care story on the East Sussex adoption case

• Community Care coverage on the Khyra Ishaq case

• Daily Mail story on the Stockport case

• Daily Mail story on the Essex removal of children case

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