Workforce: the role of agency staff in struggling councils

Exclusive Community Care research shows that struggling councils also often have the highest use of agency staff. Andrew Mickel investigates the relationship between performance and staffing arrangements

Which comes first: poor performance in a struggling council or a high use of agency staff? If poor performance comes first, the argument goes, then the conditions which create those low standards – poor management, large and difficult caseloads – will make permanent staff leave, causing higher vacancy rates and a greater need for agency workers to be parachuted in to plug the holes left behind. But an alternative view says that a council which is reliant on agency staff who won’t stay for long will be unable to provide a quality service.

Andrew Thorne, chair of trade organisation the Association of Social Work Employment Businesses (Asweb), says that agency workers have a lot to offer struggling departments. “Historically, whenever there’s a horrible death, people always look for the scapegoat,” he says. “It’s easy to say that it’s the agency staff – they may be a symptom of it, but if a department doesn’t have people who want to work there permanently then there’s a reason for it.

“The reality is that if you have high staff turnover it’s not good for anyone, but those are vacancies that need to be filled. Agency staff come in with good ideas, they are very target driven and you get a lot of energy from them.”

Team morale

However, one former team manager for adults services is wary of using expensive agency workers for fear of what it can do to team morale. “The most negative side is the destabilising effect it has on the team,” she says. “What if you spend a lot of time inducting someone into the service, explaining how the team works, and then that person finds somewhere else to go?”

She says that continuity is essential for some service users and agency workers often won’t provide that. “With learning disabilities you are talking about someone with complex history and needs,” she says.

Whichever comes first, the use of agency staff often goes hand-in-hand with lower performance levels. Exclusive Community Care research shows that on 31 January, 26% of Doncaster Council’s children’s social worker posts were held by agency or temporary workers, as were 30% of those at Haringey Council. Children’s services at both have been severely – and very publicly – criticised in recent months.

But then there is Lambeth Council. Like many London boroughs, Lambeth has high vacancy rates (34%) and use of agency and temporary staff (33%) – but has a good rating. (article continues below case study)

Staff turnover

Jo Cleary, head of adults and community services at Lambeth, argues that rate of staff turnover is more important than what kind of staff she employs: “We use agency staff, but many have been with us a long time. They have chosen to remain with us. They are doing an excellent job in some of the hospital discharge teams, which is similar to child protection – high volume and high pace work.”

Greater use of agency staff can be a pointer of high churn in a team. That churn itself can become a vicious circle: without enough experienced long-term staff, it is difficult for complex cases to be tackled or offer adequate supervision to take place within a team. Bill McKitterick, former social services director and now a children’s services social work adviser, says: “If you have got a team with lots of agency staff you might not have an experienced colleague to be a mentor.”

Such a situation can become so bad that a department may eventually be unable to take on and adequately support new staff. Helga Pile, national officer for social care at Unison, says that there is anecdotal evidence that newly qualified social workers are having difficulty finding placements, which she says could be because of a reliance on agency workers which can block the natural take-up of fresh staff.

That is an extreme example of how the normal recruitment and retention processes can break down. When things are really bad, the reputation of a council can stop staff – both permanent and agency – from taking up jobs there. And at that stage, it will only be changes to management, culture and workloads that will cultivate long-term change, says Cleary.

“You have to have leadership at every level of your department,” she says. “Culture takes years to turn around. One of the things I say in my department is that I’m there to support them, but that the work is a high-risk environment. I don’t want them to hide things. I want them to talk to their line manager.”

Good advice?

That is good advice for those in charge of turning around a struggling department, but is of little help to an agency worker going into one now. For people in that position, it is going to be nigh-on impossible for them to challenge engrained bad practice.

Pile says that it is not surprising that agency staff will walk out on difficult cases when there is a risk of being scapegoated with no redress: “The individuals are responsible for their decisions in line with their professional code in a way that the employer isn’t. It’s not right to blame agency workers [who haven’t had] any induction, and if it’s a stretched department no one can show them how to do that.”

This is something that should be resolved soon: Lord Laming last month recommended that the employers’ code of practice be reviewed and then made statutory, which the government has accepted. Pile also flags Laming’s recommendation to the Social Work Taskforce that there should be maximum case load limits and mixed loads as a way for local authorities to tempt agency staff back into permanent employment.

That could help to tackle not just the high use of agency staff, but the high vacancy rates to boot. “The Local Government Association has looked at bringing back retired social workers,” says Pile. “Why not start with the agency workers?”

• Expert guide to Laming

• Agency working: the pros and cons

• Bill McKitterick’s advice on how to break the agency cycle 

This article appeared in 2 April edition of Community Care titled SOS or SAS?

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