Do bonuses have a place in social work?

Although six practice pilots are proposing to pay social workers bonuses, many professionals are opposed to embracing an ethos that has spawned accusations of greed, writes Andrew Mickel

Bonuses have been held responsible for all manner of ills, from the collapse of the banking sector and the onset of the credit crunch to accusations that “quality payments” for doctors have resulted in them chasing targets rather than focusing on improving care.

But bonuses remain a popular way to attempt to raise standards in many sectors. Although so far used only sparingly in social work, they are set to be a feature of at least one of the six social work practice pilots due to be launched next month.

“We’re still at an early stage working through the bonus scheme,” says Paul Clitheroe, commercial manager of Personal Service Society, which will run a social work practice pilot on behalf of Liverpool Council. “But the council has informed us that there will be 120 kids with various needs who will come from a specific area of the city. It won’t be the cream of the crop but a cross section of young people.”

Few details

Beyond that, there are few details about how the scheme will work: it has not been decided whether individuals or the whole team will be rewarded and what combination of financial and non-financial perks the bonus will comprise.

The five other social work practice pilots have also yet to decide whether they will follow PSS’s lead.

However, even at this early stage, many Community Care readers have already expressed scepticism about bonuses in a social work setting (see box, bottom right).

Given the difficulties creating an effective system of payments for GPs, where there are relatively straightforward ways to measure quality of care, there are doubts about the chances of developing a successful payment-by-results-style system in social work, where progress is notoriously difficult to measure and success is hard to attribute to any particular individual.


Despite this, the man behind the idea of social work practices, Julien Le Grand, is confident such a system is possible. Indeed, Le Grand is bullish that performance-related bonuses could help raise standards.

“Presumably the spirit of social work involves the achievement of good outcomes for looked-after children,” he says. “If by ‘target-chasing’ what is meant is ‘achieving good outcomes for looked after-children and for social workers as specified in an outcome-based contract’, then this seems perfectly consistent with good practice.”

The British Association of Social Workers, by contrast, is yet to be convinced such an approach is either necessary or can work in practice.

“The idea of performance-related incentives for social workers is misguided as we are not talking about an under-motivated workforce,” says Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for England.

Measuring good outcomes

“Even in the Liverpool case, which we are told is related to outcomes for children, the problem we have had for so long in the sector is lack of agreement about how we measure good outcomes.

“Also, I’m not sure how much responsibility can be attributed to an individual worker in terms of achieving desirable outcomes as social workers are pretty powerless when it comes to the market of placements, choice of placements and, similarly, choice of schools.”

Although rare, the Liverpool scheme isn’t entirely without precedent. Four years ago, private children’s services provider Five Rivers ran a scheme to try to raise the number and length of placements with the offer of a one-off bonus for staff. The scheme was quickly cancelled. Five Rivers was unavailable to comment on the sudden closure of the scheme.

Delia Donovan, the registered manager of two of the homes run by Calcot Services for Children, says it is something that her organisation may consider in future if it can be suitably tied to individual performance. “I know everyone has a personal development plan; if people met their plan we could say we could look at bonuses for them,” she says. “I guess it’s about effective management and managers knowing their staff.”

Clear concerns

Donovan will soon be moving to a new job with a branch of Women’s Aid that runs an element of performance-related pay which she describes as a “selling point”.

But, despite bonuses being attractive to some people, there are clear concerns about the risk of being seen to encourage greed – most private organisations in the sector contacted by Community Care were highly suspicious about how bonuses could be portrayed.

It is easy to see, for example, how bonuses might be perceived by a hostile media. Any problems in a placement for a child could be highlighted and compared to a bonus payment for their social worker. This could be made to look even worse, given that the money to fund bonuses is likely to come from savings made on money allocated by a local authority to a practice pilot to provide services for a specific group of children. As such, there is a risk any bonus scheme could be portrayed as social workers pocketing cash instead of spending it on their charges.

Le Grand is undeterred. He says bonuses are only one part of what should be a wholesale shift towards outcomes rather than inputs to drive up the standards of social work.

Shift emphasis

“If you look at the report of the working group on social work practices you will see several references to the importance the group attached to performance and outcomes,” he says.

“Social work has traditionally focused only on inputs and activity, and the group considered it important to try to shift the emphasis to what was being achieved by those inputs and activities: that is, the outcomes for looked-after children and for the stability of the workforce.”

Considering the hostility to bonuses as a concept, it is worth noting that many social care figureheads, including the chair of the Social Work Task Force, Moira Gibb, were members of this social work practice working group, one of four set up to take forward proposals in the Care Matters green paper about children in care.

All eyes will now fall on the practice pilots and their launch next month to see whether outcome-driven bonuses do work. For now, though, it is fair to say the idea has not been warmly embraced by frontline staff.

“We know that people are already working above and beyond the 37-hour week,” says Mansuri. “People are already committed to their work but have too many cases. What we really need is better pay for all social workers.”


Social work practice pilots

Introduced in the Children and Young People’s Act 2008, social work practice pilots are intended to be small, social worker-led organisations in the style of GP practices, but can include other professionals. They will take over responsibility for an agreed group of children from a local authority.

There will be six pilots starting this autumn: in Liverpool – run by Personal Service Society; Kent – run by charity Catch 22; and four run by groups of social workers in Sandwell, Hillingdon, Staffordshire, and Blackburn with Darwen.

They are small – the Liverpool practice (PSS) – will serve 120 young people – and will take control of the element of the council’s budget linked to the group of children for whom they are responsible. For PSS, that will be a £3.5m annual placement budget, plus an extra £600,000 for operations.

The decision on whether to roll out pilots nationally will be taken by the government in 2013.

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