In defence of local authority social work with adults

Despite claims for the liberating potential of independent practices for social workers and services users, innovation, flexibility and social work values continue to thrive in local authorities, says council practitioner Carl O'Riordan.

Social worker Carl O'Riordan
Social worker Carl O'Riordan

There is a burgeoning interest in the transference of statutory adults’ social work to independent practices. Proponents of change argue that independence enables social workers to innovate and advocate more freely, and reduces bureaucracy for them. As an adults’ social worker, who has worked both within independent practice and for local authorities, my view is that local authority managed social work has manifold advantages.

Most people want their social worker to have the time, skills and qualities to enable them to make positive changes in their lives, according to research cited recently by Brunel University professor of social policy and service user leader Peter Beresford. It probably does not matter to the majority of people which organisation their workers are employed by, so long as they are empowered to assist.

In my experience, I have been better equipped to support people as a local authority social worker. I currently work for Derbyshire Council which, being a large and diverse organisation, has a wealth of expertise that I can call on to assist my clients. When I worked for a smaller independent practice, support networks were inevitably limited.

Innovation, flexibility and commitment to social work values continue to thrive, perhaps unsung, within local authorities. For instance, Derbyshire is sponsoring 35 staff on the Open University social work degree course and has invested in 43 senior practitioners to support professional leadership and development. These changes underpin a switch away from traditional care management to generic community social work teams, to deliver a safe and sustainable system of personalisation and self-directed support.

Within local authorities, economies of scale enable pioneering trials in small areas. Direct communication with commissioning managers facilitates swift feedback and the iterative development of policies and practice. For example, in meetings with senior managers, we continue to streamline our assessment process for personal budgets. 

Social work is often complex, subjective and difficult to measure. Within Derbyshire, I am accountable to budget-holding and commissioning managers, and the scrutiny of county councillors. As an independent practitioner, it was very difficult for the local authority to judge whether it received value for money from me.

Accountability for state funding will always require some bureaucracy. Counterintuitively, I have found local authorities to be less bureaucratic. Derbyshire has sophisticated IT systems, enabling straightforward information-gathering, recording and sharing. As an independent social worker, with limited resources, information-sharing can be laborious, making it harder to join up the dots to safeguard vulnerable adults.

Proponents of independent practices have argued that their social workers are freer to advocate on behalf of their clients. Whether or not statutory social work is managed outside direct local authority control, it will continue to be part of the mediation between the state and individuals. Resources will remain limited, however vociferous the advocacy.

If a new paradigm of independent practice is being considered for adults’ services, the frontline practice implications need careful consideration.  However, if we carry on refining our systems to reduce bureaucracy, whilst retaining accountability, I believe that local authorities are best placed to deliver effective social work.

Carl O’Riordan works as a social worker for Derbyshire Council.

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