‘Don’t let politicians scapegoat social workers’

Former director Blair McPherson discusses blame culture, high-profile resignations and politicians 'playing to the 10 o'clock news'

Joyce Thacker, director of Rotherham children's services Photo: Rex
Joyce Thacker, director of Rotherham children's services Photo: Rex

By Blair McPherson

If you have a high profile job then your decisions and performance are going to draw comment. Whether you are the England football manager, the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, criticism goes with the territory.

Politicians who claim to have all the answers might be fair game and anyone who votes themselves a massive bonus in a time of austerity, job losses and wage freezes will naturally come under fire. But there is a serious issue behind the obvious fun to be had at the expense of the pious, the greedy and the self-important.

If we blame those in charge when something doesn’t work out simply because they are in charge then we risk creating a climate where the best will simply remove themselves from the firing line. This is particularly true of the public sector where the media seem to take the view that standards of accountability should be higher and if something goes wrong then someone must be to blame.

The classic case is when a child known to social services dies due to the neglect or abuse of their parents. The tragedy is often over-simplified in an attempt to allocate blame when several agencies and a number of individuals are involved. The result is to call for the head of the director of children’s services even though they had no direct involvement and were relying on the professional competence of their managers and staff.

It is particularly obnoxious when politicians call publicly for the dismissal of a director of children’s’ services as in the case of the unfair dismissal of Sharon Shoesmith at Haringey following the death of Baby P. We have now seen it again in the case of Joyce Thacker, director of Rotherham’s children’s services, hounded out of office by politicians on the select committee playing to the 10 o’clock news.

Of course there are incompetent senior managers- those who failed to ask the right questions, who dismissed the concerns of staff or ignored the warning signs, but there are employment procedures for dealing with this that give all employees a fair hearing.

Politicians should not be allowed to scapegoat senior managers or their staff rather than address the difficult issues about how to run a safe service whilst cutting budgets; how to maintain a professional service whilst replacing qualified staff with unqualified staff and how to invest in prevention when resources are already overstretched dealing with crisis intervention.

Blair McPherson is a former director of community services and an author and commentator on the public sector www.blairmcpherson.co.uk

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6 Responses to ‘Don’t let politicians scapegoat social workers’

  1. Carol Munt October 9, 2014 at 10:19 am #

    I hear, repeatedly, from extremely caring social workers who are concerned about their work load.
    One social worker told me he should have 15 cases to deal with but said he had 28.
    This meant he either worked much longer hours or tried to spread his time across double the number of clients.
    Despite a colleague leaving, his manager had not employed a replacement.
    75% of the staff in his section were locums with a frequent turnover.
    I could go on but I guess you’ve heard it all before.

  2. Jim Greer October 9, 2014 at 10:58 am #

    It was always traditional that when there is major scandal or incidence of bad practice that the person in charge would resign regardless of whether they were personally to blame.
    Rather than scapegoating as this article suggests I think what we are seeing in public life is the opposite. One recent example was Rebecca Brooks, a high profile editor shrugging her shoulders and saying that she did not know what happened in her own newspaper. Apparently she had no curiosity about how her journalists were always were getting such great scoops.
    I agree that managers cannot know everything that everybody does in the organisation. However, the charges being made in relation to this case was that there was a tendency at an institutional level to ignore or underplay certain types of abuse because of possible political fallout. We will have no way of knowing whether this is true until the enquiry is done. However, it is difficult to see how a senior manager can command public confidence for their service while such concerns are in the public consciousness. If the people who resigned are exonerated then they should be able to get other jobs in the future.
    Taking a top job is partly about being the PR face of an organisation. That is why the pay is so high. Occasionally that should mean falling on one’s sword.

  3. Joe Godden October 9, 2014 at 11:46 am #

    Blair makes a good and important point. These situations are invariably complex and sackings in this way does no one any good. How many national politicians have resigned over situations where the reductions in budgets that they have instigated have contributed to problems? Joe Godden BASW

    • Edna October 9, 2014 at 6:50 pm #

      The Rotherham, Rochdale and other similar scenarios have nothing to do with reduced budgets. Infact failure to make good/ accurate decisions has nothing to do with reduced budgets. Prioritising / managing case loads well has nothing to do with reduced budgets.

      Anyone in a well paid top job in the public sector has to have very good leadership qualities and ability to ask the difficult questions of all relevant people to lead a department where serious case reviews never happen. The public will no longer accept that people at the top do not know what is happening, I know from personal experience that they do in most cases.

      It is poor management / leadership and decision making at the top (which mirrors that of their staff- after all the are the ‘role models’) . These to people are very self pursing in their goals to keep their high profile well paid positions. This inevitably means that they support the relentless pursuit those who are really not a risk whilst not keeping an eye on those who are. Targets are the bottom line for them. Sack them- yes they do not deserve public funds for their salaries.

  4. Pamela October 13, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

    I find this extremely saddening: the ‘witch trial’ approach to social care. Firstly, management cannot EVER manage the varied dynamics, relationships, behaviours and beliefs of society or local communities. Its function is to look at local research around needs and try to ensure that the very limited resources offered via central government are allocated in the right areas to meet local needs. With the impact of austerity placing greater pressure on families and individuals, creating greater stress, poverty and discontent is it any wonder that we now see young people who are both dis-empowered and disillusioned by lack of employment, vocational education and training opportunities being drawn into the abhorrent webs of abuse by want to be American ‘gangs’. How little value these young people must have, with nothing in their lives, and their safety compromised every time they go out?
    How can one person be held responsible for the failings in central government, for the lack of resources which have put increasing pressure on local authorities to trade qualified and highly trained social workers for unqualified staff? Additionally how are Social Services and Police Forces to work with victims of such horrible abuse without the appropriate resources to do so? With increased pressures from CPS about what they will accept and pursue through prosecution how is one person responsible for the fear that victims have about coming forward because of the judicial culture and attitude towards victims of sexual assault and abuse. It is a tragedy for those who did seek help and didn’t receive it. But this should not be a witch hunt. What does that change? We should not engage in promoting mob mentality in situations where failures are within society as a whole, this is not just the remit of one person in one organisation. I am merely an experienced social work practitioner, who at times is certainly unhappy with some decisions that are made by local authorities. I am outraged and angered at the lack of social workers available to deal with situations, but lots of other things need to change first before those who are most vulnerable in society will receive a good services: appropriate funding for social care not cuts, greater communication between organisations and closer working, and investment into charitable and third sector organisations, in addition to greater education and awareness of abuse for all. Responsibility lies with the whole of society, not any one individual, and our government need to take responsibility for the impact of their austerity measures on Local Authorities ability to provide professional and caring services under the shadow of a government that really only cares about poll ratings, not about the real lives of everyday people.
    It is right for victims and their families to be angry, it is right to demand explanations, answers but it is also right that we look at this holistically, and it is also right that people are given a fair hearing not paraded on a television witch trial, and that we remember that we all have a role to play in finding the solutions. Including demanding from central government funding for the services that will protect and support our most vulnerable.

    • Edna October 15, 2014 at 11:45 am #

      Unfortunately for Social work and its leadership it has set itself up to ‘fail’ by its clearly false and impossible belief that its work can transform society. It has been the case that transformations have most often involved activists (unpaid) and philanthropists- never paid workers who will always ‘toe the party political line’.

      You have to be very intelligent- both intellectually and emotionally, (not just tp protect yourself), bold and secure as a human to really effect change on a large scale.

      In todays ‘self centred, material security seeking society’ people state values they do not live by themselves and they delude themselves- but not others usually.