By Blair Mcpherson
They fill gaps and help out when workloads would otherwise overwhelm staff. You will find them in authorities assessed as outstanding, yet their presence is seen as a sign that a social service department is in trouble. Managers need them but don’t want them. Permanent staff see them as a mixed blessing, providing much needed help but no substitute for the real thing.
Locum workers are certainly in demand. A Community Care investigation found spending on agency staff had gone up by almost a third in the last year and the average council now spends £1.8m on agency workers. High turnovers mean authorities rely on locum social workers to fill the gaps. But despite the clear need for them, locum workers are still viewed negatively- so why is this?
If a social services department is struggling and receives a negative inspection report, staff vacancy levels and heavy reliance on agency social workers are almost always cited as factors.
The prejudice against agency social workers is not necessarily based on fact or experience but rather a perception that agency workers are “lacking commitment”, since these posts only require a weeks’ notice to leave, “harder to motivate” ,” not team players” or “not good enough to get a permanent post”.
Locum social workers have an image problem. It’s not about the quality of the individuals but the nature of the role; rather than a stop gap whilst vacancies are filled locum workers need to be re-branded as both experienced specialists and change agents.
This does mean re-thinking contracts. Commitment is a two way street; if the standard period of notice was changed from one week to a month this might change mind-sets. The responsibility for professional development should be clarified, but in my view the agency should ensure their locums’ skills and knowledge are up-to-date as part of offering experienced specialists. The locum has the advantage of being able to say these challenges and changes are not unique to this authority.
Bringing in a team of experienced locums to review existing service users against new eligibility thresholds, and at the same time engaging them to streamline the assessment process, would be an example of this role as change agents. The introduction of personal budgets, the integration of heath and care services and the outsourcing of service are all new burdens on social care that can be alleviated by bringing in temporary workers.
The pressure on social work teams through budget cuts, increased demand and changing working practices is not going to reduce in the foreseeable future so may be its time to think of locum social workers as more than just an extra pair of hands.
Blair Mcpherson is an author and commentator on the public sector www.blairmcpherson.co.uk