Agency social workers: not quite the real thing?

Local authorities are still reliant on agency staff to fill gaps but locum workers can bring positive change to a service, says Blair Mcpherson

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Time to change direction on agency staff? Photo: REX/VISUM

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 

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4 Responses to Agency social workers: not quite the real thing?

  1. Jean Robertson-Molloy November 21, 2014 at 9:02 am #

    Agency workers can often cope better with internal work politics

  2. Belinda Johnson November 21, 2014 at 6:20 pm #

    Great to see that some of the themes of recent Caritas Recruitment research, and the views of the participating service and procurement heads, are being more widely discussed:

    http://www.caritasrecruitment.com/realising-the-value-of-the-locum-social-work-professional

  3. Gary Crisp November 24, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

    Whilst I’m sure this is true of some locums in some local authorities, It certainly isn’t reflective of all. As well as being the director of a training company, I sometimes work as a locum to keep my knowledge and skills up to date.

    One such post was in a hospital discharge team. The team was fantastic and I felt that I was a part of the team. The locum post was nothing to do with recruitment or negative inspections. In fact there was never a Social Worker vacncy during my time there. It was a locum post because it was an NHS-funded post to work as part of a pilot team and I would imagine there are many other reasons why locum posts exists.

    As for lacking commitment, harder to motivate, not team players or not good enough to get a permanent post, you could equally say that about some social workers who are actually in a permanent post!

  4. Anonymous November 27, 2014 at 11:27 am #

    Locum social workers have a clear role and purpose when joining any Local Authority, it is often to deal with a back log of unallocated cases and for this to be achieved within a timely manner, or where the service is struggling to meet demand through the front door with supply of workers. This requires knowledge, experience and specialist skills to manage the enormity and complexity of the workload often without regular and quality supervision, as the worker is perceived to be paid enough to manage without management direction. Those with necessary skills survive and those that don’t quickly move on borough to borough.

    However, there is a dark and vulnerable side to locum social work. Firstly, a local Authority has no duty of care to the worker because there is no direct contract between the worker and the LA, despite acting under the direction and guidance of the Secretary of State – the worker has no fall back. Any error small or large will follow with a negative reference which is difficult to challenge as the LA has no duty of care. The hourly rate offered by LA’s is meant to compensate for this. This is why it is imperative all Locum workers have indemnity insurance and are registered with the College of Social Work (hint hint for those that have not).

    It would be surprising to see in a shift in the notice period at this point in time, because this enables a LA to dismiss a worker who is not performing to the expected standard or at times share a compliant with the internal politics.
    Not many LA invest in CPD of a locum worker because the investment is met within the hourly rate. This responsibility has been placed with the agency although it is rare that locum workers have the time and opportunity of training, which in turn, raises questions about how locum workers will fulfil their CPD requirement.

    Social Workers are similar to the postcode lottery – there are good and not so good, even those that demonstrate commitment are rarely met with this in return, for the simple fact that LA’s do not wish to invest to any degree.

    The reality is LA’s cannot exist without locum workers and the trend is changing to more social workers turning to agency…. Why?? Despite social work being an excellent profession it is often a thankless task with little reward or acknowledgement.

    Plan A: To prevent a high turnover of agency staff, LA’s could consider an annual direct contract on a set hourly rate with an investment of training and career development, which would demonstrate a two way commitment, something that has not yet been considered. Also, this would save thousands of pounds in agency fees. This would attract locum workers who wish to commit to a LA on a trial basis before being “permanently employed”. Unless there is an alternative LA’s will continue to see a rise in the cost of agency workers and a high turnover. The above could be seen as a compromise and a two way commitment.

    Plan B: The government needs to re-assess the current pay scale for social workers – Social Work is a specialism and the responsibility for protecting children is enormous, as the above shows often without a duty of care. Accountants, Bankers, Teachers do not have the same responsibility as social workers who need to work forensically to gather evidence to protect children, then potentially face hours of Court cross examination which, is a skill and expertise alone. This is further compounded by negative media of the profession and the too easy public vilification of social workers and local authorities who work hard to protect children on a daily basis. If the media and public had a better understanding of the role and responsibilities Children’s Social Care operates within, they would not be so fool hardy to publish misleading articles which invokes public hostility against the profession……………..