How ideology is widening the gulf between social workers and managers

Former social worker and director Blair McPherson examines the roots of the growing divide between social workers and their bosses

Image: Blend Images/REX Shutterstock


By Blair McPherson

How could the director of the libraries and museum service possibly manage social services? That was the question managers in the department were asking when they heard the news.

The new director, all be it on a temporary basis, had no background or experience in social services. These were the days when social services directors were expected to have a social work qualification rather than a MBA.

Today, there is no such expectation – it’s assumed managerial skills are transferrable across service areas and client groups, even between the private and public sectors.

The gap between the social worker on the frontline and the senior manager in head office has never seemed so wide.

It is not the distance between the ground floor and the top floor, it is not the distance from cabinet office to open-plan office, it’s the distance between helping people and running a business. It’s not geographical or hierarchical – it’s ideological.

The job may have changed. There may be less emphasis and time for building relationships with clients and more focus on assessments, but social work is still about helping vulnerable people.

Being a senior manager has always been about budgets, keeping the politicians happy and making improvements always informed by a set of professional values around independence, dignity and respect.

Customers or clients?

Of course if your professional background is not social work but business then your values are around choice, competition and efficiency; your focus is on finance and performance management.

There is a difference between seeing people who use social services as customers rather than clients, between efficiency and effectiveness, between need and eligibility, between being practice led or finance driven.

These differences are how social workers and senior managers see the world differently.

The job of social work is still the same, be it with less resources. The senior management role is no longer about improving services and encouraging take up – it’s about scaling back, reducing services, and holding down costs.

Social workers tell it like it is. Senior managers want to show the department or the organisation in the best possible light. It has always been this way but the gap between the two views of the world is wider than it has ever been.

 Managers may dispense with their ties and insist staff call them by their first name but this isn’t fooling anyone.

A widening gap

The divide between staff and management is wide and getting wider.

 Social workers increasingly see senior management as arrogant, over confident and out of touch, unrealistic in their expectations, dismissive of those who raise concerns and undervaluing the work of social workers.

Senior management view social workers as hopelessly naive and idealistic or moaning minnies who always have reasons why some new arrangement won’t work or some grievance against management.

They dismiss this as background noise. Today’s senior managers, whose background might be libraries and museums, are often unconvinced that assessments require a social worker and float the idea of employing unqualified workers and giving them training.

Objections from social workers are dismissed with a “they would say that wouldn’t they?”. 

You have to feel sorry for first-line managers, the team leaders and team managers caught in the middle. They see the impact of cuts. They see those turned away for not meeting the new eligibility criteria and the frustration of social workers who see needs that should and could be met but won’t be.

At the same time they are management and put forward some of the proposals for how another 5% saving could be made, so they can’t really complain that senior management now expects them to deliver.

Behind closed doors they did express doubts and spell out the anger, resentment and complaints that would follow, but they know continued dissent would be viewed as personal disloyalty by their assistant director.

Does it matter that the gap is widening, that senior managers increasingly lack insight into the role of social workers and that social workers have less faith and confidence in their senior managers? Well, it can’t be good for the future of the service or the profession.

Blair McPherson is a former social worker, a former director of community services, and a blogger and author.

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One Response to How ideology is widening the gulf between social workers and managers

  1. Ian Merry April 20, 2015 at 9:59 am #

    This poem by James Fenton says it better than my own words could……….

    “The Mistake

    With the mistake your life goes in reverse.
    Now you can see exactly what you did
    Wrong yesterday and wrong the day before
    And each mistake leads back to something worse

    And every nuance of your hypocrisy
    Towards yourself, and every excuse
    Stands solidly on the perspective lines
    And there is perfect visibility.

    What an enlightenment. The colonnade
    Rolls past on either side. You needn’t move.
    The statues of your errors brush your sleeve.
    You watch the tale turn back — and you’re dismayed.

    And this dismay at this, this big mistake
    Is made worse by the sight of all those who
    Knew all along where these mistakes would lead —
    Those frozen friends who watched the crisis break.

    Why didn’t they say? Oh, but they did indeed —
    Said with a murmur when the time was wrong
    Or by a mild refusal to assent
    Or told you plainly but you would not heed.

    Yes, you can hear them now. It hurts. It’s worse
    Than any sneer from any enemy.
    Take this dismay. Lay claim to this mistake.
    Look straight along the lines of this reverse.”

    ― James Fenton, Out of Danger