‘If coffee shop staff can be trusted with their company’s money, why not social workers?’

As the chief executive of a leading chain says it lets staff give free coffees away, local authorities should put similar trust in social workers, says Blair Mcpherson

Coffee shop
Photo: Cultura/Rex

By Blair Mcpherson

In a recent interview, the chief executive of a well-known sandwich and coffee chain revealed that it gives its non-management staff the power to give out a set number of free coffees and cakes to customers. Now there is a lot wrong with this idea of giving staff the power to give free coffees to customers they like the look of but as an example of empowering staff this is brilliant. I

It’s usually senior management that get to give out the discretionary awards. As a customer, you may complain to staff but it’s not until you raise this with the manager that you get something knocked off the bill or a free bottle of wine.

Stress greatest at the front line

The greatest job stress is not suffered by senior managers but by those who interact with the public but have no discretionary powers, like social workers. The introduction of a tick box approach to assessment and the ever tightening of eligibility criteria mean that, over the years, social workers have had fewer and fewer discretionary powers. This is particularly hard on a group of people who entered the profession to help people in need but increasingly find themselves saying “no”.

There was a time when you could give away a place at a luncheon club, meals on wheels or free telephone rental to an older or disabled customer. It might not have been what they or more likely their carer wanted when they enquired about “getting mum into a home” and nowadays it seems strange that such services didn’t have eligibility criteria in the past, but at least you felt better.

Now everything is rationed you could say that’s fairer if it wasn’t for the fact that the eligibility bar is set so high that even physically very frail and vulnerable older and disabled people are turned down. There is a clear, obvious case for providing help but it won’t be provided because there isn’t enough money in the budget.

Give social workers a budget

Luncheon clubs, day centres, meals on wheels and voluntary visitors may not be the same as coffee and cakes but isn’t there something to be said for giving social workers more discretion? Why not a very small budget to spend as they see fit on clients in need but who won’t qualify for help? It could come under prevention. Or we could go back to giving small grants to voluntary and community groups who in return would accept social workers’ referrals for people who don’t meet national eligibility criteria.

The argument will be we don’t have the money but small amounts are always found when leading councillors want something to happen. I know some  will dismiss the whole idea as impractical and hopelessly naive but I suspect the real obstacle is that senior managers don’t trust social workers as much as a coffee chain trusts its front line staff.

What is the difference between a social worker and a barista? One is highly trained and trusted by management to use their discretion  in allocating limited resources; the other drinks cappuccinos rather than makes them.

Blair Mcpherson former social worker, former director of community services,blogger and author www.blairmcpherson.co.uk

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