Priority service

These days the first priority for most social services directors
taking on a new department is to deal with financial dilemmas. Mary
Robertson is no exception.

Next month, when she takes over at Oxfordshire County Council
she, like many others, will be facing budget cuts.

Robertson already knows a lot about financial pressure, learned
at Sheffield Council, where she is assistant director of social

‘You have to manage an extremely difficult financial climate
reducing expenditure while trying to maintain services.’
Nevertheless, she says, Sheffield has found ways of accommodating
shortfalls by identifying more cost-effective ways of doing

Robertson is also exploring ways of increasing consultation with
users. Sheffield Council has set up a users’ forum for people with
learning difficulties.

‘Users are often the people who can point out ways to use money
more efficiently than anyone else. And they can inform you about
their priorities instead of us imposing our priorities from the
centre,’ she says.

Robertson also wants to improve the accessibility of care and
information about services.

She first acquired a taste for public service as a teenager
doing voluntary work with refugee families in Hong Kong. She was
shocked by the extent to which opportunity depended on class,
nationality and political allegiance

She qualified as a social worker in 1969 and then joined Durham
County Council as a child care officer.

At Durham, she was saddened to find conditions in some parts of
Britain were not much better than those she had experienced in Hong
Kong. ‘I worked in some mining villages where the mines had closed,
and there was severe deprivation.’

Robertson would like to see a national change in society’s
attitude to children. ‘I would like to see children given the
opportunity to make positive contributions to society,’ she

Cathy Cooper

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