Back to the floor

When a social services director goes back to work at the
coalface there is a chance they will mine a rich seam of
understanding and insight. Anabel Unity
asks Somerset’s Chris Davies what it was like
when he donned his hard hat and set off for the front line of
social work practice

Chris Davies, Somerset Council’s social services director, has
the BBC to thank for his latest career development. After three of
his staff watched the BBC2 programme Back to the Floor, where a
person at the top of their profession sees if they can still hack
it on the front line, they suggested he give it a go.

But why would a social services director, having spent years
climbing the career ladder, decide to take the fast track down to
the bottom rung? Davies says it was a simple decision: “At the
start it was not being able to resist the challenge. But the more I
thought about it, the more I really wanted to do it.”

Davies’ last stint as a front line social worker was in the late
1970s, after graduating with a CQSW from Cardiff University in
1971. He was promoted to the position of director in 1989, having
spent his entire 30-year career working for Somerset social
services department.

After discussions with staff, Davies decided to spend one week
split equally between the adults’ team and the children and
families intake team. Both teams agreed he would be treated as a
DipSW student on his first placement – as though he had lots of
enthusiasm but little relevant experience. He would also stick to
this story when dealing with service users.

Davies is full of praise for the teams he worked with, who he
said were “brave enough to have me sitting alongside them and see
all that they were doing.” But immersing himself into the job was
vital if the experiment was to work. “I didn’t want to observe,
because you do that a lot as a director. I wanted to go in and
actually do the job.”

So, despite graduating three decades ago, was he still up to the
job? “I did feel the skills I had learned were just as relevant, a
bit rusty, but still relevant,” he says. He also noticed that since
he was last on the front line, practice had significantly improved
– he described it as much more consistent and quality assured, with
users having clearer expectations of what agencies will do for

During his time on the adults’ team, Davies had to secure
services for a man in his late 70s with chronic renal failure.
Visiting the man in his own home, assessing his needs and then
trying to source appropriate services proved a useful lesson for
Davies: “I learned so much more because I had to see everything
through to the end. It was getting into the nitty-gritty of it all,
and understanding how to do the job on a practical level.”

But for Davies, the most important thing he learned from the
exercise was that the departmental systems designed to support
social workers were actually making it more difficult for them to
do their jobs. He says: “The importance of trying to design support
and administrative systems that make it easier for social workers
to do a good, professional job was one of the critical things that
came up.” As a result of this, Davies is now looking at ways of
improving support systems for staff.

The worst part, he says, was finding out that appropriate
services were not available. “You realise how frustrating it can
be, having assessed somebody’s needs, then finding that the service
you need to provide them with just isn’t there or can’t be had for
a long time.”

He was also surprised and disappointed at social workers’ lack
of faith in their skills: “I got the sense that social workers have
lost their confidence as professionals. There was less of a
willingness to use their own authority, although they would use the
organisation’s authority and the legal authority.” He believes
social workers’ belief in their abilities is vital as
multi-disciplinary working develops.

So would he do it all again? “Yes. It was really good for me.
Apart from anything, I enjoy the company of people who use our
services. It is quite a privilege to share their lives.”

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