Feeling the pressure?

Social services managers face unprecedented
stress levels as diverse initiatives are rained down on them by the
government and the pressure to perform grows by the day.
Performance targets, Quality Protects, National Service Frameworks,
and the health and social care agenda are just some of the new
measures which are putting the onus firmly on managers to
reorganise departments, think innovatively, and set the wheels of
change in motion.

And, to make matters worse, the stakes were
raised dramatically last month when health secretary Alan Milburn
made his controversial speech to the National Social Services
Conference. After he announced a national recruitment campaign for
social work – a campaign designed to bolster both dwindling staff
numbers and plummeting morale within the sector – he launched an
attack on social services managers for their numerous “failures”.
Failure to improve fast enough, failure to innovate, failure to
keep spending under control, failure to deliver consistent, high
quality services.

Some of his ire may be justified; managers
within social services have often been criticised for becoming
preoccupied with the latest corporate restructuring or
reorganisation, while failing to communicate the rationale to the
front-line staff who could make the changes work.

But given the volume of new legislation,
regulation and monitoring managers are expected to deal with, was
Milburn looking for a culprit in the wrong place? If he had grasped
the constant firefighting necessary to keep understaffed and
overworked departments functioning, would he instead be praising
these staff for holding the whole fragile edifice in place? Had he
realised the extent to which managers hands are tied by ring-fenced
funding and the imperative of performance indicators, would he have
painted a different picture? And, by singling out managers for
blame, has Milburn alienated the very people who could deliver the
improvements he wants? Here, senior figures in social work give
their views…

Karen Warwick, senior
practitioner, Barnardo’s

I often hear tales of managers making poor decisions, especially
when decisions involve spending. It is the managers who represent
the system – hence, they are a face that blame can be attributed
to. Social workers, too, engage in this “naming and blaming” of
management. This is a way of venting frustration, despair and
sometimes anger about working in under-resourced services where a
sense of crisis and chaos often prevails.

Health secretary Alan Milburn has laid much of
the blame for failing services at the feet of social services
managers. Now this, to me, is scapegoating. This is not useful or

I am not naive enough to think that there are
not poor managers out there, but from my position I see commitment
and motivation. What impinges upon effectiveness is insufficient
funding, a crisis in recruitment and ever-decreasing morale.

Milburn is clear in his requirements for
reform, but as somebody at the heart of social work practice I know
that the reforms have to begin by addressing the problems at
grassroots level. Endeavouring to gain some insight in to the
difficulties faced by social services would have been a more
effective use of resources as well as a more enabling and
supportive approach than developing league tables and star

It may well be the case that some social
services departments are failing to improve or making only slow
progress, but let us place this in context. As a practitioner I
work with young people who are damaged and are failing to improve.
Many do make considerable progress and changes in their lives but
for some this is a long slow process. As an experienced social
worker I know that successful intervention is based upon
partnership underpinned by a respect, empathy and empowerment.

The young people I work with are both troubled
and troubling as a result of threats and harsh criticism. Like
social workers, they have often also been scapegoated and blamed
for problems that are often rooted in the ills of wider society. If
I approached my practice in the style of Milburn’s address then I
would be doing young people a disservice and potentially damaging
them further. Perhaps Milburn needs direction from the front

Martin Green, chief executive, Counsel
and Care
By offering qualified support to Alan Milburn in his
decision to name and shame failing social services departments I
might well be putting myself in a somewhat unique position. It is
not that I want to attack the vast majority of hard working social
workers, but as someone who worked for five years in one of the
“named and shamed” boroughs, I saw at first hand that the people
who really suffer when services don’t deliver are the users.

Any form of comparison between departments is
complex and lays itself open to the charge that you are not
comparing like with like. However, the fact remains that some
boroughs with similar profiles and resources are seen as succeeding
and some as failing. If we are going to do justice to users and
staff, we must try and find out why, and do something about it. It
is tempting to say it is all about money, but that is only a part
of the story. It is also about management, conflicting objectives
and politics.

Effective management is vital, particularly in
a large bureaucracy, and the challenge for managers is to get each
individual to play their part in delivering the objective. The
problem in some of these failing departments is that there is no
unity about the objective and no shared values under-pinning the
service. This of course reflects a general ambiguity about the role
of social work within society. However, faced with this reality,
social work managers and local politicians need to set about
working with their communities and staff to develop clear and
shared objectives and to define their own role. The process of
redefining the role of social work is long overdue and I was
disappointed that Milburn did not use his speech as a platform to
set out the government’s real vision for social work, as well as
identifying the successes and failures of the current system.

However, given the absence of a clear lead
from our politicians or social workers themselves, one thing is
certain. We can not continue to stand by and see some authorities
use up millions of pounds of resources and yet continue to deliver
low quality services. I hope for the sake of the users and the good
staff in those authorities, that Milburn acts to do something about

Christine Doorly, former assistant
director of social services at Suffolk Council
Social care work services are extremely complex:
responding to a wide range of individual needs, delivered across a
wide range of community settings, in partnership with a wide range
of organisations, within a complex legal framework. The value base
continues to hold to the ethos of a customer-driven, needs-led
approach, with massive levels of commitment.

It is ironic that the overarching goal of
current social policy, that of social inclusion, is one which is
widely understood and supported within these services, whose staff
have a unique perspective on both the causes and consequences of
social exclusion. So why is it felt that social care is “failing”
at present?

First, there is an issue of perspective. There
is a feeling that the policies are right but the means of achieving
them are not. In particular, the wide range of initiatives, the
speed of change, the many conflicting demands and lack of time for
implementation are all issues. The range of performance and
accountability systems is draining the energy which could go into
change. There is support for transformational change, but
perversely, this has to be achieved incrementally, because
performance indicators leave so little room for manoeuvre.

In addition, there are key gaps and shortages,
which need a national approach. In particular, the lack of trained
social work staff and the budget pressures and related resource
shortfalls. Social care services are being pulled in many
directions by a wide range of organisational changes in health,
education and the wider public sector, without there being many
obvious efficiency gains or quick wins. Increasingly, management
scope is further limited by new funding being targeted or

Star charts and performance data will not
improve the situation. While this kind of information can help to
assist managers in understanding and building on best practice,
they need to be used as a management tool rather than as a
simplistic form of accountability. The real task is to measure
outcomes in ways which are meaningful to customers, bringing staff,
managers, and customers into a dialogue about service quality, and
how this can be achieved within a complex set of partnerships. This
will take time and skill and only be feasible if the current
processes can be turned upside down.

Councillor Rita Stringfellow,
chairperson of social affairs and health executive, Local
Government Association
Constant change and continual improvement are the two
factors that are essential to the development of personal social
services. Change is essential as people’s expectations, attitudes
and notions of quality develop all the time. Improvement comes from
knowing that progress is possible and achievable, and, having the
humility to know that you can always do better.

The Local Government Association believes
continuous service improvement must underpin public services. The
last vestiges of the Poor Law, when people were grateful to receive
any service, have been swept away. There is a genuine attempt to
respond to people’s needs by meeting those needs with appropriate
services in a timely manner. Given the finite resources available,
the outcome is little short of miraculous. Quality can improve when
resources are scarce, but tightening eligibility criteria means
fewer people are entitled to services.

The public is entitled to open, transparent,
reliable measures of social services but this is not
straightforward. Social services cover a complex range of
functions. Well-performing authorities have elements of poor
service while those few perceived to be failing have examples of
outstanding practice.

Performance measures must reflect this. The
limited evidence provided by the Performance Assessment Framework
and relied on so heavily by the health secretary, demonstrates that
20 out of the 23 indicators show improvement or continual
high-performance. Activity levels are increasing, but we must not
confuse quantity with quality. The performance indicators only
measure quantity. At best they enable the right questions to be
asked. They cannot provide answers. There are established means of
measuring quality, joint reviews, and other inspections including
the Social Services Inspectorate annual review letter. These
provide a more reliable basis for judgements of quality.

Just using the quantitative performance
indicators can lead to perverse outcomes. This year some of the
allegedly worse performing authorities were also the fastest
improving. League tables based only on quantity cannot have a
positive effect on social services performance.

I sense real progress within social services.
Basic social care values, flexible responses, various sectors of
care working in partnership and genuine sharing with service users
and their representatives, are working. Major challenges remain.
The resource shortages, difficulties in recruiting suitable staff
and new initiatives like Supporting People… the challenges
will always be there – our task is to meet them head on, in
partnership with citizens and colleagues.

Owen Davies, national social care
officer, Unison
The fragile relationship between the government and those
who deliver the social services Milburn wants to “modernise” is on
the brink of collapse once again. The reaction of dismay among the
senior managers at the conference has been echoed by front-line

Just when we all hoped that Milburn would have
some good news for us in announcing the national recruitment
campaign, he decided to gloss over that and concentrate on a “name
and shame” approach. There were some good things in the speech. But
the point at which Milburn got fired up was not when he was
praising but when he was threatening reprisals against those not
improving fast enough.

The staff who actually provide the service on
a day-to-day basis resent this style enormously. Ministers claim to
value very highly the work of social care staff but they cannot see
tangible proof. For example, everyone knows that the solution to
the recruitment and retention crisis has to involve more money for
improved salaries. It is not the only issue – we all accept that
turning around the negative image of social work is part of the
story – but it is the issue that current employees look at when
they try to judge if this government really cares about them and
the work they do.

Of course social care has to change, as do the
agencies and organisations which deliver it. But surely we all know
that constructive change only happens when the people who have to
deliver the change feel confident and valued, when they feel that
the values which underpin the change are ones they can sign up to,
and when they feel a sense of shared ownership of the processes
involved? So come on Alan, put down the big stick and start trying
to win hearts and minds. If you don’t, we are in for some very
troubled times.

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