The diplomat

Plenty of people say they dislike talking about themselves, but
in very few cases is it true. David Behan is one of those cases.
His reticence and self-effacing manner, and apparent desire to
avoid saying anything controversial, are at odds with one of the
other most striking things about him: his approachability and
openness, writes Polly Neate.

The mild-mannered exterior conceals someone ambitious and
action-oriented, who can lead and manage change. You don’t
stay in post as a director of social services for five years
without those qualities, and the fact that his department in
Greenwich, south London, is shortly to launch the biggest private
finance initiative deal in social care, and that he previously
oversaw the birth of Middlesbrough social services department in
local government reorganisation, is further evidence. As is the
fact that next week, Behan will take the floor at the National
Social Services Conference in Cardiff to give his inaugural address
as president of the Association of Directors of Social

So why would somebody who is “absolutely terrified” at the
thought of appearing on Newsnight want to be the
country’s most prominent social worker? As Behan says,
someone desperate for a platform isn’t necessarily what
social care needs. “We want to represent social care. We
don’t want individuals representing themselves.”

He knows social care professionals often feel their case is not
made in the public arena. But he maintains that the ADSS
shouldn’t shy away from representing front-line practitioners
just because its members are directors. “It’s important that
we don’t forget what it was like when we were in practice –
the rewards as well as the difficulties. We can be a voice for
social work. We should. Because over the years, the ADSS has
secured an important position. We are respected by the government
and have an opportunity to make our points. That means the ADSS
also has a great responsibility.”

What would Behan most like to have achieved as ADSS president in
a year’s time? “To have made the case for the contribution
social work and social care can make to the welfare state over the
next decade.”

Although it has been said every year for a decade that social
care is at a crossroads, Behan’s presidential year will
genuinely be a crucial one. His list of challenges has five main
items, and they are all high-profile issues. First: “The Victoria
Climbié Inquiry, the future of child protection, and the
future of children’s services more widely.”

Second, he says, comes “our continued work with the independent
sector to secure stability in the care home market”. Surely the
root problem there is that there just isn’t enough money in
the system? Typically, Behan approaches the fact that he agrees in
a diplomatic and roundabout way. “Well, 6 per cent is very welcome.
During the autumn we will get the detail of how it’s to be
committed. But it won’t be a complete solution.”

Third is: “A raft of changes around older people’s
services – single assessment, free nursing care, cross charging.
Practitioners need space, time and support to respond to these

Fourth is closer joint working with the NHS. “The ADSS line has
always been to go for integration only if it’s shown to
advantage users.” And fifth, the performance measurement framework
and star ratings. Asked about his concerns about performance
assessment, he is again anxious to say something uncritical first,
almost as if the chief inspector of social services was in the
room. “If indicators are going up, people are very pleased. They
can reinforce positive messages about an organisation. I certainly
think they have exposed people’s accountability to improve
performance. But I think if we are going to make judgements about
intervention or freedoms and flexibilities, we need to be really
clear about the basis of the indicators.”

Behan’s fastidiousness about giving both sides of every
argument is not just unwillingness to be controversial. He is
actually more interested in getting to the bottom of the question
than in giving his own view. Discussing the Mental Health Bill, he
says: “There is a real concern about protecting society from people
who do present a threat, without diminishing other people’s
rights and liberties.”

So, does the bill go too far?

“I really do hope there is a review of the bill between those
two competing priorities, as an outcome to the consultation.”

So, yes?

“Yes,” he laughs.

Nevertheless, he’s determined to speak out as ADSS
president, particularly on behalf of front-line workers. “The thing
I would be most critical of myself about, as a director, is do I
really show appreciation of the difficult work people do,” he says.
The role of president is an opportunity to show that appreciation
more widely than to his own staff. “And I hope I will.”
There’s no beating about the bush on that one.

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