Alexander technique

Despite sharing similar aims, two groups of people can find it difficult to work together. This was the position in Durham a couple of years ago for social services and voluntary organisations representing carers in the county.

Lee Alexander was appointed carer development manager in Durham in July 2001 to implement the new Carers Act and to manage a team of social workers assessing the needs of carers. He says: “When I came into the job there was a lot of distrust between carers’ organisations and the department. There was this myth that the carers’ grant was being spent on other things or that the department was using the interest on the money.”

It was true that the ring-fenced carers’ grant had not been fully spent, and no single person in social services was championing carers’ needs. “We struggled to spend the full grant. It was the old story of a mad rush at the end of the financial year.”

At the heart of the problem was the lack of a front-line manager whose priority was to promote joint working with carers’ representatives. Before Alexander’s appointment, responsibility for carers had been carried by social workers for the cared person. “Nobody was specifically charged with working with carers’ organisations. The organisations didn’t always have the confidence that the person they spoke to would have the authority to make things happen.”

On his arrival Alexander took time to become briefed on the law, guidance and research, and to understand the perspective of voluntary sector organisations that work with carers. He says: “It was important to understand their agenda. That helped to break down some of the mistrust. They recognised that I did have an understanding of their concerns and the issues they faced.”

Around the time of Alexander’s appointment, Durham reorganised staff and established a team of social workers to carry out carers’ assessments under the new legislation. The team is too small to become involved in every case, so a self-assessment tool was devised to help identify where carers were under particular stress and would benefit from a full assessment.

The team tries to ensure that services meet the needs of the carers as well as the people they care for. Alexander says: “Adult services workers can be so intensely involved with the cared-for person that it’s hard for them to think about the carer’s perspective. We’re independent of other teams and our focus is on the carer. We tend to get involved in the most complex cases, such as where there is conflict between the cared-for person and the carer.”

But even with the dedicated carers’ social workers, there still was insufficient capacity to provide continuing emotional support for carers. Alexander says: “The carers centres were all asking for extra money to extend their work. They were finding it increasingly difficult to get funding from sources like the Lottery. I asked them to provide evidence of the increase in demand for their services and used this to demonstrate to senior managers the need to fund additional workers.”

Alexander worked with carers’ organisations to draw up a job description for new carer support workers to be based in the centres but with strong links with adult services. He says: “These organisations have a wealth of knowledge and experience in supporting carers. We decided to fund the new posts so that they could extend their services. It’s about trusting them and not feeling the need to keep everything under direct control.”

Three years on Alexander sees his role in relation to carers’ organisations primarily as a facilitator, enabling them to get on with the job of supporting carers. He encourages them to see him as a resource, and aims to work with them on improving their practice. “I sit on interview panels for both managers and support workers,” he says. “I attend board meetings and training events at carers’ organisations. I facilitate training for and with them. It’s a two-way process. They also influence my practice and that of my team.”

Curriculum vitae

Name: Lee Alexander.

Job: Carer development manager, social care and health, Durham Council.

Qualifications: Diploma in Social Work (New College, Durham); Certificate in counselling skills and practice teacher’s award (Sunderland University).

Last Job: Principal social work officer, assessment and information team.

First Job: Assistant to production manager in a printing company.

Top tips 

  • Read up on research and guidance to help you understand the perspective of the people you need to work with.
  • Be visible, accessible and open to negotiation.
  • Try to minimise the power imbalance. Develop relationships based on trust and integrity.

Rubbish tips 

  • Promise everything – worry about how you can do it later.
  • Don’t make difficult decisions that might alienate one side or the other – you don’t know when you might need them.
  • Focus on internal wrangling – the user benefits when you sort everything out.   

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