Singing the changes

It is tempting but risky to try to pigeonhole Tony Hunter. Some see
him as a manager above all else. Others know him as an extrovert,
who may sometimes let his heart rule his head.

There is evidence on both sides. First, he is the former Price
Waterhouse consultant, imposing “modernisation” on striking workers
in Liverpool, with an expert interest in performance management and
information technology – not topics that immediately fire the
passions of most people in social care. He weighs his words
carefully and is obviously nervous about the presidency of the
Association of Directors of Social Services and how his keynote
speech at this week’s National Social Services Conference will be
received. That is one side of the story.

But this is a man who regularly entertains fellow directors of
social services with passionate, renditions of blues and soul
classics – uninhibited to say the least. He must be a romantic at
heart, and it’s not only the singing: he married his Russian wife,
Tanya, a year after meeting in a Leningrad bookshop (this was
1985), having spent just three days together. He left management
consultancy because it was leading him too far away from his
“roots” in social work. He is pretty hard on managers in general
and could ruffle a few feathers in his presidential speech at this
week’s National Social Services Conference by exhorting the
audience to greater humility.

There is no doubt his heart is in social care. But he doesn’t let
sentimentality get in the way of the job he believes must be done.
This is clear when he talks about Liverpool, where he has been
executive director of supported living and community safety for
less than a year and where about 100 children’s services staff were
on strike as we spoke.

Hunter says: “There’s some very good work going on in Liverpool but
there’s a lot of change to be made as well, and we are determined
to modernise some of the practices and ways of working which aren’t
what they need to be. We will recover from this, and we will be all
the stronger.”

It is not only front-line workers who must accept change, as
Hunter’s speech will make clear. Although front-line workers in
social care need less humility and should start “trumpeting what
they achieve”, social care’s leadership needs “a greater real
recognition of the learning and change we still need to go through
to deliver the scale of change facing us”. Ironically, he poses a
question disgruntled front-line staff undergoing massive structural
change probably wish their managers would ask themselves: “How do
we know we are part of the solution?” It’s some challenge.

The solution Hunter will outline involves “moving on from the
amount of time we spend on assessments and managing waiting lists –
time and effort which could be better spent pursuing a more
positive and inclusive agenda”. He refers to his mother, a former
social worker and the inspiration for his own career, who was
living alone at 80 with her basic care needs well met by social

He says: “What really made her quality of life was when she was put
in touch with the primary school opposite and used to go twice a
week and run projects with the kids on life between the wars. If
her basic needs had not been well met she wouldn’t have been able
to do that. But with that foundation she was in a position to use
her own skills and knowledge, which was surely good for her, good
for the school and good for the wider community.” He calls it
“playing to people’s strengths” – part of the title of his speech.
“In order to deliver this we need leadership of the highest

Social care needs leaders who focus on people’s experiences and
outcomes, he says. It may be difficult to retain that focus in the
face of pressure to improve star ratings and performance assessment
scores, but that’s no excuse. That is not to deny that senior
managers need support from government in order to deliver change.
He will call for legislation to create a duty of well-being,
echoing the campaign of his predecessor as ADSS president, Andrew
Cozens. He will also call for revitalised performance systems; the
right type and level of resources; room to succeed – and sometimes
fail; and joined-up policy and practice development.

But despite these demands addressed to government and national
bodies, Hunter’s themes still contrast with those of his
predecessors in being aimed at an audience of his peers rather than
more widely at ministers and even at public opinion.

As president, though, he will need to address a wider audience. If
crisis strikes and social care or social workers are in the media’s
sights, Hunter will be seen as answerable for the profession as a
whole. It is a role few would envy, and he is understandably
nervous. “The need to represent effectively the wide-ranging and
complex body of opinion around the country is intimidating. On the
other hand, past presidents have been open about what went well and
what didn’t. I’m as well prepared as I could be.”

It is likely he will be president in a general election year – a
particular challenge, “especially for an organisation focused on
the values of social work and social care”. It will be a challenge
to make the ADSS’s voice heard over the din of electioneering which
takes hardly any account of social care as a specific issue.
Speaking with one voice that represents all directors of social
services is difficult in itself. As Hunter says: “At any one
moment, about half the directors might disagree with you.” One of
the most difficult balances to strike as president, he adds, is
between being open and consultative with members, and also
accepting that there are compromises and negotiations behind the
scenes that must be pursued with more discretion.

The ADSS faces many challenges in the year ahead. Hunter cites
community care minister Stephen Ladyman’s vision for adult social
care, which must be informed by the vision as set out in his speech
this week. The Mental Health Bill, and the need for a balance
“between what is perceived as public protection and the proper
rights of individuals” is another challenge. He also cites public
health and opportunities for strengthened local governance and
democratically-led initiatives.

But the overwhelming issue, as ever, is money. In his speech,
Hunter will emphasise that the vision he outlines, which draws on
ADSS proposals for children’s and adult services, is not a cheap
option. The funding position may look worse than ever, as he
admits: “The [government] spending review didn’t deliver what we
had hoped.” Coupled with this, the voice of social care at the top
of government is still uncertain. A pessimist might say that social
care will become an adjunct to health (for adults) and education
(for children) receiving funding through the NHS and education,
which – according to the spending review – are set to receive more
while social care’s direct funding from government declines.

But you can’t be a pessimist and ADSS president. Hunter points to
Kathryn Hudson’s appointment as director for social care as a sign
of the Department of Health’s commitment, along with the
development of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, Social
Care Institute for Excellence and General Social Care Council. He
commits the ADSS to supporting Hudson “in what will be a very
challenging role”.

On future funding – and, by definition therefore, the future of
social care itself – he treads a fine line. His vision requires
something the government may not be willing to deliver. “The
evolution of new forms of social care recognises that councils will
continue to have the key role. Councils must have access to the
funds to deliver that agenda. But we must not be precious about who
leads, and we must remember that health colleagues can’t deliver
without our support. I wouldn’t want the question of where the
money goes to be over-important. But councils must be in the
driving seat.” There are two non-negotiables in all that from
Hunter’s point of view. First, the resources must be there, and
that’s more important than who holds them. Second, “councils are in
the strongest position to achieve the change of emphasis we need”.

It will be a tough case to make. But Hunter is a pragmatist. “The
onus is on us to show we use what we have to maximum effect.
Targeted money does help. Give us that and we will deliver. We have
proved it.”

It will take quite a singer to get everyone singing from that hymn

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