Wales set to blur the boundaries and share its workforce

    Wales set to blur the boundaries and share its workforce There
    must have been many social services directors at failing
    departments who have looked across at their three-star neighbours
    and thought “if only I could get my hands on some of their
    workers”.

    This proposition could become a reality if plans by the Welsh Local
    Government Association (WLGA) for reforming the nation’s poorly
    performing social services sector are given the go-ahead.

    The plans promise a radical shake-up of how care is organised,
    managed and delivered in Wales, with the focus moving from
    individual local authority services to partnerships between groups
    of authorities. Services could be organised regionally, with
    councils sharing workers and using more private and voluntary
    sector providers.

    The WLGA is to deliver the blueprint to the assembly in early
    spring. It will be implemented in 2006.

    The development – the result of a two-day summit of social services
    directors, councillors and assembly officials last month – appears
    to have come out of nowhere. But many say it has its origins in the
    reorganisation of Welsh local government in 1996 and the impact
    this had on services.

    It also seems to be out of step with recent trends in England, when
    the North East public voted three to one against establishing a
    regional assembly, which could have taken a wider view of
    organising care services.

    However, unlike in England where the average local authority serves
    a population of 333,000, each of Wales’s 22 councils serve a
    population of 136,000 on average. Combined with its rural nature,
    poor road network and higher deprivation and mortality rates, this
    has hindered organising social services in the past nine
    years.

    During that time, Welsh social services departments have become
    synonymous with poor performance, with many criticised in joint
    reviews and public inquiries.

    Chief inspector Graham Williams has added to the criticism. His
    2003-4 report, published last month to coincide with the summit,
    highlights a lack of partnership-working and preventive services;
    problems with assessments, care management, leadership and user
    consultation; and inconsistency across services.

    “In every authority there is something that is a good practice
    example,” Williams says, “but we need to strengthen across all
    areas and authorities. We have communities of needs. Are services
    capable of responding to these?”

    Cardiff social services director Chris Davies says there is “no
    doubt” Welsh health and social services have performed worse than
    their English counterparts, and admits “no one can quite put their
    finger on why”. However, he says the size of Welsh councils hinders
    the development of services. “You have to wonder whether they have
    the strategic capacity to deliver the agenda.”

    The Welsh assembly has given this issue much thought. A
    consultation paper published in October, Making the Connections:
    Delivering Better Public Services, set out an agenda for
    streamlining and eliminating duplication in support functions,
    creating efficient procurement systems and making better use of
    private-public partnerships. This would save the assembly
    £600m by 2010 to reinvest in front-line services.

    However, more pertinent for the social care blueprint, the paper
    also called on councils to explore the sharing of support functions
    and “work across boundaries and enter into joint arrangements when
    commissioning and delivering services”.

    What this means in practice is unclear. Councillor Meryl Gravell,
    lead member for social services at the WLGA, says savings could be
    made through better use of supported living and by offering more
    support and parental training to the families of children who would
    otherwise be taken into care.

    “What the report shows is most councils are providing good services
    to some people, but a lack of money is stopping them providing that
    to most people,” Gravell says.

    “We want to work closer with neighbouring authorities, health, the
    private and voluntary sectors, and share good practice and officers
    so that, if one council has an expertise in a certain area like
    special needs or legal support for children’s workers, we should
    use that rather than having it in all 22 councils.”

    Davies believes improving services will involve co-operation and
    collaboration but the mechanisms will vary. “It might be about
    [councils] sharing expertise and having joint functions, or perhaps
    delegating functions to other councils.”

    Davies thinks it likely the blueprint will pick two or three
    service areas initially on which departments can focus their
    collaborative efforts “rather than biting off a large chunk we
    can’t chew”. Child and adolescent mental health services, adults
    with learning difficulties and looked-after children would be the
    most obvious places to start, he adds.

    Hugh Gardner, who is charged with helping to implement the
    recommendations in the Wanless report on behalf of the assembly,
    believes it will be difficult for councils to improve significantly
    with their existing resources.

    “Wanless was saying we have to bring things together – we should
    look at how public services look as a family,” the former director
    of Swansea social services says.

    But Gardner acknowledges that Making the Connections has to be seen
    within the context of whether there is the workforce to deliver it.
    “There is only a finite number of the population that wants to be
    in health and social care,” he warns.

    Jon Skone, secretary of the Association of Directors of Social
    Services Wales, says the sector has to recognise what workforce and
    financial resources it has and use them as efficiently as
    possible.

    “It is not about reducing the number of jobs but how we provide an
    improved service with what’s available to us,” he says. “Smaller
    councils are struggling to do everything, so if a council has a
    particular resource and wants to take the lead on it then fine, I’d
    be comfortable with that.”

    However, the WLGA believes changes to the role of some workers will
    be inevitable.

    “Some people will have to give up things and there will be issues
    concerning the transfer of staff and reskilling but more jobs will
    be created at the front line. We need to sit down with the unions,”
    says Gravell.

    Making the Connections backs this up. It says “there is no reason
    to assume” jobs will decrease, but admits the shift in resources to
    the front line will see the reduction in support posts.

    If, as seems likely, the blueprint puts greater emphasis on
    front-line services, social workers and clients should benefit.
    Perhaps this is a chance at last for Wales’s much-maligned care
    sector to begin to recover its reputation.

    • Making the Connections consultation paper from www.wales.gov.uk
      /keypublications/index.htm

    KEY TO SUCCESS 

    Graham Williams, chief inspector of the Welsh Social Services
    Inspectorate, says dissemination of best practice is particularly
    important to authorities taking a more joined-up approach to
    delivering services.

    Key to that, he believes, is the development of the assembly’s
    social care training and workforce development unit, whose job it
    is to disseminate best practice across Wales.  

    Williams says: “By working with all authorities, it is encouraging
    partnerships to develop and showing that a good deal can be gained
    by authorities in collaboration with each other rather than
    everyone seeking to reinvent every wheel.” 

    But, he adds, in putting together its blueprint the WLGA will need
    to consider whether “a more specialist targeted improvement
    resource” – such as a central team of expert advisers – owned by
    local government is needed.

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