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
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
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
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
“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
“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,”
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
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
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.