Who should determine risk: front-line staff or lawyers?

One of the strongest themes to emerge from the Scottish social work
review is that social workers are increasingly “risk-averse” in
their decision-making to the point where they are becoming
defensive in their practice.

This echoes concerns raised by community care minister Stephen
Ladyman and a new survey Causes and Cures for Timid Management from
leadership development organisation Common Purpose, which finds
that managers often back away from making tough decisions.

The Scottish review paints a picture of professional accountability
being undermined by risk-averse corporate accountability and
management control. Some social workers believe that telling
managers of their decisions is a way of passing accountability to
the organisation. “This suggests a system based on managing
liability rather than risk. This in turn leads professionals to
practise defensively and stifles innovation and creativity,” the
report says.

Despite Scottish councils and social work groups disagreeing with
this assessment, Mike Leadbetter, head of the Practice Learning
Taskforce in England, believes it is a “reasonable comment” to
make. But he says the increasing litigation in society is driving
this risk-averse behaviour.

“Time and time again you feel and hear the stamp of lawyers [on
social worker practice],” he says. “When I was social services
director in Essex I apologised for a child abuse case. But I was
warned that by apologising I could be invalidating the council’s

Leadbetter says public sector organisations are overly reliant on
insurers and lawyers, which stifles the ability of the
professionals to practise effectively. He says one way of tackling
this is to empower service users. “Once you start to empower you
begin to move away from the blame culture… provisions in the
adult green paper and direct payments can give service users much
more power.”

This is echoed by Ian Johnston, director of the British Association
of Social Workers. “Service users and carers are central to
deciding whether the risk is reasonable to meet their needs.” He
says that the profession needs to improve how it negotiates with
clients over what is reasonable risk.

Increased regulation and responsibilities have added to social
workers’ and employers’ liabilities, he adds. “Sometimes people can
offload blame to social workers and you can see why they are pushed
into erring on the cautious side.”

But Ian Wilson, social services director at Tower Hamlets, says the
question of corporate risk aversion has never been raised by social
workers he has talked to. “Everybody carefully assesses risk in the
course of their work. But assessing risk isn’t always the same as
taking no risk,” he says.

“Good managers and good staff using the proper procedures and
mechanisms to assess risk should overcome problems. That doesn’t
make you risk-averse, it’s just good practice.”

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.