This week our cover feature reflects on the history of social services departments as leaders and senior managers from all parts of the sector meet in Birmingham for the National Social Services Conference.
The warning from history is that the fatal flaws of new structures are embedded even as they are established. The gaps between the new children’s and adults’ services may in time prove just as problematic as the gaps the new structures seek to close. Perhaps more so: for a family, the distinction between attending school and needing social work support may be clearer than the distinction between children’s problems and those of their parents.
For the new structures to make sense, a holistic view of people’s needs must prevail. For the fine words to come true, social care’s values and skills must inform services as a whole.
There are undoubtedly opportunities for this to happen. But to listen to many of social care’s leaders – with the honourable exception of Dame Denise Platt – you would think there was no need to fight for it. The public pronouncements of many of social care’s leaders betray a reluctance to rock the government’s boat, which flies in the face of mounting evidence that a concerted campaign is needed to ensure social care survives.
For a start, the gap between the perceptions of senior managers and those of face-to-face practitioners is widening. Social care’s leaders talk more about values than ever before, but the space for practitioners to acknowledge and promote the values they brought into social care is shrinking fast, in the face of advancing bureaucracy and yet more structural change. There is a real danger that the impact of massive change on an already overstretched profession may be more destructive than either government or social care’s leaders are willing to admit.
The enthusiasm when social services departments were created in 1971 came from the bottom up, from social workers inspired by Seebohm’s vision. Despite all the talk (and, in some cases, action) about involving service users in policy and service development, practitioners remain marginalised and the enthusiasm is top-down. That simply isn’t good enough.
There is also mounting evidence to question the government’s true commitment to social care. Some ministers – notably Liam Byrne and Beverley Hughes – seem genuinely to hope that social care does not become the handmaiden of the NHS and education. But there is confident talk in the NHS of social care commissioning by primary care trusts. And the Department for Education and Skills is dominated by narrow and exclusive definitions of excellence and choice which fundamentally undermine social care values and Every Child Matters policies.
Meanwhile, New Labour’s bright new social care edifice looks distinctly shaky. Of its four pillars – the Commission for Social Care Inspection, the Training Organisation for the Personal Social Services, the Social Care Institute for Excellence, and the General Social Care Council – one is no longer about social care alone, and one, we know, will go the same way. And who would put money on Scie and the GSCC surviving another five years, with the government hoping to rationalise professional regulation, and doubts in the DH about Scie’s efficacy?
At the moment, service users are social care’s loudest advocates. The sector’s leaders are afraid of being excluded – but they should learn from those who really know about exclusion. Of course, service users risk being consulted but not heard. They are more likely to be heard in the media (where senior managers merely seem to be grinding an axe) than in government. It’s time to bring the disparate attempts to influence behind the scenes into the open, in a campaign that cannot be ignored.