‘We want front-line social workers to use their skills’

William Roe defends his 21st Century Review and tells Derren Hayes how Scotland’s social workers need to be empowered to improve service users’ lives

“It’s a mixed-up profession. Some parts provide wonderful services while others need radical reform,” explains William Roe, chair of the 21st Century of Social Work Review  in Scotland.

Paradoxically, Roe, a specialist public sector consultant, has had to fend off accusations from some in the sector that the review’s findings, published by the Scottish executive last week, are anything but radical. But he is unrepentant about the absence of proposals for structural reform (news, 26 January).

“We did consider very radical change in the structures of social work and whether we should deconstruct it into separate professional groups. But we were unanimous that it was not the best thing for society or a small country like Scotland.

“Some people may have longed for detailed instructions on how to make improvements happen. We think we have gone as far as we can in making a vision – when detailed designs are done by central government or review groups like ours they tend to get it wrong.”

One of the clearest messages to come out of the review is the need for front-line social workers, chief social work officers and council senior management to change the way they work.
It paints a picture of “under-led and over-managed” social workers who lack the freedom to take decisions because of unwieldy bureaucracy.

“We are asking for social workers to be able to exercise their skills on the front line as the evidence says they can’t currently. Lack of autonomy is one of the main reasons social workers leave the profession.

“Other professionals often say social workers ‘can never make a decision in a team meeting’. We need to change that culture in departments and among managers.”

He spoke of “an appetite for change” among front-line staff, trade unions and the Association of Directors of Social Work. In addition, ministers have held talks with university social work academics on adapting students’ training.

Roe says the main challenge for social work managers is to develop organisations that are “less controlling” and more focused on finding solutions for users. “There needs to be greater recognition of the skills of social enterprises, service users and carers. In some areas, councils are small players in service provision.

“Councils tend to put huge sums of money into addressing problems – such as packages of care and support for young offenders – rather than finding solutions. That may be right for some people but not all.”

Roe sees it as the role of the chief social work officer, chief executive and councillors to “drive forward” these preventive solutions to reduce pressure on services. “Services are unsustainable because more clients are coming into social work and professionals are being stretched.”

A conversation with criminal justice social workers highlighted the need for change. “They said they didn’t see it as any part of their job to reduce youth justice criminality. I said ‘if it’s not your job, whose is it?’.”

But Roe says this new approach must be matched by a reassessment of what society should expect from the profession. The executive is to develop legislation over the next year clarifying the role of social work.

Roe says: “More than 50 per cent of people we surveyed thought it was the state’s job, not theirs, to care for elderly relatives. There needs to be a new deal between the state and society about what it takes responsibility for and what parents and families take responsibility for.”

Over the next six weeks executive officials will visit every social work department in Scotland to listen to their ideas on this vision. Roe is adamant change can start today.

“Almost nothing needs to wait for the legislation,” he says. “Putting that into practice needs to be done by people close to the ground and I’d encourage them to get on with it now.”

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