The directors’ cut

The Association of Directors of Social Services has played a key role in influencing ministers as well as implementing government policies for local authorities. But what does the future hold for it as it considers splitting into children’s and adults’ arms, asks Natalie Valios

Every profession needs a body to speak up for it and gain access to the corridors of power. Responsible lobbying by such groups brings dividends in the shape of better policies, government awareness, and a role in guidance and implementation. 

For the past 35 years the Association of Directors of Social Services has performed such a role for social work. But how well has it done?

Ask directors and they will agree that the ADSS has been a strong leader within the social care sector. Its strength lies with its membership – it is governed and led by chief officers whereas similar professional organisations have opened up membership to other ranks. This may be more egalitarian, but over the years the ADSS has resisted pressure to follow suit and the fact that those making representations to government were doing the job in their own authorities has carried credibility.

One of the ADSS’s undisputed successes has been the proactive participation of many directors through its committees and also through the support provided to directors through its regional branches.

Ray Jones, director of adult and community services at Wiltshire Council and a member of the ADSS since 1992, says: “No other senior managerial organisation in the public sector has developed and maintained the coherence and commitment of the ADSS.

“It has provided a strong senior managerial voice both within local government and with central government. It has been a real champion for social care and for children, disabled and older people. It has promoted human rights and respect for diversity. In the past it has punched well above its weight in terms of engaging with central government.”

Local government reorganisation during 1994-7 was a key period for talks between the ADSS and government. John Ransford, deputy chief executive of the Local Government Association, was involved with this on two levels. As well as being ADSS honorary secretary during 1993-6, he was appointed social services director of North Yorkshire Council in 1993. But he was soon “hauled off” to be its chief executive to deal with possibly the most difficult of all reorganisations going on at the time. North Yorkshire was the largest rural county and it was the first time that a unitary authority – York – was taken out of a county.

It was, he says, “the most demanding time of my life”.

“Local government reorganisation was a political decision. It wasn’t our job to say that reorganisation was a good thing or not, it was to say what effect this would have on providing vital services to the local community. And there was concern that smaller unitaries might lack the economy of scale and the ability to call on specialist staff.”

An added complication, which still reverberates today, was that while social services policy fell to the Department of Health, it was the then Department of the Environment which dealt with reorganisation. But because the government was so “Balkanised”, says Ransford, the DoE didn’t understand social services, and neither did the Treasury or Cabinet Office which also entered the discussions.

The ADSS entered the fray by publishing material and briefing MPs and  civil servants. It put evidence to the Banham commission [set up to look at reorganisation], and lobbied individual commissioners about the importance of social services.

It also talked to the three local government organisations – the Association of District Councils, Association of County Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. These talks weren’t always straightforward as these three were often “at each other’s throats”, says Ransford.

During this period in the early 1990s, a political vacuum worked in the ADSS’s favour and it emerged as the most influential of professional organisations. With a Conservative government and Labour controlled local authorities, there was infrequent constructive communication, so ministers favoured talking to chief officers – the ADSS – rather than the political leaders.

A House of Lords select committee report looking at the relationships between government and local government at the time concluded that, with the exception of an effective relationship with the ADSS, they weren’t very good.

This could be because the ADSS had an awareness of political intricacies that other bodies perhaps haven’t had, says Bob Lewis, director of education and care with the Priory Group and the ADSS president during 1996-7.

One of the most interesting times for Lewis was during his stint as ADSS honorary secretary between 1988-92. The 1984 murder of social worker Isabel Schwarz by a former client prompted a government inquiry into community care, led by Sir Roy Griffiths. His 1988 report Community Care: Agenda for Action was the forerunner to community care legislation in 1990.

“The government was wondering what to do about its recommendations and whether to bring in community care legislation,” says Lewis. “Margaret Thatcher was pretty much against local government and we had to work hard to build up influences within government to get that legislation through.

“We had to convince ministers so that Thatcher would be convinced that she shouldn’t worry about giving local government more money, which was the stumbling block.”

Without a chief officers’ body Lewis is convinced they wouldn’t have gained Cabinet approval. “It was against policy of the government of the day to give any more power to local government.”

If the ADSS has done so well in speaking up for social care, why does it still fall behind health and education in the political pecking order? “I think we have been more influential than NHS Confederation or education organisations because we are more focused,” says Lewis. “But we are seen as the poor relation because if you talk to politicians, the issues they are challenged on in MPs’ surgeries are hospitals and schools.”

With an organisation as large as the NHS and the amount of money being ploughed into it, it is always going to be high up the political agenda. Jo Webber, deputy director of policy at the NHS Confederation, says: “If people aren’t well they can’t work and then there are issues about the country’s economy. It strays into education: if children aren’t healthy they can’t learn. So the overall health of the population feeds into so many things it becomes the central plank of anything the government looks at.”

NHS Confederation represents more than 90 per cent of all NHS organisations, covering hospital trusts, ambulance trust, primary care trusts, mental health trusts and strategic health authorities. “A broad membership gives us a good feel for what is going on out there so that we can feed in to influence the Department of Health,” says Webber.

It has had notable success and last year its chief executive Dame Jill Morgan was voted most effective health lobbyist in one media survey. Recent achievements through negotiation include amendments to the original guidance for practice-based commissioning and the manifesto produced with a group of patient organisations called 17 Million Reasons, which set out what all partners wanted to see for people with long-term conditions.

“By the time we got to the white paper everything we had asked for had been delivered through that or previous documents. It shows the power of co-operation and collaboration and that shared voices make a bigger impact,” says Webber.

The NHS Confederation has collaborated extensively with the ADSS on the evolving children’s and adults’ agenda. “The work we did around the children’s agenda with the ADSS, the LGA and a range of voluntary organisations really did have an impact in the way that Change for Children came about. “And we set up an interagency group for adults which regularly meets ministers. The ADSS has been key in setting that up. Partnership is the way to go. It’s really good to be able to do that in policy terms and work across health, social care and the voluntary sector when trying to make those points to the department.”

But there has also been a challenge for the ADSS in wanting to stay close to government in influencing policy development while at the same time needing to remain independent.

This has been a difficult balance to maintain, says Jones. “Especially with the active government over recent years with rapid  policy development, much of which could be seen as sympathetic to the aspirations and commitments of social care, for example around social inclusion. But sometimes it is in opposition to its values, for example in relation to asylum seekers and the response to antisocial behaviour.”

The ADSS has also found itself in a different position from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The reduction of social care capacity and expertise within the DH and the Department for Education and Skills has meant it has sometimes had to fill a central government vacuum in advising government about social care and social work because their voices have not been well sustained within government.

Says Ray Jones: “It can be difficult being an adviser to government and a challenger of government at the same time. It is a tension for independent organisations wanting to influence politics and policy.”

And what does the future hold? Plans are afoot that may lead to the ADSS splitting into separate organisations for children’s and adults’ services. The ADSS, Confederation of Children’s Services Managers and the Association of Directors of Education and Children’s Services could form a body to represent children’s services directors while the adults’ arm may or may not retain the title ADSS.

Whatever happens, the objective will be to ensure that social care’s core values are not lost because of organisational change. But there are questions that will need answering before the ADSS can determine its future identity. How can it position itself as a national organisation of leaders in social care when it is being fragmented in England between adults’ and children’s services? Should it continue to focus on its roots in social care, or should it divide itself into separate senior management bodies for children’s services and adults’ services, where the roots may not lie so clearly within social care and where the directors may not have a particular social care commitment, background or experience?

And should a future senior managers’ organisation for social care only be for social care senior managers in local government? Should these only be top directors within local government, or should ADSS include other senior managers leading on social care services? And should membership be opened up to social care senior managers within the voluntary, private and NHS sectors?

Jones says: “What seems important is that there is a strong managerial voice championing the principles, values and competences of social care into the future. As the organisational arrangements for social care fragment there could still be value in the ADSS modifying itself into a social care senior managers’ organisation which is not only exclusively about local government, or restricted only to directors, but which has as its membership the senior managers of social care services for children and adults within all sectors.

“The focus then would be on what is special and important about social care not about the organisation or sector shaping and delivering social care services.”


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