In touch with the front

Managers face some tough choices as they try to balance the books while still upholding the profession’s values,  writes Anabel Unity Sale

Front-line practitioners take pride in their social care values: they believe in them and use them to guide their practice. But how far up the seniority chain does this commitment go? Are social care managers equally committed to ensuring that the values live on, or do budgets and logistics mean that these central tenets of social care become abandoned by the wayside? Is it possible to balance the demands of local authority modes of working with the ideals of social care practice?

Most managers were once front-line practitioners and share the same set of principles as their staff, says John Bolton, director of community services at Coventry Council and former head of joint reviews at the Audit Commission. He says: “Managers have a commitment to social justice and championing the cause of people who are perceived as being disadvantaged. Also they try to provide the right set of services for these people’s needs.”

The presence of a similarly focused manager helps social care practitioners feel confident about standing up for their professional values. But how well managers are able to stick up for social care often depends on their working environment – if they work in a multi-disciplinary team it can be a challenge to ensure that social care is not smothered by the agendas of other practitioners.

David Glover-Wright, an approved social work senior practitioner at Milton Keynes Council, believes that the success managers have in championing social care depends on whether their colleagues from other disciplines are receptive to it. He works in an integrated adult mental health team and says that if a social care worker is employed in a team dominated by health, then their manager must ensure their practice is supported in the way the whole service operates, not just in weekly supervision sessions. “It is about validating their values in everyday practice – is the service user’s voice properly heard and given a visible profile within service development?”

Those at the top need to lead by example if social care values are to be preserved in an organisation. Lord Victor Adebowale, chief executive of social care charity Turning Point, is fully aware of this. Even though he has many years’ experience of managing social care workers, he still visits front-line staff in one of his charity’s 250 projects at least once a week. “For me, leading by example means seeing a service on the front line, talking to people and understanding their challenges.”

Such an approach is also favoured by David Hamilton, acting executive director of adult social services at Rotherham Council. Twice a year he steps out from behind his desk to go back to the floor. He finds that when he mixes with front-line staff, they often bend his ear about policies that work in practice – and those that don’t.

In March he joined home care workers on their rounds and was shocked by clients’ level of dependency. “It motivated me to develop a joint role with health and social care because there is a fine line between what our home care staff do and what nurses do.”

But it’s not just in their day-to-day work that social care practitioners promote their values. People who work in social care are often involved in voluntary or religious groups in their spare time, says Bolton. “They promote social care’s values beyond their job.” He speaks from experience – his brother is deaf and he has been campaigning on hearing impairment issues for many years.

Yet while managers need to encourage their staff in their work, there will be times when the responsibility falls on them to bear bad news. The challenge is how to avoid being seen as a betrayer of social care values.

Glover-Wright says that managers have to accept their financial limitations. “The reality is you have to be creative with what you have. It’s not easy to do it but you have to.”

Victor Adebowale HPAdebowale says: “It is about having a culture of responsibility and accountability. How can you ‘sell out’ a client when they have highlighted a problem about staff?”

In many areas, managers have little choice but to actively fight to keep social care and its values alive – or risk an insufficient budget to run effective services. Hamilton says: “We really have to fight our corner and make sure the elected members in Rotherham understand social care and the demographic pressures that are out there.”

In other areas, specific mechanisms have been put in place to make sure that the principles of social care are nurtured and developed. In Milton Keynes, this takes the form of monthly social work forum meetings for qualified social work staff.

Glover-Wright says that the forum is successful because staff are able to freely debate issues such as how to work across disciplinary divides. He says: “Having the forum gives social workers a chance to air their views and gives them a sense of solidarity. I’m responsible for 25 social workers and at least 20 come along each month and recharge their social work batteries.”

Giving social care workers the time and space to reflect on their practice goes a long way to ensuring they remain passionate and committed, and it is the responsibility of managers to help staff organise their workloads in a way that allows this to happen regularly.

Refreshed social care workers will do the best work – it is when they and their values become stale that the problems are likely to start.


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