‘Welsh strategy is a win-win’

Directors’ leader Joe Howsam warns that the new blueprint for Welsh services must be well resourced. He spoke to Derren Hayes

1974: Qualifies as a social worker.
1974-87: Works at Lewisham, East Sussex and Brighton councils.
1987: Joins Avon Council.
1991: Becomes assistant director of operations for social services.
2000: Joins Caerphilly Council as director of social services.
2006: Becomes co-chair of ADSS Wales.

Joe Howsam, co-chair of the Association of Directors of Social Services Wales, admits that on first reading the nation’s new 10-year draft strategy for social services fails to take your breath away.

“If you read it cold you could be disappointed,” he says of Fulfilled Lives, Supportive Communities, which was published last week and forms the basis of consultation over the next three months (news, page 12, 10 August). But he adds: “It is a work in progress. Now we need to put the meat on the bones.”

Some disappointment in the sector stems from the fact the strategy, into which the ADSS Wales had significant input, had been billed as the social care equivalent to the NHS paper Designed for Life. This set out clear actions health services needed to take and the timescales for doing so. Fulfilled Lives, Supportive Communities has none of this, and instead outlines the principles that should underpin services.

Howsam explains why the Welsh assembly government has taken this approach. “The NHS is one organisation whereas we are 22 [councils]. If we get the principles agreed we can get down into the detailed work.

“Early on, there was a recognition that no party could write a detailed plan because of all the negotiations that need to go on between councils and the time that takes.”

A main theme of the strategy is increased collaboration between social services departments and agencies in the way services are designed and delivered. Some council officers and politicians could perceive that as a threat but Howsam believes most already share that vision.

“Given the size of some of the authorities in Wales it is a win-win situation. We are each providing small services with lack of economies of scale whereas if we get together we could provide a better service. Some services may need to be Wales-wide and others local.”

Howsam says it is a “new way of working” and one that will need “pushing” by council leaders.

The key elements for delivering the strategy, he says, are the workforce and money. “If we are engaging more people in the community, which traditionally would have been done in institutions, we’re going to need more resources and staff.”

Welsh politicians and councils have struggled to attract enough people into social work and a study last year found vacancy rates of 15 per cent. Yet Howsam is optimistic. “There has been a lot of hard work in developing the degree and training support and we want to make it an attractive profession.”

The strategy also hints at the need for changes to the make-up of the workforce, and the consultation is likely to provoke debate over whether para-professionals should take on lower-level responsibilities.

Howsam keeps an open mind. “I see child protection as a core piece of work in which we’d want to put highly trained people but there might be other jobs that may not require such specialist training.”

He hopes the rest of the sector will react like he has to the vision in the strategy. “My shelves are full of strategic documents that only the most erudite civil servants can quote from and others that have changed the landscape. I hope this is remembered as the latter,” he says.

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