Opinion: Workforce change is a question of trust

The jury is still out on whether service users will ever get the social care workforce they deserve. Currently, it is one of the biggest, most disparate and least valued workforces in the UK. Much attention has focused on problems of recruitment and retention, low levels of training and poor pay. The workforce has come to be seen as the public sector equivalent of fast-food catering and supermarket shelf-stacking – frequently with worse conditions and hours that are even more antisocial.

The government’s Options For Excellence review signals an awareness of the problems, even if it has come in for criticism as a “damp squib” for failing to respond adequately to them. As a member of the review team, I have been pleased to be associated with a group of people who have shown a real commitment to and  understanding of the problems facing human resources and social care workers and the difficulties these create for service users.

As a service user (sadly the only one in the review group), it has been an opportunity to bang the drum for the importance of developing a social care workforce that is more attuned to the issues prioritised by service users. Happily, this message has found its way into the final report.

Being involved in the Options For Excellence group has helped to focus my mind on workforce issues. This has highlighted for me a modern organisational problem that is not specific to social care, but has become one of its particular underpinning themes.

It is a problem that now bedevils public services more generally, including health, justice, education and the universities. It is a problem we have grown so used to that it sometimes seems we no longer notice it or are reluctant to mention its pernicious influence.

This problem is the coincidence of topdown managerialist approaches with a  long-term culture of cuts and budgetary restrictions. Its most visible expressions are permanent reorganisation and the cult of the chief executive. It leads to the worst of all worlds, with critical decisions taken by powerful individuals who quickly disappear before they are held to account.

Thus the public sector chief executives who borrow the language of the private sector – usually with minimal experience of working in it. And they appear obliged to leave their mark through a battery of initiatives. Then they move on to fresh pastures, leaving the rest of us to clear up the mess they have left – until their successor comes and the pattern is repeated.

As organisations and budgets have grown, the potential to make costly and wasteful mistakes has grown. While some chief executives treat their huge earnings as  Monopoly money, the routine activities and petty expenditure of the ordinary workforce comes in for the most swingeing examination. No care package, photocopy, paperclip, local travel expense or visit to a service user is safe from the most rigorous review and interrogation. As every act is subjected to closer monitoring, the attendant bureaucracy stifles people’s energy, enthusiasm, commitment, morale and independence of mind.

No wonder we have seen the arrival of anti-bullying initiatives and counselling support for workers in the public sector.  These have never been needed so much.

Social care has long had problems of leadership. But reinforcing top-down hierarchies is no way to solve them. As well as building the capacity of its workforce, social care must start to place more trust in its staff. It is only likely to be when skills and mutual trust are enhanced that we can hope to have the social care workforce we need and which is truly fit for purpose.

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Peter Beresford’s blog

Peter Beresford is professor of social policy at Brunel University and is involved with the psychiatric system survivor movement 

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