Agents of permanence

Some councils are cutting the number of agency social workers but, as budgets are cut and caseloads rise, they can provide a flexible, cost-effective solution, reports Kirsty McGregor

Some councils are cutting the number of agency social workers but, as budgets are cut and caseloads rise, they can provide a flexible, cost-effective solution, reports Kirsty McGregor 

You can’t live with them; you can’t live without them. It is an expression that could be applied to agency staff who have become so numerous in social services departments, it is difficult to square their temporary presence with the Social Work Task Force’s conclusion that stability is the key to successful frontline teams.

Yet their prevalence is underlined in research by Community Care last month, which found that about one in 10 local authority posts in the UK is filled by an agency social worker. Some councils had 30% of posts filled by agency staff.

Is this a bad thing, at a time when many councils have high vacancy rates?

Hounslow Council clearly thinks it is. The west London authority has recently halved the number of agency social workers in its children’s services department.

“Locum staff are less likely to make a commitment to staying in a local authority,” says Chris Hogan, the council’s assistant director of children’s services.

Costly solution

One of the biggest drivers behind this change was cost – £24 to £32 an hour for an agency social worker in Hounslow’s case.

On a national level, Community Care estimates agency workers could be costing councils £70m a year more than if permanent staff were employed to perform the same roles. Other estimates put the figure closer to £140m.

As council budgets are slashed, public sector union Unison has condemned “the millions being wasted on agency fees” as a “tragedy”.

But that is not the only reason to minimise the number of agency staff. Having too many temporary staff can be detrimental to team working and morale, says Hogan, who points out that alarm bells should ring if more than a quarter of posts are filled by agency workers.

“It’s important when [social workers have] a rough experience to have a team around you who know you and can support you,” she says. “If you have too many agency staff you lose that, because the comings and goings are too frequent.”

There are also training implications. If councils have a revolving group of social workers, training and continuing professional development do not have time to embed and develop.

Not to mention the potential risk for agency social workers, who often complain of becoming a dumping ground for work nobody else wants to do.

“Sometimes management says you should do more work than the permanent members of staff,” one agency worker reports – a common issue among temporary staff. Others say they are given the cold shoulder by permanent team members.

Yet employers continue to take on more and more agency workers.

For Miles Davis, managing director of recruitment agency Bluecare, the reason is clear: “They relieve pressure.”

Vacancy rates in social work have hovered at about 10% for at least two years. Meanwhile, referrals are on the rise and many social workers have high, unmanageable caseloads. This causes stress, which leads them to go on long-term sick leave.

“Agency workers are extra bodies on the ground to help with heavy caseloads,” says Davis.

But this is not their only value. “Often agency workers have the ability to bring a new perspective to a caseload or a team as a whole.”

The key, says Davis, is not to regard agency workers as a “necessary evil”. He says that, at a time of savage cuts to council budgets, a flexible workforce is more cost-effective.

“Perms (permanent members of staff) are the core and agency workers allow you to scale up your workforce when demand is high, when your team needs more support or a fresh perspective.”

Hogan agrees that agency staff can lend a team the flexibility it needs to cover for, say, maternity leave; the danger, she says, comes from a growing dependency on them.

In its final report, the Social Work Task Force produced a framework English councils and other employers could use to monitor workloads and workload management, including the number of agency staff.

Community Care understands that the Social Work Reform Board, which was set up to oversee implementation of the taskforce’s recommendations, will survey employers on whether they have made use of the so-called “health check” framework soon.

The results of these health checks could provide a clearer and more consistent picture of how many agency social workers are being used across the country.

How Wokingham Council reduced its reliance on agency social workers

(pictured l-r: Andy Couldrick, Judith Ramsden and Ian Howells)

Wokingham Council was placed under government intervention in 2008 after Ofsted rated its children’s services department as performing poorly. During an unannounced visit, inspectors had noted the council employed only a limited number of experienced, permanent social workers and managers, and relied heavily on agency staff.

At the time, 60% of the children’s social workers were employed through an agency.

But in July 2010, Ofsted returned to the council to find only one agency worker in the frontline teams.

To achieve this the Berkshire authority injected £1m into its children’s services and drafted in a new leadership team.

Then, Judith Ramsden who became head of children’s social care and safeguarding in November 2009, took a strategic decision to target the first round of recruitment at frontline social workers.

Her priority was to change the culture within the teams. “When I arrived there were too many agency staff, and there was not a common understanding or definition of good social work,” Ramsden says.

Five experienced social workers were recruited from the US, filling a relatively high proportion of posts in the small, unitary authority. The council also ran a recruitment campaign and used agencies to source applicants. At the same time, it sought to improve its training for frontline staff and opening up practice teaching opportunities.

“We then used that as part of our recruitment strategy,” Ramsden says. “So in our campaigns we said, ‘come and join Wokingham because we’re interested in the cultural context within which people work, in valuing people and thinking about how staff feel supported’.

The team now comprises existing members of staff, recruits, some agency staff who converted to permanent and a small number of independent social workers.

Existing employees have welcomed the influx of permanent members of staff. “Everyone gets very excited when I tell them I’m permanent,” says social worker Ian Howells who has been working in the referral and assessment team since May. “And it makes us more of a cohesive team.”

Sickness rates have halved over the past year, says Andy Couldrick, director of children’s services.

“Use of temporary social workers is a key indicator of performance and there is a point where the authority should say this is symptomatic of a potentially serious problem,” he says.

But Ramsden does not rule out or condemn the use of agency staff, as long as their use does not damage stability or the building of longer term relationships.

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