Why social work is crucial to turning round troubled council

Investment in social work is crucial to turning round the performance of Wirral Council’s department of adult social services, which has faced multiple criticisms in recent years. That was the message from director Graham Hodkinson, two months into an already turbulent period in charge.

Investment in social work is crucial to turning round the performance of Wirral Council’s department of adult social services, which has faced multiple criticisms in recent years. That was the message from director Graham Hodkinson, two months into an already turbulent period in charge.

Within days of him taking over, an independent review was published into Wirral’s response to whistle-blowing claims made by social worker Martin Morton relating to the over-charging of learning disabled service users. In 250 damning pages, consultant Anna Klonowski detailed a catalogue of failings in contract management and safeguarding that put users at risk, in record-keeping and in responding to whistleblowers such as Morton.

The report drew a critical response from David Cameron at prime minister’s question time and then precipitated the demise of the council’s Labour administration, which has been replaced by a Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Hodkinson now reports directly to new council leader Jeff Green, who has appointed himself lead member for adult services, such is his concern about the department.

Critical CQC report

While most of Klonowski’s criticisms covered 1997-2006, the department’s failings are much more recent. A 2010 Care Quality Commission report judged it to be “poor” for safeguarding due to inconsistent and variable practice, inadequate training, poor inter-agency working and a lack of quality assurance.

This led to Wirral being one of just seven councils assessed as only ‘adequate’ in the CQC’s final annual performance assessment of local authorities in 2010. Since then, the council has been receiving a range of support co-ordinated by the Local Government Association as part of the “sector-led” approach to raising performance that has replaced the CQC regime.

Taking the job after two decades at Cumbria Council was part personal – Hodkinson grew up and trained as a social worker in Wirral – and part professional.
“I felt I had a number of skills and the level of experience to help Wirral sort out its problems,” he says. “One of the key things Wirral needs is a very sound lead for professional practice in social work, and a strong emphasis on standards, and I think one of the key things that I’m bringing here is the ability to link these things together.”

The standards emphasis comes from his experience helping Cumbria rise from zero stars to “performing well” (the equivalent of two stars) in adult social care from 2005-10, while he was responsible for performance management.

Importance of social work

But he is also clear about the importance of good social work practice. His predecessor, Howard Cooper, secured council investment in 16 new posts to strengthen the quality of safeguarding and social work, which have recently been appointed to. This includes 4.5 full-time equivalent (fte) practitioners, five quality assurance officers, to monitor the quality of providers, and three safeguarding officers to support practitioners to make decisions around safeguarding. Significantly, the department is also appointing three advanced practitioner roles.

“Their role is to work with localities to ensure there’s a strong emphasis on professional practice and to support social workers in relation to more complex issues.” They will carry low caseloads and have no management responsibility to enable them to carry out this support role. Since taking his post, Hodkinson has secured further investment of over £100,000 to strengthen senior management, including the new role of head of safeguarding and care governance.

The LGA has reported significant progress at Wirral under Cooper, and Hodkinson says he has been impressed with much that he has seen. “When I’ve gone round I’ve seen some really good practice on the front line,” he says.

His priorities are making this good practice the norm and ensuring that the stories of these successes are told widely to help turn round the department’s reputation.

Learning from past mistakes

The Klonowski review outlines the negative impact on staff morale of the department’s failure to respond to whistleblowers and poor performance. Hodkinson is determined to learn from the mistakes of the past. “I’m making a huge effort to get out to every place of work and spend time with staff members and offer them to opportunity to talk to me,” he says. “It’s very much an open door policy.”

But he says morale is good. “What I’ve found absolutely remarkable is that frontline staff are very positive and are up for change,” he says.

A target Hodkinson is working towards is the removal of the department’s adequate status, which would come from a successful peer review carried out by counterparts from other authorities. The review is due to take place this summer.

On how he wants his department to be in 2013, he says: “We will be much more customer focused and people will have the information they need to self-direct their own care. When we support people the quality of the support we give will be the best. People will be safeguarded effectively and the quality of the services in Wirral will improve significantly and that people will be proud to work for Wirral.”

He adds: “I’m up for a challenge.”

Improve your safeguarding practice

Attend Community Care’s forthcoming conference on safeguarding adults at risk on 21 March.

More on how councils are improving adult social care performance

How one council boosted social work’s quality and status

Post-CQC care standards regime ‘needs government cash’

More on the Wirral

Council leader ejected following damning adult social services report 

LGA steps in to tackle council’s adult safeguarding failings

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