Amid the widespread outrage about the government’s failure to deliver greater funding for adult social care through this week’s White Paper, many might have missed the significant changes for social workers that it proposes.
The biggest impact is likely to be felt from the proposal for councils to outsource assessments to multiple providers in each area, giving service users choice over who assesses their social care needs.
The government has speculated this could include social workers setting up their own social enterprises to deliver this service, along the lines of the existing social work practice pilots. However, it could also mean private equity firms making profits out of assessment and a drop in quality and consistency, according to organisations representing social workers.
Unison’s national officer for social work, Helga Pile, says it is deeply concerned at the lack of an evidence base for such a move, given its potential to undermine other elements of the White Paper, such as the establishment of a national minimum eligibility threshold for care to promote consistency.
“I’m not sure what the problem is they are trying to solve here,” she says. “Most people, when they talk about choice, want more choice around the care and support they get, not assessments. If we’re talking about enterprises then they need to be viable financially and this introduces other pressures on social workers.”
However, others argue that the budgetary pressures facing social enterprises will be no different to those within councils, yet frontline workers would have more freedom.
Jenny Pits, director of the Shropshire social work practice pilot, People2People, says it has been able to be more creative and innovative when facing funding issues than would a local authority team, using local community resources to come up with very different solutions.
“Early indications are that outcomes for service users are very positive and, by supporting people to use existing community resources, the level of spend is less than would otherwise have been the case.”
Joe Godden, professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) is not directly opposed to the idea of outsourcing assessments, pointing out that other countries operate a model of assessment that is not part of local government.
But he is concerned about quality assurance, the qualifications of those doing assessments and levels of funding.
“We see [these problems] on the provider side where the council pays a pittance and then they are the ones monitoring the quality so it’s not really an independent process.”
It’s also too early to claim social work practice pilots are the answer, he says, pointing out most are not operating in the real world, with staff still on council pay and conditions. Yet this should not deter social workers from considering it as a serious option he maintains.
“Working in local authorities has not always served social workers well. They need to be investigating and researching social enterprises because if a local authority decides to go down this route they will do it quickly. Social workers need to be in a position to respond quickly otherwise other bigger, profit-making companies will start circling.”
Kelly Hicks, a social worker who has recently set up her own independent co-operative, wholeheartedly agrees. “I would also hope that traditional tendering processes are tailored to ensure social workers lead the change,” she adds.
Community development role
Hicks embodies the second plank of the government’s vision for adult social work: a move back to community development roles. Social workers should, the White Paper states, help to connect people to community networks, get them involved in local activities and create community groups where there are currently gaps.
Hicks is currently voluntarily working with a group of individuals in Doncaster to form a powerful citizen support group which has linked with local businesses and is, she believes, helping to shape a new model of how mental illness is treated.
“I was so fed up with local authority social work that I just went and did it my way. It’s been an amazing two years. I received the social worker of the year award at the House of Lords last December which showed me that people do recognise working differently.”
But Godden warns that a community development role may have to be independent of an assessment role.
“There can be conflicts and the loss of credibility within your community if you are also doing assessments. You could have the one organisation providing both services but I’m not sure you can have the one social worker doing both.”
This is not a view shared by Unison, but Pile says the biggest hurdle will be funding such a role. “Community development work is about prevention but in these days of little money everything is focused on statutory duties.”
Chris Russell, a frontline social worker and spokesperson for the College of Social Work, says there is potential in this approach, saying: “It’s about creating a social model, instead of a medical model, to help society improve people’s lives.”
However, he warns: “Unless all employers are really buying into it I think the reality could be quite challenging.”
Principal social worker
Social workers’ ability to influence local authorities’ direction could be helped by the third main change for social workers contained within the White Paper, the appointment of principal social workers for adult services within councils.
While children’s services are already grappling with what such a role entails in practice, Russell believes an adult version should focus on forging partnerships between upper management and frontline staff and key people in partnership organisations.
However, Dee Kemp, practitioner manager at Topaz, the social work practice pilot in Lambeth, south London, believes the key role of a principal social worker should be about advising and supporting social workers to develop.
“It is essential that social workers are encouraged to continue developing throughout their careers.”
Risky or exciting as any or all of these changes may appear, all three depend on individual councils’ deciding that the government’s proposed approach is right for them. At a time of severe funding constraints, that means implementation is likely to be highly patchy across the country.
More White Paper coverage