‘Senior managers are so removed, they need a telescope to see the frontline’

Social workers often complain of a gulf between senior managers and frontline staff. But how important is this relationship to the running of services? Kirsty McGregor investigates

This management survey has been sponsored by Southend council but the editorial content is independent of the sponsor.

Senior managers are focused on targets and savings, not services. They are out of touch with frontline social work. They make restructuring decisions without properly consulting staff. These were some of the responses to Community Care’s survey on senior social work management. But is that just the view of a few in badly-managed organisations? And is it reasonable to expect senior managers to stay in touch with specific frontline practice issues while managing entire services?

Our survey showed senior managers have a more positive view of their relationships with frontline staff than social workers themselves. More than half of the 379 social workers and team managers to respond to our survey (59%) agreed that senior managers within their organisations were accessible, while 36% disagreed.

Just under half, 45%, said they could approach their senior managers for advice if they had a problem. On the other hand,  almost all (92%) of the 65 directors, assistant directors and heads of service to respond rated themselves as accessible.

All said they valued the input of individuals and teams within their service, and 98% said they understood what social workers face when they are out in the community.

One service manager spoke of working in a local authority where the assistant director and director would often “floor walk”, ensuring they met and chatted to frontline staff. There were other examples of good, open relationships and genuine open door policies. However, many complained that they had no relationship with senior managers whatsoever.

“Senior managers are so far removed, they need a telescope to see the frontline,” said one social worker in Wales.

Another practitioner called the relationship “dysfunctional”, with senior managers akin to bad parents – too demanding, unrealistic, non-caring and critical – and the social worker akin to an emotionally abused child, trying to placate the parents by working extra hard.

Chain of command

There was a degree of understanding among social workers responding to the survey that senior managers have little time these days to focus on anything but the big priorities, such as setting the direction of the service, managing budgets and restructuring and communicating with other agencies and inspectors – echoing what many of the managers said in their own defence.

As one assistant director put it: “I would like to be seen as a leader for social work within my organisation, but the reality of working in a bureaucratic organisation takes some of my focus away from supporting my managers to improve frontline practice and ensure staff have the tools to do the job.”

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However, not all senior managers thought they should be accessible. After all, as one head of service pointed out, hierarchies exist for a reason: “Assistant directors and heads of service in bigger authorities have hundreds of staff, and a budget which is often 30% or more of the total revenue budget of the whole council. There is a sense of reasonableness needed in terms of how accessible and visible one can be to over 600 individual staff.”

Many social workers told us they had been warned never to approach senior managers directly. “There is no relationship between senior managers and social workers in this area,” said one assistant team manager.

“There is a strict hierarchy where the social worker talks through the first line manager who talks through the next level of manager and so on up the chain. Even in situations when a decision needs to be made, e.g. at court, and junior managers are not available, we are not given the go ahead to contact a more senior manager.”

Ivory tower

Where the hierarchical approach falls down, however, is when team managers are unsupportive, unresponsive or even the root of the problem. When asked if they were encouraged to question the decisions made by management, 60% of social workers and team managers disagreed to some extent. And, while 47% agreed that bullying and intimidation was not tolerated where they work, 38% said it was.

It can also lead to a view among social workers that senior managers sit up in an ivory tower, impervious to the impact of budget cuts and restructuring on the frontline. “Senior managers make it clear they don’t want to be disturbed by the minions,” said one children’s services team manager. “They insist social workers go through the line management structure, no matter whether that line is trusted or not.”

Many commented that this lack of a direct relationship with senior managers can have a negative impact on morale.

Whether social workers should have direct access to senior managers or not, it seemed clear from the survey that better communication would benefit both parties. Some senior managers pointed out that they often fight battles on behalf of their social work services and staff behind the scenes.

As one head of service explained: “I wish social workers would remember that I don’t personally wish to see budgets cut and neither do I cut them. These decisions are made as a result of how much councils get allocated from central government, and how these funds are apportioned locally, by councillors. I fight to protect the budgets and support that people need. But once the budget has been set, I have to manage this, which requires difficult decisions from myself and my senior team, who take their responsibilities seriously.”

When asked what the top three qualities or values are that make a good social work manager, the majority of respondents (48%) said “shares risk and takes responsibility” was the most important, followed by “trusts and empowers staff to make decisions regarding the running of the service” (45%) and “honesty and openness” (42%).

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