How one council is attempting to reduce demand on statutory social work services

Like many local authorities, the London Borough of Bexley is faced with the challenge of maintaining and improving social services in the face of significant cuts to resources. Mark Charters, director for education and social care, explains how he plans to do it.

Charters: 'We must be more open with local residents' (Photo by Tom Parkes)

Councils across the UK have been slicing and dicing their services for years now, cutting spending and ensuring services run as efficiently as possible in line with the government’s targets. But now, three years into the coalition’s first term in power, local authorities are struggling to make further savings, particularly in social care, where many services are already stretched to breaking point.

Like others, as part of a wider drive to make savings, the London Borough of Bexley has been working hard over the past few years to increase the efficiency of its social care services. “We had the choice to either cut all non-statutory services to the bare minimum or chase out all the efficiencies we could,” says Mark Charters, director for education and social care. The problem now, he says, is that Bexley has “nowhere left to go”; the council’s older people’s services, for example, already have the lowest unit costs in London.

So Charters and his team have come up with a fresh proposal for making savings while hopefully improving outcomes for local communities. Phase one is to shift a much greater emphasis onto early intervention, creating a front door service where key workers catch families in need before they require statutory services. Phase two will involve managing the expectations of local residents and supporting communities to become more self-sufficient.

Relationship managers

Charters wants to build a strategy that joins the dots between existing services, including children’s services, schools, police, adult social care, early intervention and parenting courses run through the adult learning college. “If the strategy is agreed, we would offer a whole menu of services, including universal services, that all come together within one overarching service,” he says. This service would have an early intervention “front door”, where key workers would actively engage with and screen families to spot early warning signs of problems, thereby preventing the escalation of need into statutory social care.

“Some families don’t trust the state or people they see as agents of the state, like police and social workers, so we haven’t been able to break through to them,” Charters explains. “The key worker will act as a ‘relationship manager’, engaging the voluntary sector and providing scaffolding around the family and child. And then we will marshal a ring of support services around that relationship manager.”

A proposal to reorganise services in this way will go to the council early this month. “Once we have the strategy in place we’ll look at the best way to meet those needs,” explains Charters. “It will be a combination of refiguring existing services that match this approach and looking at other partners who might be able to offer something . We have some of this in place already in Bexley, so we will be able to extend those arrangements.”

Charters hopes this will also push Bexley further towards its goal of bringing down caseloads in children’s services. Bexley radically overhauled the department after its safeguarding services were rated inadequate in July 2011. Charters says, a year ago, the average caseload held by a children’s social worker was around 35, but now it is closer to 20  – and they hope to bring this down to around 16-18. “We recognised that high quality social workers have to continue to be recruited. The council has invested £5.2m into children’s social care, which increases the number of social work posts and frees people from bureaucracy, so that more time can be spent on case work. This operating model will have the prevention service sitting in front of it, which will reduce the number and need levels going into statutory social care and create a clearer relationship between those services.”

Civic duty

Phase two of Bexley’s plan involves cutting costs by encouraging communities to better look after themselves, again reducing the demand on statutory services. “We already have street pastors and a range of youth and family services in line with most councils, but we are  trying to go beyond the traditional approaches to generate self-sufficiency and create programmes that draw neighbourhoods together,” says Charters. “We want to encourage and stimulate civic pride and duty; your older neighbour or an abused child next door shouldn’t just be the responsibility of social services.”

He says councils should be more transparent, involving residents in decision making to a much larger degree. “We must increasingly treat citizens as shareholders in the local authority’s resources, shifting the balance of power from the local authority and other public services to our local residents.” This is one of the core principles of social work, he says; giving people control over what is happening around them, enabling individuals, families and communities to make the changes they want to make. “That’s the real benefit the social work model of care can provide, a person-centred approach.”

This in turn should change the way local residents view local authority provision of social services, which, Charters says, is the only way councils will be able to continue to function in the current financial climate. “Over the next five-year period there needs to be a fundamental change in the expectations people have of services. We’re no longer going to be able to meet more and more need – demand on social care has gone up and up against a steep downwards trajectory of resources available to councils. Something needs to change.”

Five-minute Q&A

  • The government could make my job easier by ending the belief that councils can continue reducing spending without reducing the quality or quantity of services.
  • A social care leader must have the courage to make the right decisions even if they aren’t the popular ones. You can’t sit on the fence and worry about your career; you have to be focused on the outcomes for your users.
  • If I wasn’t a social work director I’d be a game warden in Kruger National Park. I’m from New Zealand originally. I came over here when I was 15, but I’ve always wanted to go back and work in an African safari park.
  • I’m most inspired by my 15 year old son. It wasn’t until I had my own child that I understood the depth of attachment and love you have as a parent. I look at some of our children I see in Bexley that have been neglected or worse, and can’t help but feel desperately sad, but also motivated to do better for them and enable them to be the best they can be. 
  • My staff would describe me as approachable. But I have had to make some difficult decisions, which hasn’t always made me popular. 
  • A lot keeps me awake at night. But mainly it’s the thought that vulnerable adults or children might be being harmed in some way.
  • I’m proudest of the changes I’ve made to adult social care in Bexley. When I arrived, adult social care had become nothing but a glorified discharge team from the local hospital.  I rebuilt the social work team and reorganised it with a greater focus on rehabilitation.

Related articles

‘Direct work is what these social workers came into the job to do’: interview with Essex director Dave Hill

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.