In September, focus independent adult social work became the first social enterprise in England exclusively focused on delivering statutory social work. The person charged with making this unprecedented example of outsourcing work is managing director Joe Warner.
focus is one of seven adult social work practice pilots created by the Department of Health to test the viability of social workers running statutory services independently of the commissioning authority. While previously part of North East Lincolnshire Clinical Commissioning Group, which commissions adult social care in the area, it is now an independent company, whose 15-strong governing board has five staff members, a service user, carer and community representative. Warner said this was reflected in the recruitment process to select him.
Even if you can make the smallest difference [to a service user] it’s incredibly satisfying but you’re always conscious of how fragile it can be.” Joe Warner
“The social work staff were heavily involved in that process and at the end of the day they chose me as their managing director which is a really nice place to start from.”
Warner is a strong advocate for social work, which is reflected in his recent election to The College of Social Work’s adults faculty, and he has a very clear vision for focus rooted in community social work, not care management.
Social workers must no longer be bureaucratic gatekeepers to statutory services, but “brokers” between individuals and their communities, supporting people to forge networks and make the most of their skills in order to stay independent for longer.
From gatekeepers to brokers
“Social workers need to build relationships with people to see what skills and abilities they have as well as what their needs are,” he says. “They need to be there to help them live more independently and improve their well-being, not just inform clients of what resources are available to them.”
The shift to care management over the past two decades means adult social work has drifted away from its roots and lost some of its professional respect in the process, he argues.
Warner speaks as someone who has probably experienced social work from just about every angle.
Unsure of what he wanted to do following his degree in sociology he applied for an “interesting sounding” job working with a psychotherapist in the Costwolds, using psychodynamic approaches to working with children.
“While I was there I found that I got on really well with troubled teenage lads and, even though the work was challenging, it suited me. I was there for about four years until I qualified as a social worker.”
From the Cotswolds came moves to Southampton, Grimsby, Lincolnshire and Worcestershire, and social work roles in children’s, adults’ and mental health teams, before a move into management, in commissioning and learning disabilities.
His last role saw a shift into the private sector where he became managing director of learning disability support provider Thera East Midlands. One of his fellow managers was a disabled person, which Warner said brought home to him the value of involving people who use services in the running of care and support organisations, as is the case with focus.
Such a wide experience has also taught him that imagination is key to improving services when budgets are reducing, he says.
Empowering staff and service users
“My idea is that local people and social workers become the champions for real change.”
Part of this vision means focus helping service users and other residents develop projects and services they wish to see and use in the community such as sewing clubs, lunch and dinner clubs or time banking.
But his optimism is tempered by the likely impact of the Care Bill, which will be implemented in 2015-16 and 2016-17. One consequence will be a substantial increase in the volume of assessments and reviews that social workers undertake as self-funders are encouraged to approach their council in order to qualify for a ‘cap’ on their care liabilities.
This means significant extra work for practitioners and, probably, the need for organisations like focus to recruit more social workers. However, despite the challenges of attracting talented social workers to practice in North East Lincolnshire, Warner is confident focus can compete for staff because of its values.
“I think people often underestimate how much social workers want the organisation they work for to have the same kind of values as they do themselves,” he adds.
Joe Warner on…
A social care leader must be….imaginative and optimistic.
If I wasn’t a social care director I would be….a novelist. It would be great to be able to decide what happens at the end. That’s something you never get in social work.
I’m most inspired by…people who challenge convention to do things differently.
My staff would describe me as…well I’ve only been here a few months so it’s difficult to tell but at my last job, and based on my leaving cards, it would be decisive, knowledgable, supportive and, probably, impatient. I always want to see tangible results as quickly as possible and I’m much more interested in practical intiatives than those around policy and procedures.
What keeps me awake at night…The endless possibility and challenge of what can be achieved and what needs to be done.
The government could make my job easier by…a greater acknowledgement and value of social work in society. Ministers might occasionally remark what a tough job it is but generally they only talk about social workers, or it only gets into the press, when something has gone wrong.
I’m proudest of…probably the work I did as a social worker to bring about positive changes for individual people. I still think about some of my former clients and hope the changes stuck and they’re still okay. Even if you can make the smallest difference it’s incredibly satisfying but you’re always conscious of how fragile it can be.