By Blair McPherson
The most cynical person I known was also the best social worker I ever met. Dave had no time for management, especially senior management. He had been through more reorganisations than holidays abroad; each one promoted on the grounds of improving services, only for one set of problems to be exchanged for another. He dismissed them all as fashionable nonsense. He lived through efficiency drives ranging from restricting photo copying to “turn off the lights” campaigns, recruitment freezes and the wholesale closure of older people’s homes.
He witnessed the gap between the rhetoric and the reality as clients became service users and then customers. As people were to be given the money to buy their own services, while budgets were cut and eligibility criteria disqualified more and more people from receiving help. He saw years of work building up local voluntary sector groups torn apart as their funding was removed at the same time as the government was talking up the Big Society. Most of these changes were preceded by a consultation process designed to get “customers” and carers to give their views, which were then ignored.
Dave dismissed all senior managers as hopelessly out of touch. He distrusted their motives. “They say one thing then do another,” he would say. He complained that they were obsessed with improving statistical returns rather than improving the service. He loathed the adoption of private sector methods, performance indicators, targets and business plans. He made fun of managers who used American business school jargon, referring to “low hanging fruit” and their desire to “run things up the flag pole”. He thought MBAs were an expensive waste of time: “They would be better off shadowing a social worker or a home care assistant – or better still working in a residential home for a month.” He thought management, especially senior management, made his job harder.
His cynicism did not extend to his clients. He was committed to helping them, convinced he could make a difference, and he was prepared to work long hours and do over and above what could reasonably be asked of him. He was determined, creative and energetic.
Because of this and his extensive experience, several managers tried to get him to apply for management posts. His colleagues encouraged him, too, countering his objections by saying: “You would be so much better than those over-ambitious, over-confident and inexperienced people who seem to get promoted.”
But in all honesty, he would have been a terrible manager. Managers can’t be cynical. They have to be positive; they have to believe that this restructuring will improve services, that these budget cuts are deliverable, that these targets are achievable and that a new way of working can be a better way of working. They have to believe in the vision articulated by senior managers.
No one wants a cynical manager.
Blair McPherson is an author, blogger and former director of community services