I am very passionate about personalisation and its place within adult social care, but I am also open to many of the criticisms and concerns that have been raised in the development of this agenda. One of the problems is that personalisation as a policy has been presented to social workers with all its structural constraints and little opportunity for any dialogue about how and why it is being applied. For some, it has been perceived simply as a new operational system, which raises suspicion about its motivation.
Last year, Community Care’s personalisation survey painted a fairly negative picture of social workers’ perceptions of the agenda and highlighted that 72% of participants, largely frontline workers, felt the amount of training they received was insufficient or non-existent. I think we are therefore justified in spending some time to revisit what we mean by personalisation. Is it a political idea/ project? Does it mean Big Society? Is it a new formula for FACS? A cost-cutting exercise? Is it a means to deliver personalised services? A person-centred method?
The answer is, personalisation has morphed into all of these things. Since its introduction, it has been reshaped, renegotiated, repackaged – and possibly hijacked by those in power.
Essentially there are two ways of understanding personalisation. The first is within a citizenship model as described by Simon Duffy, which insists that welfare provision is based on notions of entitlement, with the individual central to a process that take places around them. The second is that personalisation is a direct manifestation of neo-liberalism, whereby instead of choice being based upon ideas of citizenship, it has been replaced by ideas of consumerism. Here people are viewed as being capable of activating their rights in the marketplace and the role of the public sector is to support their ability to act in this way. It could be argued that the current government has understood and organised policy entirely in line with this perception.
Criticism can be levied at both perspectives and, as austerity measures and a reduction in adult social work posts sweep across the country, disillusionment amongst social workers is high. The danger is that, as social workers disengage with personalisation, they have no substantial voice; meanwhile, policy is progressing without them. More worryingly, I am not convinced that the government sees the endorsement of social workers as essential to making personalisation work.
I understand why social workers have become so disillusioned by the implementation of this agenda. However, a blanket rejection of personalisation plays into the hands of those who know and care least about frontline practice. Social work has to reclaim personalisation so it becomes a practice-based approach, rather than a government-owned instrument.
The role of the social worker in the UK was substantially redefined by the community care reforms of the 1990s and the balance between the administrative tasks and the therapeutic role has since become less clear. In the absence of any firm government direction on the roles and tasks of adult social workers, there is little consensus on how the role might be shaped in the future. It would seem likely that safeguarding will become a dominant role for social workers, along with joint working with health in complex cases. But it is less clear if and to what extent social workers will be involved in assessment, support planning and review in less complex cases.
If social work is to realise the potential of personalisation and self-directed support, it must change and adapt. Social workers will need to critically engage with this agenda and, in some instances, review previous understandings of their role as “expert”, “manager” and “gate-keeper”, which dominated the care management process. Within a self-directed model, social workers need to understand and create ways of facilitating, enabling, supporting and negotiating from the passenger seat rather than the driver’s wheel.
We need to acknowledge and promote the value of social work, particularly in adult services. Identifying the specific roles and tasks of social workers in a personalisation context is an important first step. This of course will involve careful balancing and negotiation to ensure that this is realistic within resources and criteria thresholds.
The international definition of social work acknowledges the importance of social workers being involved individually and collectively in creating a better society. The way we achieve this will change over time and vary across countries, but social work has to assume a more forthright position in the evolution of this agenda, rather than assuming a stance of disillusionment and non-engagement in the bits that really matter.
Ali Gardner is a registered social worker and a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. This is an excerpt from her speech at Skills for Care’s personalisation and social work conference in London on 6 February 2014. Skills for Care is running three further events in Birmingham, Leeds and Somerset between now and 4 March, at which Ali will be speaking alongside chief social worker for adult services Lyn Romeo.
Ali’s book, Personalisation in Social Work (second edition), is available to buy from Sage from 14 February.