‘Why the decline of the social services policy officer has been bad news for social work’

While they were much maligned by social workers and directors, policy officers played a pivotal role in championing best practice and we need to reverse their decline, says Blair Mcpherson

By Blair Mcpherson

As a social worker I reached a crossroads. I could either go into management or policy. Posts were available in both, both offered a pay rise and both offered career opportunities. There was some negativity around management posts for firebrand social workers like me whereas policy was seen as the place to be, based at headquarters with regular contact with senior managers, your advice and expertise being sought, writing committee papers for the chair of social service and presenting them to committee. Could a post get more influential.

I applied for the policy post but it went to a more experienced colleague. The process of applying and being interviewed made my mind up that it was time to move on from social work, besides which I had a ready made application form which I had put a lot of effort into it would be a waste not to use it again. This time I was successful and became a manager.

As a team manager for services to older people I liked to think I was innovative but I recognised that what we did in my small patch didn’t have much influence on the rest of a big department. I kept in touch with my former social work colleague. I was very impressed that he had the ear of the assistant director and that he regularly briefed members on the implications of new legislation.

Pushing social work values

He had a very positive attitude to older people, he pushed the social work values of choice, dignity, respect and independence, he talked about empowering older people, he argued for flexible services and he wasn’t afraid to challenge senior managers on their language or stereotyped images of older people. He was my idea of what a radical social worker could become.

Years later when I became an assistant director with responsibilities that included the policy unit I was surprised to lean that neither social workers nor senior managers held my staff in high regard.  Budgets were being cut and reorganisation meant posts were to go. My colleagues on the senior management team kept asking, “what do your policy officers do?”.

This was a question I found hard to answer. I knew very well how they spent their time in an endless round of policy and strategy meetings with NHS colleagues, district council housing staff and corporate working groups, and dealing with a constant stream of requests for information from corporate policy officers plus commenting on proposals from the Department of Health.

Out of touch?

But what did they do? Much of their work went unseen but they were attending meetings, completing returns and providing information about social services so that managers wouldn’t have to. Social workers complained that despite being former social workers policy offers were out of touch. This was true; too many policy officers had been policy officers for too long.

However best practice is best practice, it was not the policy officers’ fault that the organisation was no longer practice-driven but finance-led. The client-based policy officers were uncomfortable at being asked to represent the department at meetings whose agenda covered all client groups and frustrated that their work was not valued and that their advice was routinely dismissed as costing too much.

I agree we had too many policy officers but remember that it was a different time. Local authorities were more ambitious in those days; they sought to be community leaders, localism was big and policy officers were key to making it happen.
Despite the climate of austerity or even because of it we do need policy officers to champion best practice, we do need them to have recent social work experience and we do need senior managers to listen to these specialist advisors even if they don’t like what they hear.

Blair Mcpherson is a former social worker, former local government director, author and blogger at www.blairmcpherson.co.uk

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