I’m an agency social worker. But I’m terrified by councils’ reliance on us ‘guns for hire’

As failing councils scramble for agency staff little thought is being given to long term stability and the answers that are so desperately needed

by Social Work Outlaw (@outlawsocial)

“Oh, so you’re an agency worker as well then ….?” If I’d had a pound for every time I’d heard this greeting, it would certainly make my work a lot more lucrative.

Independent social workers are on the rise, but what’s it like to actually join a beleaguered department as a troubleshooting ‘gun-for-hire’?

Often when you start a new assignment you wander into friendly smiles and scope the scene to see who’s who. By midday, a quick break offers a chance to meet some of your fellow comrades who will share your next venture and that’s when the echo starts, “I’m a temporary worker. Oh, you’re one too?” Here we go again.

What can only be described as ‘tech speak’ and agency comparisons follow but what often absolutely astounds me is that (in some situations, not all) there seems to be an overwhelming majority of agency workers, often in local authorities that are in serious trouble, having gained Ofsted’s dreaded ‘junk’ rating.

An exodus of stalwarts

The stalwart staff of such councils, some with 20 or more years’ service, have long since departed, leaving these rambling, gambling opportunists (of which I am one) a shot at the title. What always strikes me is what makes these people leave after so long in the job?

Social workers who have been loyal to their employer for so many years, have in many cases just upped sticks and just left everything they have known and gone to other local authorities. Most are in search of that feeling of professional pride and fulfilment that motivates social workers to do the job they do. Many are simply seeking an escape from the creeping sense of hopelessness that seems to pervade the team that they are currently in, hence their exit – ASAP.

The question we must ask ourselves as a profession is why is there frequently more agency workers than permanent staff in these departments? Why have things gone so wrong, that it has come to this?

A team of two halves

These committed staff have often been trained and sourced within the department and been loyal through thick and thin.

A team where there are a high number of agency staff are in effect not a real team, rather a team of two halves seeking sometimes different ends. Often this aim is to close or resolve cases as soon as possible as opposed to dealing with the human dynamics involved in a case, which takes time and means building lasting meaningful relationships with service users.

One such ‘gig’ I experienced recently was a children’s safeguarding team where surprise, surprise, Ofsted had visited and found the department to be somewhat lacking and demanded urgent improvement. Many long term staff had long since jumped ship. Others were in the process of doing so. Even the agency staff were walking out.

What I found even more disturbing about these situations was the management personnel. Often recruited from other neighbouring local authorities (many who also lie in ruins), they arrive on a mission to make the required “changes” needed to “turn things around”.

My experience of this process was strange and disturbing. You are subject to the customary rousing bullying business talk more appropriate to a blue chip multi-national than a local authority children’s services department.

Macho management posturing

I have heard this talk many times, bullish, aggressive and oh-so testosterone fuelled with macho posturing, regardless of the gender of the person delivering it. I have often found myself looking around the room wondering if it was filled with gentle, caring people or capitalist vultures picking the last pieces of flesh from the carcass?

Do these pep talks inspire the workforce? Quite the opposite. You either accept it as part of the game and wearily glaze over, or like me, you leave with a heavy heart and an inevitable sense of the reality of surrender to the ‘butchers block’ process that is contemporary case work.

It doesn’t have to be this way

After 10 years as a qualified socialwWorker, I know it doesn’t have to be this way. I know that, and management know that.

This pernicious culture of business-speak and trash talk that has infected our working lives for the last 20 years or so perhaps longer has to stop.

The current recruitment crisis in local authority social work is not the fault of the workers.

Years of under-investment, lack of general public understanding, negative media-driven politics are the cause. Canny politicians who know that social care does not generate votes are not interested in helping social workers.

One day I bit back at the latest Alan Sugar wannabe, giving both proverbial barrels about how the committed workers who lead with their heart and their conscience were all gone now the work had been reduced to a business transaction thanks to all the mercenaries (of which I admit I am one) such departments employ to sort out impossible situations.

The loyalty of agency staff?

Can agency staff really be 100% committed to a department they don’t know and have no loyalty to?

Local authorities need to realise that their shabby and abhorrent treatment of long term and loyal staff has lost them their most prized assets, their social workers.

How can local authorities improve, more importantly how can children and families improve with such instability in social work departments?

The current situation is crazy. There is no thought being given to long term stability and the answers that are so desperately needed, despite exorbitant wages being paid to management staff being brought in to solve this very problem, as well as massive agency worker wage bills.

Meanwhile, the first batch of agency staff have had enough and off they go, only to be replaced with more and more again and again so the door revolves and the mess just gets messier.

Why is there not national concerted thought about a long-term solution? Why not get committed staff on board to make the change and keep it that way and stop the decimation of local services under the guise that they’re not good enough.

If management treat social workers properly for once, they won’t lose dedicated staff. We can only bring about change if management respect our ability and help and support us.

Local authority social workers are more than good enough and they are waiting for pragmatic leaders who understand the reality of the job

Social Work Outlaw is an independent social worker and member of the British Association of Social Workers 

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