‘Are social workers still the good guys?’

Blair McPherson responds to a recent Community Care article by a social worker who has 'gone agency'

Last month, social worker Matt Bee shared why he and many others are leaving local authorities to become agency workers. Not feeling valued, disliking the management style, and feeling unable to exercise one’s professional judgement were given as key reasons why social workers see locum work as a way to take back control.

Former social worker and director Blair McPherson is surprised the exodus has taken so long. He explains why he believes being a local authority social worker has never been so unrewarding.

Social work is no fun anymore

People go into social work because they want to make a difference and help people. As someone who qualified in the 80s and mainly practised in the 90s, I used to – mostly – feel that’s what I was doing. My main frustrations were the inflexibility of in-house services, the struggle to get a home help in the evenings, the total lack of day care at the weekends and the impossibility of getting any service on a bank holiday.

On the plus side, as a qualified professional if, in my opinion, an elderly person would benefit from two days a week day care or two home help visits to do a bit of shopping and cleaning, I could get it for them – no questions asked.

I could also offer them meals on wheels Monday to Friday and get a phone line installed and paid for. Getting a place in a local authority managed elderly person’s home was easy – too easy! And there were a large number of small local voluntary organisations providing luncheon clubs and volunteer visitors, all accessible by referral from a social worker.

Winners and losers

The winners were those whose quality of life was improved by a small amount of help and some companionship. The losers were those who were shunted into residential homes for the want of a seven-day service.

Eligibility criteria intended to standardise practise and shift resources to help elderly people remain in their own home sadly came along at the same time as severe budget cutbacks. This has resulted in extreme rationing, social workers having no discretion over decisions and having to say ‘no’ more often than ‘yes’.

But the real reason social work (with adults, at any rate) is no fun anymore is that it is no longer about developing a relationship and long term support; it’s about assessment and moving on to the next 20 cases.

Private sector ethos

When I did my MBA at the University of Birmingham, everyone on the course worked in the public sector. Whether from housing, the probation service, the Department for Social Security (DSS, which at the time was responsible for benefits and welfare) or social services – we were all clear about and shared the public sector ethos. What we wanted to do was make our bit of the public sector more business-like.

Little did we imagine that 20 years later, the language of competition, performance management, contracting and commissioning would be second nature to public sector managers.

We now work with the private sector, talk like the private sector and behave like private sector employers. Former private sector managers bring their ‘transferable’ management skills to social care management roles. The drive to make ‘the business’ more efficient and more ‘competitive’ has been achieved by imposing inferior terms and conditions of employment on staff.

Where once reorganisation and changing working practice were sold to staff on the basis that they would improve services for those accessing them, now senior managers make no such pretence. “We have no choice” they say, so there is no point in consulting staff – turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, after all.


Social work as a profession is based on a clear set of values. These include dignity, respect, independence and choice. Social workers put rights above risks, which is why we champion the rights of people with a learning disability and resist pressures to force elderly people into homes, and why our role in mental health assessments is vital.

In recent years, though, the emphasis has been on ‘choice’ above all other values. Vulnerable people are now ‘customers’ whose choices are apparently best facilitated by giving them the money so they can buy the services they want.

So what is the role of social workers in this ‘vision’?! I once explained to a student the difference between social services and the DSS was that they gave people money and we didn’t. Really, we all knew the difference was that they were the bad guys and we were the good guys. But none of those lines are clear anymore.

Blair Mcpherson is an ex-social worker, former director of community services, author and blogger

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One Response to ‘Are social workers still the good guys?’

  1. David Steare September 8, 2015 at 10:43 am #

    Blair Mcpherson has asked a question ‘Are Social Workers still the good guys’ that has had me struggling to answer in the affirmative for years now.

    Last year I decided that I was no longer a social worker when my p/t agency contract was terminated without any discussion by my children’s services employer with me about the reasons.

    However, the agency manager told me that the employer had cited these two reasons: 1. I had provided care to a parent; and 2. I had directed parents to internet resources. The employer had said that ‘we don’t do these things in our service’ and that what I had done was not up for negotiation. Even my line manager didn’t discuss the matters with me and the dozen or so families I was working with were either denied any further service or reallocated.

    So, I have a different perspective on the so-called benefits of working for a social care agency. I am now enjoying retirement on less money and occasionally get involved in relationship coaching. I cannot imagine working for any organisation as an employee again for “whoever pays the piper calls the tune”. So I am free to re-engage with and prioritise my own values and ethical practice, especially when I am working free for voluntary organisations.