“Social workers are good at change – but we’re not fooled by it”

Be thankful for the innovation and creativity in the social care profession, but let's not have change for change's sake, argues Matt Bee

Photo: bahrialtay/Fotolia

How does it feel to be at the forefront of one of the world’s most innovative industries? That’s not a question to Mark Zuckerberg (co-founder and now chief executive of Facebook), that’s directed at you, a social worker in the UK.

It is genuinely hard to think of a more innovative, creative and exciting sector to work in right now. Some may scoff when I say that, but think about it. Far from social workers clinging to outmoded working practices, nothing could be further from the truth. Our profession changes year on year, transforming itself, moving forwards, leaving other vocations floundering in our wake.

Decade of change

Within this last decade we’ve brought telecare to disabled people, extra care to older people, replaced commissioned support with individual budgets, hospital wards with intermediate care – and that’s just in the adult sector. In the children’s sector right now there are no less than 53 projects receiving £100m through the Spring Consortium, each striving to transform children’s services.

And that’s before we consider the workforce. How you become a social worker constantly evolves. Diplomas gave way to degrees and now, thanks to the controversial Frontline programme, we’re dipping into high-flying graduate pools in search of recruits; 20% of the first intake came from Oxford and Cambridge.

So the very identity of social work is changing. But you already knew that. If there’s one thing that has shaped the workforce in recent years it’s this constant drive to professionalise. Only recently The College of Social Work arrived on the scene; and even more recently left again. Meanwhile we stopped registering with the General Social Care Council and had to sign with the Health and Care Professions Council instead.

If these overhauls feel a bit too much, it’s no good seeking refuge in your office. You’ll find your cubicle replaced with a hot-desking suite and, in some councils, your computer exchanged for a tablet. And if that makes you want to curse then watch your language – because that’s changing too. Social work’s vernacular is ever shifting, partly because we’re pioneers in political correctness and partly because everything we talk about keeps changing as well. One day we’ve got a primary care trust, the next a clinical commissioning group.

So don’t think we’re scared of innovation.

Social work and NASA

In fact if you need further proof, at a recent social work conference in Edinburgh it was suggested that we model some of our working practices – specifically how we handle mistakes – on no less an organisation than NASA.

So there’s no shortage of ambition when it comes to re-inventing ourselves. And in some cases it’s really paid off. Take individual budgets, for example. What a seismic shift in service delivery that was! For generations social workers doled out care services; then they all had to become accountants. And how did social workers react? They got on with it. In fact, more than that, they embraced it. I’m not saying we didn’t complain about the paperwork, but we didn’t complain about the idea. Giving service users more control was fine by us.

I don’t think enough credit is given to social workers for adapting to such a changing world, and not enough is given to local authorities for trying to change it.

But there is a caveat in all this. Where is the boundary, exactly, between innovation and just plain change? And are all changes for the better?

Without wishing to undermine the praise I’ve just handed out, I do think local authorities – and the government for that matter – can get carried away with initiative drives. On www.communitycare.co.uk this April, Ray Jones wrote about ‘frequent organisational churn’ and leadership which is ‘too excitable’.

I must confess I’m a little wary when a new specialist service rises from the depths labelled with a clever acronym, speaking a language that is in vogue, handing out glossy brochures. Such teams come and go with the whim of fashion. But then there are some, like the Street Triage service I’ve written about before, that genuinely make an impact. Distressed people are suddenly helped in the street, not whisked off for detention.

Proud of innovation

So for goodness sake let’s be thankful for the innovation. Let’s be proud of it. But at the same time – and I’m addressing our service leaders here – let’s not get carried away on tides of change. If at the root of this lies a hope we might discover a ‘magic potion’, as Jones puts it, then we’re on a hiding to nothing. Short-term gains never fix long-term problems.

Nothing demonstrates the point better than when children’s minister Edward Timpson wrote on www.communitycare.co.uk last year asking for innovative ideas from readers. A social worker responded: “How about giving us manageable caseloads?”

So, make no mistake. Social workers are good at change – but we’re not fooled by it.

Matt Bee is a social worker based in the north east of England

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3 Responses to “Social workers are good at change – but we’re not fooled by it”

  1. Andy West October 13, 2015 at 5:37 pm #

    It is interesting someone should propose NASA as a model for social care in the way it now deals with mistakes. In 1986 the space shuttle Challenger broke apart a short time after it launched. All crew members were killed. In the ensuing enquiry it was established that there were faults that had been identified in the construction of the rocket by engineers up to ten years previously. Their concerns had been disregarded by managers and the enquiry, the Rogers Commission, identified NASA’s organizational culture and decision making processes as key factors that led to the disaster. A key member of the commission was Richard Feynman who concluded “For a successful technology,reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” He considered that managers at NASA were over optimistic about the reliability of some components-up to a thousand fold more that their engineers-particularly in very cold conditions that obtained on the day of the launch.

    My understanding is that a consequence of this disaster was that NASA changed its practises away from a “blaming culture,” to a more learning culture where people could feel freer to express their views and admit their mistakes without the fear of the heavy hand of blame descending on them.

    In social care numerous enquiries have criticised social workers for their excessive optimism about the chances of parents being able to change their parenting. I have always thought that this criticism could also be levelled at managers who come up with new ideas for managing situations that are often quite simply the result of lack of resources. It’s like wrestling a very large balloon into a tiny box; no matter how you twist it round it can never quite fit in.

    In my view a culture has grown up in social care where, if anyone dares to question the latest idea or organisational restructure they are labelled as being resistant to change and consequently their views are dismissed. It is sometimes hard to accept the reality that social care cannot answer all problems unless there is going to be a remarkable change in social, cultural and political attitudes towards the disadvantaged.

  2. Gerald October 21, 2015 at 12:09 pm #

    Andy West October 13, 2015 at 5:37 pm #

    Totally agree Andy, I have been questioning the policy of “Caring for Elderly People in their own Homes ” for years, particulary when it comes it comes to palliative care.

    I have looked into this over the last twenty years and I have compared it with Hospital Care, Hospice care and Nursing Home care and as far as I am concerned there is not a cat in hells chance of this system working no matter what amount of money is thrown at it. It is not possible to achieve a 24/7 system in two 15 minutes a day visits and is also impossible to quality control this sytem in thousands of isolated situations.

    The Councils that are promoting this system have turned a blind eye to the failings of the system and are still actively promoting it.

  3. Yanalablog November 10, 2015 at 10:42 pm #

    I can only say it as I see it, the only thing common with Social Workers and NASA is one is on a different planet.

    Innovation, come on your having a laugh, it is tired, weak and lacking morale. There is no Leadership and the biggest problem Social Work has is it operates within Local Government.
    Councils are handicapped by Politicians and they should be governed by a board of Governers who are independent.

    I have had many a run in with Social Workers but I do have certain sympathies for they are not supported and their client ratio is to high and morale does not exist. They are burdened with paperwork and meetings and somethings has to slip. They live in fear for their jobs so when they make errors they cover up and tell lies. I am sorry but the Local Authority system does not work and budgets make the job harder.

    Social Workers live on the edge and they cannot accept criticism and so they fight back at the wrong people. If you are a Social Worker and feel unsupported please stand up for yourself and your clients. Report problems to your Union, complain to the Management in writing and follow it up. If you sit on your hands your industry will always be in free fall.

    Social Work requires resourced as there clients are the most vulnerable in society. Having said all that I am sorry to say that there some individuals that are unable to change. From a male perspective there is a serious hate by some Social Workers against Fathers. Yes there are some very violent Males but there are many good caring Fathers, the best advice I can give Social Workers is not to judge a book by its cover.

    Please when you are writing reports ensure they are not bias and one sided. If a specialist Practitioner tells you that Parental Alienation is involved in a case you are working with, please learn about PA before you make any judgements. PA is built on Foundations of lies and cover ups. So what you see is not what is happening within the Family dynamics. Unfortunately many Children have been abandoned in misery with the wrong Parent because a Social Worker wrote a bias report and was incapable of trying to understand the concept of PA.

    Please never lose the fact that it is all about the Children, some Parents use the Children as ammunition in a domestic war. Children are the most precious thing in the world, Children are not bad as many are damaged goods because of a bad Parent. Improve the life of Children by doing a better job and never lose the fact that PA is a difficult concept to prove so do not take sides. If you ever get the opportunity to go to a lecture by an experienced Specialist Practitioner in PA please invest your time and go along. Thousands of Children in the UK right now are living in fear and misery and are being brainwashed by a Parent to hate the other Parent. Only a fool will state that there is not such a thing as PA.

    I have fought PA foe over Four years and have met other Parents and Grandparents who have fought PA for twenty years. pA is Child abuse and the United Nations also described it as cruelty to Children.