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