When did social workers become too afraid to be awkward?

Blair McPherson says social workers have a duty to tell senior managers and politicians the truth about the impact of cuts

Social workers have a proud history of being part of the awkward squad. Asking awkward questions, telling senior managers what they don’t want to hear and presenting the inconvenient truth to politicians about their proposals and policies.

Social workers can make those removing services from vulnerable people feel uncomfortable with their graphic case examples of exactly what this will mean to a frail elderly person left cold, hungry and frightened in a urine soaked bed.

Social workers have a set of professional values that it’s hard to disagree with and even harder to square with budget cuts, zero based contracts and 15 minute “pop-in” calls.


So it’s not surprising that a government set on cost-cutting, “modernising” and shrinking the public sector should view social workers as obstacles to progress.

Social workers are in good company; teachers, nurses and now junior doctors are considered part of this awkward squad.

Whenever a profession is being awkward they are accused of resisting change, undermining efficiency initiatives and holding back the modernisation process.

Any claims to have the interests of patients/pupils/clients or service users at heart are dismissed and instead presented as self-interest.

Their professional experience and insight are not valued and their professional values are considered secondary to party political values of choice, competition and cost.

Duty to speak up

Professionals have a duty to speak up on behalf of their patients/clients yet a range of strategies adopted by employers and the government can make many afraid to do so.

These include using threats of dismissal or conduct investigation, inspection regimes and investigations that are about naming and shaming and not improvement, asserting unqualified staff could carry out much of the role at a fraction of the cost, underfunding services and putting jobs at risk, eroding pension entitlements and enforcing a pay freeze.

These strategies are used against a range of professionals but every time one group is undermined and bullied into submission it makes it easier the next time the government wants to impose its will and silence dissenting voices.

Are we willing to be discounted?

If social workers are not willing to stand up and defend those who will suffer and allow their inconvenient views be discounted, devalued and dismissed, then what is left?

The unchallenged views of ministers and a prime minister who orchestrates huge spending  cuts and then asks his local council why they are closing libraries and cutting services to vulnerable adults.

Blair McPherson is a former social worker and director of social services. He is now an author and blogger. www.blairmcpherson.co.uk

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7 Responses to When did social workers become too afraid to be awkward?

  1. Alex Boorman November 25, 2015 at 8:44 pm #

    When will social workers get it, that their role is that of social policeman in cases too messy for the conventional police (children and families, mental health), or gate-keeping pots of State money (needs assessments etc of elderly/disabled etc). And that is it. All the rest of it is just bells and whistles, stuff we tell ourselves (‘I practice anti-oppressively, hurrah for me’) in order to feel better about doing what we have to do, to salve our conscience about being an agent of State control.

    Stop pretending to be these Übermensch ‘champions of social justice’. It’s pompous, self-aggrandizing and about as convincing as a four year old in a Batman costume. Social workers have no right, responsibility, or authority – be that moral, legal or personal – to challenge a democratically elected government. The means by which this must be done is that little old thing called the ballot box, not a group of unaccountable employees happy to be on the payroll of the State while simultaneously moaning endlessly about it.

  2. Jo Mclaughlin November 26, 2015 at 1:52 pm #

    Dear Alex, whilst not exactly feeling the love of my profession from the tone of your email I would like to point out that the role of social workers is multi faceted and it is to some degree clear that we are agents of the state in our statutory roles to manage child protection, mental health assessments and to some extent in gatekeeping access to services.
    However, as usual the government does speak with forked tongue, it has enshrined person centred self directed assessment and support in the Care Act, identified the need to provide advocates to help people navigate the system. Our work around Best Interest, capacity and MHA assessments and also Appropriate adults is strongly influenced by protecting the rights, choices and dignity of individuals at difficult times in their lives.
    Our role has always, and hopefully will always be to support people to manage their lives, effect change,to engage in services and improve outcomes for individuals and families.
    We now have a statutory duty to Safeguard adults at risk in society as well as children. So when it becomes apparent in the course of our work that domestic violence is on the increase, poverty leading to use of food banks , depression, suicide, homelessness and offending behaviour and far too many indicators to deal with here are all on the increase and that the link between austerity and cuts are instrumental in this deterioration then we do have a duty of care to raise those issues, empower clients to raise those issues and develop community networks to challenge the status quo.
    I could almost guarantee that most of my clients did not vote for this government and its austerity measures, and if you really believe that the only agent for change is the ballot box then I believe that you are sadly ill informed.
    There is indeed an element of state control in our work, but I clearly believe that we can choose to do our job in a dignified and respectful manner without having to resort to blaming the poor, the elderly or those with mental health problems and other care and support needs for their own circumstances. Austerity is ruining lives and I for one have no intention of accepting the propaganda and indoctrination which seeks to tell me how I should discharge my professional responsibilities. I will fill in your forms and tick your boxes but we are and have always been the last safety net to protect people from experiencing the brunt of poverty and disadvantage in a society which seeks to marginalise them.
    Jo Mc Liverpool

  3. Ruth Cartwright November 26, 2015 at 1:54 pm #

    I completely disagree with Alex Boorman and do agree with Blair. The main part of a social workers’ job is to improve the quality of life of those in need, nothing pompous and self aggrandising about that. In order to do so, we do have to involve ourselves in protesting about government and local policies (whatever party is putting them forward) which will lead to suffering for service users. And one way of helping is to tell our bosses and those at higher levels who hold the purse strings and decide on the allocation of resources what the implications of their policies are. They need to know the very real discomfort and loss of dignity their decisions are causing. Sharing this information is in fact very democratic – if the general public know what the needs are and how cuts are affecting individuals, they can vote in a more well-informed way.

    I do have a concern that while social workers may well share information with their managers and up the chain, at some level this does not get passed on to the politicians by those who do not want to be the bearer of bad news and want to collude with disinformation that social care is well funded and just needs to use its resources more smartly.

  4. David Bronn November 26, 2015 at 4:38 pm #

    Alex Boorman understates the role of a social worker – one cannot intervene in people’s lives, or gate keep money, without a decent set of principles/values and ethics, which, in a sense, enables one to work towards social justice. That is not pompous, I feel. Further, the idea that a democratically elected government should not be challenged is not logical – surely challenging it continues the democratic process itself? His argument is the equivalent of giving someone a job, but not challenging subsequent poor performance or practice. Or, in fact, reacting when you discover that there was an element of smoke in their application form! What is difficult is challenging the system when you are ‘in’ the system. However, paradoxically, one is also more able to challenge from within. Hard times, though.

  5. Sharon Taylor November 26, 2015 at 6:56 pm #

    “Many people, especially ignorant people, want to punish you for speaking the truth, for being correct, for being you…
    Never apologize for being correct, or for being years ahead of your time. If you’re right and you know it, speak your mind. Speak your mind. Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.” Ghandi
    The challenge that we have in SW is feeling SAFE to speak the truth..to feel able to speak the truth, be listened to and be consulted to find possible solutions to create positive change. Bright, enthusiastic SWs come into the profession who are taught the ethos of good practice, delivering a quality service,…then they are overwhelmed with unrealistic caseloads and taught how to compromise good practice and taught to accept that this is ok……time for a change in culture….

  6. A. Jones November 26, 2015 at 7:58 pm #

    Well said Jo, I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately I hear more and more social workers like Alex who have a depressingly narrow view of the profession and the positive affect it can have in people’s lives.

    The clear link between the government’s austerity agenda and the suffering of vulnerable people means that we would be remiss in our duty as professionals not to speak up. We’d also be remiss in our duty as decent human beings.

    Human rights and dignity are at the core of social work and unfortunately the public understanding of this is very limited and this element of our work has been drastically eroded the past decades. The additional duties heaped upon local authorities are perverse given that most authorities are barely keeping basic services running.

    If social workers aren’t speaking up for vulnerable people then the world’s gone mad and we can only thank Dave and Gideon for that.

  7. Mary Casey November 30, 2015 at 4:33 pm #

    As always with such commentary (which I aggree with) I find it interesting that the author of the main article Blair mc Pherson is a FORMER Social worker and FORMER Director of Social Services.

    Kind Wishes
    An old footsoldier– in more ways than one!!!!

    Mary Casey