‘Practice leadership is not about fighting the system – it’s about influence and reflection’

'Making a difference' can feel like challenging the system but it isn't always the big bang ideas that lead to change, says Liz Shaw

By Liz Shaw, principal social worker, Barnet

How many social workers would say that sometimes ‘the system’ stops them achieving the very objectives it is supposed to promote? Since becoming principal social worker (PSW) for Barnet Council, a job and a journey I began nine months ago, I’ve started to see this paradox as being at the heart of my role.

The PSW role, which was one of the recommendations in Munro’s 2011 review, is intended to provide leadership for social work practice within each local authority. We are still directly involved in practice and also represent the voice of frontline workers to all levels of management.

I have thought long and hard about how I can use this opportunity – working at the interface between practice, practitioners and the organisation/’the system’ – to help achieve the best results for vulnerable children and families, and ensure practice expertise and skills are developed.

Yes, part of this is about championing good practice. There is much good practice happening in Barnet, as there is all over the country. The excellent or substantially improved outcomes for children and families and the many modest ‘business as usual’ successes are largely unsung and unreported.

‘Testing times’

So, I could write a straightforward ‘good news’ story for Community Care, but for me, talking about positive social work is more complex. Good practice arises from a web of factors working together rather than a straight cause and effect. ‘Making a difference’ is something of a slippery fish – we are grappling with sometimes appallingly complex work in testing times for the public sector and it can often feel like good results are squeezed out of not very fertile ground.

Those of us who have spent many years at the front line understand that as well as work done well, there is the disappointment of missed opportunities to do more or do it better. When these chances are thwarted by the system itself, it is especially disappointing.

How can we as social workers really effect changes to the system? As a principal social worker I have the opportunity to consider the system in both micro and macro terms, how staff relate to it, and vice versa. This means providing challenge, facilitating discussion that hears a wide range of voices and perspectives (including from children and families), reflecting the themes and trends back from this to both leaders and practitioners and using this to nurture practice.

‘Renewed energy’

Audit can be a bit of a dirty word but we are finding ways to make it meaningful here. Audit enables us to celebrate good work taking place and quickly correct things where they are going less well. Audits take place monthly and we use a mixed range of approaches; deep-dive looking at cases in detail, thematic audits focusing on one area of practice or shorter audits to pick up issues quickly.

Despite their initial anxieties about having this extra level of oversight on their cases, social workers have said that time talking with the auditor (who could be a team manager from a different team, senior manager or even the director) has given them a precious space for reflection, allowed them to think about the case in a new way and renewed their energy to take on the tasks to move things forward.

Audit also includes asking families for feedback about what has been helpful. Each auditor telephones the family and speaks to the parent and sometimes the child. This approach is helping to develop a culture where families’ views will be considered when decisions are made about how we improve our practice and procedures. One of the things that comes out most often is how much they value the relationship with their social worker.

One mother said they her daughter’s social worker is “absolutely wonderful – genuinely caring and supportive” despite the difficult issues in the case. Comments like this help motivate social workers when cases and the demands of the job feel more difficult. We also act on what families say is not working, for example in another case a family told us about the impact delays in receiving support were having on their family life. This prompted the social worker to challenge the agency where the hold up was and take more steps to re-engage the family in the plan.

‘Not fighting the system’

Practice leadership in social work should not be about fighting the system. Social workers know there are rarely straightforward answers to problems. Accepting the complexity means working to understand the ongoing dynamics of the component parts and variety of the workplace environment and out in the field, and the patterns of behaviours and activities that make success more or less likely. We can then influence and persuade. It’s not big bang stuff and I know it doesn’t sounds as sexy but just chipping away at the mountain to improve the competence and confidence of frontliners and the framework they work in is a long term way to ‘stand up for social work’.

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One Response to ‘Practice leadership is not about fighting the system – it’s about influence and reflection’

  1. David Steare February 5, 2016 at 1:53 pm #

    I’m so pleased that I retired last year and that I no longer have to engage in any kind of justificatory theorising to work as a social worker for a neoliberal regime.

    My understanding of complexity science suggests that the current authoritarianism afflicting social work via neoliberal managerialism is doomed to extinction. Systems develop via creativity and innovation (cf. Agile Management). Systemic development proceeds by replacing the current with the new. Where control is exerted over a whole system, the system is eventually extinguished and/or replaced by another more viable system (cf. Viable Systems Model). So the GSCC was replaced by HCPC who will soon be replaced in turn by the education secretary, and so on…

    I can’t remember the last time the social work profession fought against a murderous (cf. IDS’ DWP cutting benefits to 2500 people found ‘fit for work’ prior to their deaths) economic system or any kind of system – has it ever done?