‘Social workers are tied up by rules – is it time to start disobeying them?’

Rule-compliance is at the heart of modern social work even when the rules are wasteful, wrong and get in the way of good practice, writes Matt Bee

Green Human Figure Running from the Crowd of Gray Indifferent Humans
Photo: Maksym Protsenko/Fotolia

By Matt Bee

Nothing good ever comes from breaking the rules. We all know that. Except, of course: the end of apartheid in South Africa, the triumph of black civil rights in America, women getting the vote in the UK, and a great many other societal freedoms besides. Even the simple pleasure of tramping through countryside, exercising your right to roam, was in part thanks to mass act of trespass in the 1930s. So, actually, maybe the occasional transgression isn’t all that bad. The world would be a much worse place otherwise.

And social workers are, by their very calling of standing up for marginalised groups, more likely to challenge the rules than most. Just look at how members of our profession have taken to social media, even the streets, to protest against the cuts. A thousand curses rain down on Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne daily.

Disobedience, not defiance

But these petitions and protests aren’t really the same thing as the rule-breaking I mean. What I’m talking about here is an act of disobedience, not defiance – if we can distinguish the two. Waving a banner might not please the government, but it is allowed. Refusing to abide by the government’s rules, however, is something quite different – and a whole lot more serious.

One social worker recently found out quite how serious this was when she was suspended by the Health and Care Professions Council after disregarding the timescales imposed on her work. Instead, she had chosen to focus on quality.

There’s little point in getting into the rights and wrongs of her specific case. You can read the details for yourself. But it does raise the question: when is it okay – indeed, is it ever okay – to break the rules?

Duty to follow protocol

In our increasingly regulated workplace, this is what our job boils down to – abiding by the rules. We’re compelled to prioritise one task over the other, fill out a form, make a phone call, send an email, attend a meeting – and all because it falls in line with a pre-ordained and officially sanctioned methodology. Never mind, if we know full well that the methodology is flawed. Never mind, if our own professional judgement, hewn from years of working directly with service users and their families, is pulling us one way. If a protocol is pulling in the opposite direction, we are duty-bound to follow.

And, yet, there’s always the chance that the protocol is wrong.

No value to client 

At the very idea, bureaucrats might well bridle. But the truth is, thanks to all this increased regulation, social workers often find themselves in truly lamentable situations, wasting time on administrative tasks that add little or no value to the client. The hours I’ve lost recording meaningless information onto a database that no-one, and I mean no-one, is ever going to read… and all because it helped the department limp ever closer to meeting a key performance indicator.

Is there sometimes a higher calling, maybe even a responsibility to refuse?

Responsibility to refuse

If we earnestly believe rigid timescales, mountains of paperwork and over-zealous regulation to be wrong, should we work within the system in the hope of changing it, or should we just outright reject the practice – like our colleague?

That may mean a smaller action than you’d think. It may mean doing something as simple as going home on time instead of staying late to fill out all the paperwork. But, because we dutifully buckle down, work extra hours, and provide all the information asked of us, the requests keep coming for yet more. Another form, another process, another procedure, another timescale – when will it end?

Enough is enough

Perhaps when social workers start turning round and saying enough is enough. Perhaps when other social workers feel compelled to break the rules. Perhaps when we put priorities – like our own personal welfare – ahead of filling out forms and marching to timescales.

Again, I’m not suggesting a mass rebellion. This isn’t a call to arms. It’s just an acknowledgement that the only thing supporting this highly regulated, process driven, goal-orientated practice is our willingness to comply with it. Of course, to break the rules would be brave, maybe even reckless and irresponsible. But what if the rules are wrong?

The whole system rests on the unquestioned assumption that the rules are right. But when you look at the convoluted ways in which we’re forced to work, how wasteful it is, and the toll on the workforce all desperately trying to keep in step, I question that.

Maybe the rules are wrong, and maybe breaking them, sometimes, is the right thing to do?

Matt Bee is a social worker and writer based in the North East


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10 Responses to ‘Social workers are tied up by rules – is it time to start disobeying them?’

  1. Inside Airstrip One April 28, 2016 at 11:02 am #

    Matt, I think you should lead by example and let us know how it goes.

  2. Jenni Randall May 3, 2016 at 1:16 pm #

    I think it should be a call to arms. How we can continue to work within rules that clearly prevent us from doing a decent job and actually making a difference for our clients is beyond me. Fear for our job does is not a good way of producing effective outcomes nor is political cowardice

  3. David Steare May 3, 2016 at 2:57 pm #

    Summary extract from my brother’s book ‘Ethicability (p.33):

    “Rule Compliance:
    – Philosophers call it ‘deontology’;
    – What’s right is what’s legal; our legal rights and duties; justice as fairness;
    – We act as moral infants;
    – As seen mostly within business and remote transactions;
    – The weaknesses are:
    we stop thinking for ourselves;
    too many rules create more rule-breaking;
    too many rules stifle creativity.”

  4. H May 3, 2016 at 7:11 pm #

    I agree, we are all in the same position. How can we work together to bring social work back?

  5. Emma May 3, 2016 at 8:40 pm #

    I just wrote my masters dissertation on exactly this subject. I completely believe professional discretion for the benefit of the service user should be celebrated over the achievement of managerial targets. But then perhaps I am just a naive student. Haha

  6. Ruth Cartwright May 4, 2016 at 11:04 am #

    I think we could break the rules – but very carefully. For example if we can’t meet laid down timescales, we record why we cannot do so and make sure our line manager knows about the high workload or emergency that has prevented us from doing so. Careful study of Human Rights legislation can lead to us being able to justify breaching local regulations about funding of services to older or disabled people (eg forcing them into residential care because a care package would be too expensive would breach their right to a family and home life). But it’s a difficult road to follow on your own.

  7. Anita Singh May 4, 2016 at 12:48 pm #

    It’s more than my job’s worth!

  8. Blair Mcpherson May 4, 2016 at 4:39 pm #

    What specific rules? How do they conflict with best practice? Do you mean keeping recording up to date or completing assessments within time scales? I’m in favour of professional discression but one person’s discression can be another bias/ favouritism. I think social workers should challenge and advocate, I think that’s part of being professional but how does it help your client if you don’t get your court report in on time, or if you refuse to fill in forms and jump through hoops to get them a grant/placement/ move up the waiting list?

  9. Ellie May 9, 2016 at 9:29 pm #

    A delightful post – in more ways than one! I’m not just pointing to the fact that this article is well-written and thus easy to read; I am highlighting the fact that it raises hugely pertinent questions for the future of the Social Work profession.

    Right, I’ll get this out into the open from the start – I am probably what some might wish to label a “rule breaker”. I question all the time. This comes from a deep-seated desire to do the best for service-users, and to ensure that the support and care they receive is tailored to meet their needs. However, there may be times when one becomes aware that a service deficiency exists, or of the fact that existing services do not meet the full needs of a particular client group. What does one do then? In my opinion, one should be free to speak up. But what if this is perceived as being a “rule breaker”; what if it’s perceived as criticising or questioning the powers-that-be in a way which is considered “unacceptable? Sometimes, we may become conscious of the fact that bureaucracy is making our job difficult, or that paperwork is taking up too much time. Again, I believe that we ought to be free to raise such issues, and flag such problems. But, what if this again places us in the negative light of “rule breaker”, or “inappropriate questioner”? Is it not better to toe the party line? After all, our jobs could depend on it!

    THAT is the irony, as far as I am concerned. Our jobs may well depend upon toeing a party line that nobody really understands, and that some people even regard as somewhat less than beneficial. After all, it is NOT the Social Work workforce who decide how things are to be done. Such decisions are often made by people in positions who have little or no contact with service-users on a day-to-day basis. Some of the people making these decisions do not even have any experience of, or qualifications in, Social Work! These decisions are made by bureaucrats. Yet we are to believe that they know best.

    But, how DO we know what is best – what works best – if we do not question? How do we know if what we are told is best, IS actually best? How do we know if service-users see it as best? Social Work should be about incorporating a multitude of knowledge and experiences – drawn from training, drawn from life experience, drawn from reflective practice and supervision, drawn from listening to service-users’ opinions and experiences… In this respect, could we even argue that there is any definitive “best”?

    My point – which I’m sorry if it’s taking me time to put across – is that this is an issue of perspective, and perspective in relation to practice. It is about the bureaucratic perspective on best practice, versus the actual practitioner’s perspective. It is also about the issue of convenience when it comes to evaluating “best practice”. Allow me to explain…

    If we accept that all Social Work practitioners are individual human beings, then one could argue that no two Social Workers will be identical. Thus, all Social Workers may well vary in the way in which they practice. This is because they will be bringing into their respective jobs different life experiences, different levels of academic ability, different training experiences and qualifications, different motivations for doing the job, different perspectives… Each and every Social Worker will have different strengths, and different weaknesses. Whilst one may be excellent at writing reports, another may be better at networking for new contacts and new service-providers. Whilst one may be naturally empathic and easy for service-users to talk to, another may be very detail-orientated and focussed upon collecting all the evidence before making decisions. Each of the things that all different workers bring into the workplace – in terms of personal qualities, life experience, qualifications, and so forth – may be a strength when utilized effectively and harnessed in the correct fashion. However, this requires that managers and employing organizations get to grips with the notion that their workforce ARE all individuals, and therefore require individualized treatment (in much the same way that service-users do). It necessitates individualized training, individualized performance reviews, individualized career progression pathways… It also necessitates that employing organizations recognize, and accept, that staff have individualized ways of working with service-users.

    Now, there is a downside to this – from the bureaucratic perspective. Treating ALL staff fairly as individuals is both costly, and time-consuming. It also means that a job – the way a job is undertaken – becomes very difficult to standardize. This, in turn, makes it nigh impossible to undertake things like performance reviews, or evaluations of how effectively services are functioning. Or so the bureaucrats think! In seeking to ensure that workplaces can be monitored; that staff can be monitored; that service provision can be monitored… bureaucrats seek to find some way of doing this as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible. Bureaucracies tend to pride themselves on being both standards-orientated, and efficient. Bureaucracies tend to believe that rules make things easier.

    Here’s the irony – and my major point! Research has demonstrated that when workplaces become increasingly bureaucratized, they tend to lose many of their most talented and/or experienced staff. This is because:

    A) NO member of staff tends to like to see rules imposed which do not appear to make sense, and have rarely been fully explained, and which come from goodness-knows-where…

    B) Where rules are arbitrarily imposed upon staff of any organization, those staff may come to the conclusion that they do NOT get any say in the rules. This can lead to employees feeling demeaned and demoralized; it infantalizes adult staff, by giving them the messages that they were not worth consulting (perhaps because the bureaucrats did not value what they might have to say), and must just “put up, shut up and get on with it”. Very few people actively enjoy being dictated to in this manner; and again, it may make talented staff members feel as though nobody values their insight and experience.

    Still, from the bureaucratic perspective, the ability of a member of staff to follow rules is a “godsend”. Once rules are in place, it means that an organization or workplace has targets, and policies. Both of which are to be followed, and met. By imposing targets, and dictating policies, bureaucrats ensure that information and statistical data can be collected – about services, organizations, and individual members of staff. As far as the bureaucrats are concerned, the information and data that they collect permits them to see whether services, organisations, and members of staff are “functioning correctly”. What this means, in a nutshell, is “are they meeting targets and following policy and procedure?”.

    Bureaucracy equates meeting preordained targets (however arbitrary the setting of those targets may have been), and the following of rules with a “job well done”. However, the irony of this is that excessive bureaucracy does NOT always equate with a “job well done”. Indeed, it can lead to exactly the opposite. Where workers at “grass roots” level – people who are actually doing the job – begin to see that perhaps the rules are ineffective, or inaccurate, or inconsistent (where the rules don’t work) they begin to question and become dissatisfied. People are not going to see the point in trying to meet targets, or in trying to follow policies and procedures, if such things do not actually work where they are supposed to work.

    The staff on the ground, as it were, have a different insight into the nature of the work that they do, compared to the bureaucrats. And THIS is the crux of the problem; as I stated earlier, this is an issue of perspective. The staff who do the job on a day-to-day basis actually witness first-hand what works with service-users and what does not. THEY are usually the first to hear when a service-user is either satisfied, or dissatisfied, with a service or care-package. Thus, it is actually the staff, and not the bureaucrats, who hold the crucial information which is vital to ensuring that services and service-provision meets the needs of the service-users it is to be there for. Furthermore, service-users themselves are also holders of valuable insights and information.

    This is where I have to confess that I agree that yes, there may be a “higher calling” than simply slavish adherence to bureaucracy. You can call me naïve and idealistic, if you like, but I firmly believe that the purpose of Social Work is to best attempt to meet the needs of service-users. Thus, services must be provided to meet these needs. Services must be appropriate and accessible. They must be welcoming, non-judgmental and supportive. Service-provision should also be flexible and adaptable – continually evolving to meet changes in need, or to fill gaps where provision for a specific need did not previously exist. This CANNOT be achieved by mere adherence to targets, and to rules and regulations. For services to actually WORK – both for staff and service-users – the targets, rules and regulations (where they exist) HAVE to be meaningful. They HAVE to be relevant to the service and task in question. They also have to be achievable, practical and sustainable. In sum, they HAVE to have been contributed to, and agreed upon, by a combination of bureaucrats, staff and service-users. NO one group has the automatic right to impose upon others – not rules, not regulations, nor targets, nor ideologies… Instead, all such things should be developed by CONSENSUS and COOPERATION. The bureaucrats working hand-in-hand with Social Services organizations and other service-providers; with staff groups, Unions and individual staff members (especially “whistleblowers”, who may have something really important and valuable to say); with service-user groups and individual service-users.

    After all, our country IS a DEMOCRACY. Isn’t that what democracy is all about? Surely democracy applies within the workplace, as much as in any other sphere of life?