Watch: Eileen Munro on bureaucracy, blame and building a better future for social work

Author of landmark child protection review delivered seminar for Frontline

Professor Eileen Munro

Professor Eileen Munro, whose influential review of child protection was published in 2011, delivered a seminar for social work training scheme Frontline last week. Watch Professor Munro’s talk in full above and read some of her key points below.

Munro on…


“[In my review] I was critical of what had developed over the previous decades. It was looking at social work as if it was a technical, rational process. It was as if you as a social worker were some kind of robot that went off to a home, collected information then went back and sat in front of a computer to type it into. I want to talk about how radically wrong that is about human beings and the nature of social work practice.”

“One of the great dangers of the managerialist approach is that we’ve forgotten…how much the human relationship pervades the whole process of trying to engage and work with a family. Your job is not to write beautiful reports and lovely essays. It is to make life different for children.”


“A colleague of mine described the shift from uncertainty to risk management as the point at which someone gets responsibility for managing uncertainty. That responsibility has been handed to social workers and I think that we haven’t expressed clearly enough what is a reasonable level of managing uncertainty.

“We end up with people having too high an expectation and then too vitriolic an attack when we don’t live up to that expectation. And the anxiety of that whole area of blame paralyses the whole system of social work in very important ways at the moment. Changing the narrative around that and getting a better understanding is key.”


“It struck me how very pathological the whole system is to have that anxiety running through [social work]. What we need is to get the ability to have standards about good enough practice that takes account the circumstances. A decision made at 3am in a crisis should be judged by different standards than a decision made after three group meetings and a long time to think it through.

“Until we have that kind of professional security, you will find people being defensive in their practice. It’s very difficult to keep a clear focus on the safety of children when you’re frightened about yourself. We must stop people judging us when they have the benefit of hindsight and they are only looking at information through that lens, which is totally distorting.”


“You should be able to come back from a difficult interview and know where your colleagues are and who you can go and talk to…If you just have to come back to a room full of people [you don’t know] sitting typing on a computer then you have to hold all that emotion inside you, you start taking it home at night, you start getting burnout.”

“[Good working environments] matter partly for your mental health but also for the quality of the help you give a family. By getting a better understanding of how you’re reacting to them, you get a better understanding of what might be going on and how you can work with them. So the impact for children will be greater if we’re providing this sort of help to staff.”


“Social work with child protection used to be the elite part of social work. Back in the 1980s and 90s it was very difficult to get a job in child protection because when people got one they stayed there. The teams around London would’ve been full of people who had been in post for years and years.

“That demoralisation of the staff is a direct response to managerialism not recognising the nature of the work that you need to do with families. To me, the need to challenge the work conditions that we need is one of the important tasks ahead. To get a very strong narrative on why we need to have these supports. That they are not because you’re fluffy and silly and need extra care, it’s because you’re doing more challenging work.”

Assessment timescales

“The concept of timeliness really matters because what we know is that when people are faced with difficult decisions, most human beings just put off the decision, so it’s about drift.

“But it has to be about timeliness relative to the needs of a particular child. The idea that seven days is enough for everyone is nonsense. We need the principal of timeliness to influence our thinking, but it should not be there is any fixed timescale. The reality is [in the past] that became overriding. People called an assessment completed because they got to the seventh day. They got it the wrong way round.”


“I don’t think the problem [of bureaucracy] is the local authority. I think the problem was the central government prescription of what people should do and I think it’s a bit of a cheek of them to dump the blame on local authorities. I don’t have strong feelings [but] I do object to the idea of Virgin Care making profit from taking kids out of families.”


“What I’m concerned about is the tendency to think research is an easy answer. Research is valued because of the hard work and rigour that went into how it was developed. The findings you have confidence in because of how they were reached. If you then take a Ladybird view to the findings and think they’re very simple to use, then you destroy the benefit of how the research was done.”


“I think your final exams for your training course do that. I’m not sure why you should have more. I haven’t looked at it closely, of what it is like and whether it is sensible. It is something I feel I don’t know enough about to form a view but I have a slight puzzlement as to why it’s necessary because I think your basic training should be to get you there and cut out the people who haven’t got it.”


“Since my review, something good has happened but it’s so invisible nobody really notices it apart from me. And that is when there have been horrible stories in the newspapers, the government has not come out with any horrible statements. They have not been saying ‘heads will roll, someone’s to blame’.

“They have been keeping quiet. It would’ve been great if they’d actually been supportive but being quiet is a lot better than Ed Balls [education secretary at the time of the Baby P scandal] saying ‘sack the director’.”


“This is a really exciting time to be in social work despite the funding cuts. We have this chance that we must try and use.

“We mustn’t just end up bickering among ourselves because, as my final point, the aim of all of this is not to improve the status of social work – it is to improve the quality of help we can give to children. My hope is we’ll get to the point where children [we’ve worked with] are just very glad a social worker came into their lives.”

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5 Responses to Watch: Eileen Munro on bureaucracy, blame and building a better future for social work

  1. David Conway May 4, 2016 at 2:18 pm #

    Qualified Social Worker since 1991. CQSW. Dip Social. Youngest on my course was age 25. the oldest age 54. Maturity and life experience was and is major factor in the ability to make safer assessments. My hart goes out too the kids that are now on the front line. The door is closed for someone like me to get into Social Work. In July I will be 60 and I will be pleased that my working life is coming to a close. However I regret the only quality you need in Social Work today is the ability to write good essays and keep I.T up to date. Social Workers will continue to be the whipping professional’s, as it’s a easy target for policy makers who failed to deliver over many years.
    Regards David Conway

  2. C Rands May 4, 2016 at 7:15 pm #

    I agree with Eileen Monroe about the need for a office environment that supports the individual social workers, their teams, and managers .
    My LA have a desk share policy. The office is large, open plan, and can have up to 100 staff using it at any one time. It means it is difficult to talk on the telephone, and does not lead itself to engaging families on the phone who perhaps need to talk confidentially or require an in depth response to their phone call.
    U often end up sitting outside your teams desk allocation as there are no seats. U do not have the opportunity always to discuss practice with colleagues
    The worst thing for myself was the incessant noise of keyboards, mobile phones, office phones, and elevated voice noise, which often affected your concentration.
    Unfortunately this was one of the main areas responsible for my leaving and taking early retirement.
    Prior to this my team had a small office with desks for six worker, there was always someone there to listen to your concerns regarding your case load and your practice. You had an identity. This disappeared completely on the move to the new building.

  3. Ellie May 4, 2016 at 8:16 pm #

    I think a lot of what Eileen Monroe has stated makes real sense. It’s about time that the issue of Social Work – and by that, I mean defining what the job is about, and looking at ways to improve recruitment and retention as well as morale – became truly important to the Government and to society as a whole.

    I firmly believe that people, and societies, can be extremely ignorant and that this can affect societal views regarding jobs and professions. Social Work is, to me, one of those professions which has come in for far too much of a beating; much of this seems to be to do with the fact that most lay people do not really seem aware of what Social Workers actually do – nor are Social Work managers, and nor are the Government. For far too long, Social Workers got a negative press. They seemed to me to be the “whipping boys” for everyone else – blamed for failings that were NOT their alone.

    Many years ago I posted online that I felt Social Workers hands were tied by too much burocracy, that they were always caught between “a rock and a hard place”. I felt that they were being pressured to undertake increasing amounts of paperwork and tick-box assessments, which distracted them from the real job of caring for dysfunctional families and disadvantaged individuals. I cited the “Baby P” and “Climbie” cases as examples where Social Workers were punished and vilified by the media, by Government and by society whilst the role that others had to play seemed to be forgotten or overlooked. We ought not to forget that NHS staff also had a huge amount of involvement in both cases – Nurses, Doctors… these people too could have attempted to halt the abuse that Climbie and Baby P faced. However, when the media released the story, the blame seemed to fall mostly on Social Workers. The NHS appeared to escape blame.

    This highlights another problem that Social Workers face, as far as I am concerned – they are separated from the NHS. All other care staff and caring professions are generally employed by the NHS (or sometimes privately). Nurses, Doctors, Physiotherapists, Speech & Language Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Dieticians… ALL are predominantly NHS employees. The NHS staff when faced with a crisis tend to club together to protect each other – we have seen this many times in examples such as “Mid Staffs”. Even where genuine wrongdoing has taken place, NHS workplaces often seem to have an attitude in which they seek to cover up all evidence of NHS errors, and look to somebody else to blame. It appears to me that Social Workers, if involved, often take this blame. Because they are separate from the NHS, which is a HUGE organization, it becomes VERY easy for NHS staff to shove the blame onto Social Services staff when care fails or when things go wrong. What they all seem to forget is that in cases where the NHS and Social Services are working together, they have a JOINT responsibility for any care that a patient receives. Care packages should be effectively put together and coordinated between the NHS and Social Services, with BOTH sides fully understanding just what integrated working actually means.

    I think, also, that because Social Work is separate from the NHS it receives less publicity, less attention and less funding even though it does a really important job and provides services that the NHS could not cope without. The lack of support, resources and funding that the Social Work profession receives means that morale may well be negatively affected – after all, a job is not easy to do when one is short-staffed and struggling to manage budget cuts that affect service delivery. Still, I often wonder if NHS staff actually understand this; their funding is often ring-fenced in ways that Social Services funding is not. However, without the services that Social Work provides, the NHS would struggle to function. After all, who is responsible for hospital discharge and home care? For community mental health and learning disability provision? For assessment of need and provision of home care services to the elderly or people with dementia? For forensic psychiatric services, and youth offending services? It seems to me that the NHS (and the Government) appear to forget that the NHS could not deliver effective services in these areas without Social Services assistance. So, WHY is Social Work so little cared about and respected and supported in comparison to the NHS, when actually Social Work is just as important a profession and provides services which underpin and complement what the NHS provides?

    I have seen at work what I personally consider to be examples of the very best type of Social Work, and the very worst. I have worked in one workplace where my manager and team were supportive, proactive and genuinely dedicated. My manager understood the need for regular supervision, and encouragement of reflective practice and ongoing learning. He had an “open door” policy in regard to his office – if you wanted advice or to “brainstorm” a case, then you simply had to ask and he would provide time to do this. He took an active interest in the welfare of his staff and understood what duty of care meant. He fought hard for us to retain good office space and facilities in the face of cuts. He held regular team meetings, encouraging us to speak up for ourselves and to put new ideas forwards. He was progressive and forward thinking in respect of the way he worked, and encouraged this in his staff. He was good at bringing out our strengths, and highlighting training that would benefit us.

    By contrast, I worked in another post that highlighted the very worst aspects of Social Work. Managers who hid in their offices and were both physically and emotionally unavailable. Managers who forgot to provide regular supervision. Hot-desking (which was dreadful, as it means you cannot concentrate and have no privacy). I totally agree with everything that is said in C Rand’s comment (above) about hot-desking. A huge open-plan office with hundreds of staff in it which was so impersonal, you found it hard to talk privately with other staff about cases, or to get together to “brainstorm” ideas. A lack of regular team meetings. Staff who were clearly “burned out” and made insensitive, derogatory or offensive comments about patients. High staff turnover and excessive use of agency workers. Poor morale. Bullying, and threats. A hugely punitive “absence management” policy which insisted you could only be sick eight days in any year (even if the managers knew you had a disability or long-term condition)…

    Social Work as a profession, and what actually goes on within Social Work, really does need to be addressed. The public profile of the Social Work profession also needs to be addressed. People need to be shown what Social Workers TRULY do – and that includes managers and the Government (indeed anyone who is ignorant as to what Social Workers do). Burocracy needs to be addressed. Caseloads need to be addressed. Regular support and supervision ensured. Funding and resources ensured. Good training ensured.

    I am sick to death of hearing about and seeing Social Workers vilified – especially for failings that are not theirs, or not theirs alone. It is time the NHS and Social Services learned to respect and understand each-other and to effectively work together all the time – proper integrated working. It is time the NHS and the Government recognized that without a fully supported, well funded and well resourced Social Services, the NHS cannot do its job properly. Nor, indeed, can the Police or Education Services, or Probation Services… It is time that ALL public sector professions learned that without each other, and each other’s support, they CANNOT function.

    Social Services should be NOBODY’S scapegoat! I am sick and tired of hearing Nurses call themselves “angels”, Paramedics call themselves “heroes”, Doctors calling themselves “caring and trustworthy” – I am sick of the general public buying into this at the expense of professions like Social Work. When Social Work is done well and done right it can be angelic, heroic, caring and trustworthy too. Society ought not to forget that.

  4. Ian Kemp May 11, 2016 at 3:33 pm #

    .Hi I agree with what you say.

    Unfortunately, over the years social work has lost its status . It has been absorbed into local government bureaucracy with no challenge. Social work departments disappeared a few years ago. There used to be a social worker in charge. Now its almost anybody who fits into the local gov. bureaucracy and can prove their or her virility by reducing budgets further.
    Social work has become a Cinderella service and it is picked on by a hostile right wing media who are largely ignorant of what social workers have to do. Unlike say teachers and the medical profession. There are as I say no departments to present the case or to defend social work . Social work became absorbed into local gov Bureaucracy. This over the years has squeezed the life out of social work. Now the Local Gov bureaucracy determines what social work does and how it does it. There is no intellectual argument no debate. Social workers are reduced to operatives to deliver a service according to the dictates of local authority , largely these days budget driven. The intellectual base of social work has been left to die. There was one many years ago .
    The future of social work does not look good. It is a very important job which needs to have a well supported work force .
    But it is far from the case and I fear without strong voice and intellectual base and its absorption into local government bureaucracy weak union representation it can only get worse…We will see more marginalisation . and what can only be described as the ultimate deprofessinalisation for want of a better word of a stupid policy of Hot DESKING… Imagine a Dr a Accountant A Lawyer having to hot desk . Even the Local Authority would not dare to do that to a high status profession . There would be a outcry. While the Social worker says not a word about that or anything else. It is simply just trodden on… There is no real voice any more. The onion is weak or non existent.
    So despite Munroe’s timely intervention I remain largely pessimistic about the future of social work.

  5. Ian Kemp May 11, 2016 at 3:45 pm #

    I hope that you have found my reply ok re the future of social work
    cheers Ian Kemp