Forcing constant change on social workers risks an illusion of progress

Relentless drives to reform our profession could be moving us further away from what matters to those we support, writes Social Work Tutor

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“I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralisation”

-Attributed to the Roman Courtier, Gaius Petronius Arbiter

Two weeks after starting my first social work role, I was told the council had decided on a new way of working and I’d have to re-apply for my job.

My duty team would now only deal with Section 47 enquiries. Section 17 initial enquiries would go directly to locality teams who held cases until closure.

My newly qualified status meant I couldn’t hold child protection cases. My position was untenable. “Don’t worry” I was told “you can move to a locality team, you won’t lose your job”.

In those days I was too polite to question why this wasn’t explained to me during the interview process. I accepted I’d be leaving the job I’d wanted and applied for.

I was also naive enough to believe this was just bad luck and I’d never go through such sudden changes again – changes that, even as an inexperienced worker, I knew were ill-advised (mixing 15 day initial assessment timescales with longer-term commitments of court work and care planning was never going to be effective).

‘A brand new dawn’

As my career progressed I found that level of change was far from isolated. Every department I’ve worked in heralded workforce overhauls as a brand new dawn. Mixing with experienced colleagues has taught me many new-fangled ideas have been tried before.

Split teams into local areas, then move them together again. Have a separate MASH and duty team, then combine them again. Have a triage team for referrals, then go back to a duty rota. The cycle goes on, while the age-old problems of high caseloads, recording pressures, threshold identification and low morale remain.

National changes

Social workers are currently having huge change forced on us at national level too.

We are to be overseen by a third different regulator in less than five years. We’ll face an accreditation test that no frontline staff or service users asked for. Our university training routes look like being increasingly replaced by fast-track schemes. Local authorities deemed to be ‘failing’ will have their children’s services taken over by trusts – a government-endorsed model that’s without precedent.

In May I wrote about the need for the profession to embrace the changes we could agree with (I still support plans for strengthened rights for care leavers). I also said we should compromise on some of the most controversial, such as accreditation.

However I argued that the profession and the government needed to meet in the middle in order to achieve such changes; almost two months down the line and the promise of consultation appears to have been replaced by an attitude of ‘like it or lump it’ that has left me feeling that my early optimism was naïve.

Concerns over the bill

Now that I’ve seen the legislation – the Children and Social Work Bill – underpinning the reforms, I’m wary of what is planned.

The bill is worryingly vague given it promises to hand huge powers to ministers. It relies extensively on secondary legislation for major changes – that’s a method of law making that parliamentarians have warned reduces scrutiny. And the government has shown a continual lack of engagement with the social work community. They pay lip service to us, yes, but meaningful consultation has been absent.

I’m also concerned because I’ve found myself dwelling on whether constant changes are making us better equipped to fulfil our role or moving us further away from those we’re here to help. 

Day-to-day struggles

When you reel off the reforms it gives the impression of progress but, like the lessons I learned from my first fortnight as a social worker, I can’t help but worry about what difference this will actually make to those I support.

Ultimately they don’t care about the ideological games of the powers that be. They pray for their day-to-day struggles to be addressed.

They want their social worker to be there when they call them. They want someone who really cares about their needs. Above all, they want practical help with their problems.

Being accredited won’t make me any more likely to secure funding for a mother and baby placement.

A new post-qualifying pathway won’t bring back my admin support or social work assistants.

Our new regulator won’t be re-opening the children’s centre that provided a safety net for struggling parents or the youth club that kept vulnerable adolescents off the streets.

The government says its changes will “build public confidence in the profession”. I understand the sentiment but fear it’s too simplistic to imagine a collective ‘public’ will have their confidence improved unless services, and the support on offer, improve.

A public that has been told the same old line of ‘lessons will be learned’ after the death of yet another child that is known to services is, in my opinion, unlikely to have their confidence restored by a new regulator or the news a social worker was accredited.

I feel confidence would be better built by a positive PR campaign to explain what social workers actually do, backed by politicians that genuinely understand our profession, and the national sharing of best practice.

‘Suspending disbelief’

In the foreword to a government policy paper on the reforms, Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children, suggests social workers “might have to suspend disbelief to become part of this progressive movement of change”.

To borrow a parable from the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, another time where somebody has been cautioned to suspend disbelief, we are being hit by rhetoric about how much better things will be, at the same time our profession is being shorn of what we actually need; with multi-agency teams shrinking as referral criteria get stricter and voluntary organisations fold.

Ministers urge social workers to trust the government’s intentions for our profession. Yet they seemingly don’t trust us enough to properly consult and involve us on major changes.

The art of practising social work has changed very little in the century or so that our profession has been formally recognised. At the heart of it, social work is about the simple process of helping others to lead a better life; one that is safer, happier and where people are empowered.

It’s hard to buy into the idea of a new way of working leading to better outcomes for people in the same week we find out four million children in the UK are living in relative poverty.

Sadly, like Gaius, I fear we are creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralisation.

The author is a children’s social worker and runs the Social Work Tutor site.

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4 Responses to Forcing constant change on social workers risks an illusion of progress

  1. Tom J July 12, 2016 at 10:20 am #

    great article.

  2. Jean H July 12, 2016 at 6:58 pm #

    And 1950 years after Gaius Petronius Arbiter, nobody seemed to have learnt the lesson!

    Excellent article.

  3. Ellie July 13, 2016 at 8:29 pm #

    I am first going to apologize for what may appear to be a mixture of cynicism, naivety and excessive idealism, but I cannot help but feel it necessary…

    Several years ago, whilst working as a Social Worker, I came to a number of realizations. They included the following…

    1. Many Social Services departments are under-funded and under-resourced. This results in a lack of basic facilities required to do the job – such as shortage of office space, which can force “hotdesking” onto workers. Or lack of up-to-date and reliably functioning computers, or telephone systems. It may mean that training opportunities are limited, because training costs cannot easily be met. It may mean that the offices where people work are old, dilapidated, and badly in need of renovation. It may mean that staff lack parking facilities, and are forced to park in residential areas; or they may be subject to parking charges imposed by employers desperate to add to their scant funds. All of these things add up to making the job harder to do, because they create working environments that are not pleasant to work in.

    2. Social Services departments find it hard to recruit and retain good staff, and thus rely too heavily on agency staff, because of inadequate funding for wages, poor working conditions, high caseloads, lack of basic resources such as office space, and the stress of a continually changing and high-pressured job – this leads to high staff turnover and worker “burnout”

    3. Excessive paperwork and associated bureaucracy, as well as loss of support services such as admin, secretaries and typing pools, means that many Social Workers are pressed to find time to spend meaningfully with service-users

    4. Confusing and often conflicting, or ill-thought out, policies, procedures and legislation can make the job excessively complicated and unnecessarily difficult to do. Examples of such – which often are based in ethical or moral dilemmas and conflicts of interest – include… The conflict between protecting service-users from harm/keeping them safe versus allowing them to take calculated risks. The need to ensure that unsafe Hospital discharges do not take place, which conflicts with the cost of keeping people in Hospital, and is further complicated by the fact that care packages take time to correctly assess and establish, but that this time is not always available because costs are mounting. Or, the recent “Mental Capacity Act” which says that a worker should presume all service-users are competent, but then goes on to say that competence can be variable, and situation-dependent. So, if competence varies, and is situation-dependent, CAN a Social Worker automatically work from the presumption that all people are competent? Surely not! The words “VARIABLE” and “SITUATION-DEPENDENT” would lead anyone with even a basic understanding of the English language to understand that competence is NOT always a consistent property, and that, therefore, it may not always be present, or fully present. HOW does any worker do a good job, when faced with conflicting demands that mean, basically, that WHATEVER decision they make, they always risk being seen as “in the wrong”?

    5. Stress and fatigue caused by the requirement that most Social Workers a) travel using their own cars to and from home visits to service-users (who may live considerable distance from the office), b) must insure and pay running costs for these vehicles, and c) feel pressed for time because of all the travelling that they end up doing as part of their job. This is made worse by the fact that the usual mileage allowance does NOT adequately cover the cost of travel, and the fact that the lump-sum remuneration offered as payment to reimburse such costs as vehicle insurance plus wear-and-tear does NOT tend to fully meet such costs. This can leave Social Workers feeling manipulated, and out-of-pocket. As well as tired, because travelling a lot within ones day-to-day work does cause tiredness (particularly when some journeys can be difficult, stressful or long). Add to this the understanding that most Social Workers did NOT sign up to be taxi drivers, travelling salesmen or long distance commuters; they signed up to be Social Workers. They did NOT necessarily desire a job that required lots of driving. It is to be noted that District Nurses and Home Care workers have reported similar stresses and problems concerning the unrealistic attitude taken towards the pressures of driving to home visits.

    6. A lack of public understanding of what Social Workers do. This, added to an increasing “blame culture”, has left Social Workers in the unenviable position of becoming a public “scapegoat”. When things go wrong, it is a game of “blame the Social Worker” long before questions have been asked and fully answered as to what actually happened. True, Social Workers and Social Services departments ought to acknowledge responsibility and accountability for their actions; they ought also to step up and admit when they are wrong, and then learn from this. However, they are NOT the only ones. The same applies equally to all other jobs and professions – including Nurses, Teachers, Doctors, Lawyers, Police, Charities, Youth Workers, Housing Officers, Ambulance Services… Society needs to learn just what Social Workers actually do, as well as they way in which their job fits alongside the jobs of others, and is impacted upon by these roles. Society needs to learn that the Public Sector workforce all rely upon each-other to get their jobs done… health impacts on social care, and vice-versa. Both impact on Education, Policing, Housing… and vice-versa. The roles that different Public Sector workers undertake are intrinsically linked with each-other. So, when one does a good job, it helps the others do good jobs. When one fails, it may lead to failure amongst others.

    Well, here is where I profess my naivety and idealism… And here is where I apologize, profoundly, for such personal character flaws – if that is what they represent. I had hoped that, by becoming a Social Worker, I might be able to start making the world a better place (even if only in a small way). I had hoped that by pointing out such failings as lack of resources, by “whistleblowing” in respect of poor practice, flawed policy and procedure, staff like myself could start to make improvements in the workplace; or could highlight the fact that improvements were needed, which might lead to them being made. I had hoped that the ability of staff to highlight poor working conditions, might lead to better ones. I had hoped that there would be enough finding, enough resources to be able to make a difference for service-users; that in attempting to understand their needs, and to put together packages of care, or to make referrals to appropriate support-services, I was doing something that might aid these people.

    Was I really SO wrong? Instead, I feel as though nobody listened… Or, rather, that someone somewhere DID listen, but then chose to proverbially “shoot the messenger”! Clearly, you receive no thanks for trying to suggest improvements, or trying to get things right by service-users. I am NOT saying this is always the case… it just strikes me that in workplaces which are starved of resources, short on funding, short-staffed, struggling with caseloads, and so forth… there is little time for staff who wish to discuss such facts, or try to do something about them. Instead, it seems that staff who point out problems get labelled as “the problem”.

    Perhaps THIS is why the dialogue concerning change and improvement within Social Work has NOT reached Social Workers? Perhaps THIS is why so many feel left out of the consultation? Because, it seems to me, that workers themselves have been permitted to fall into the role of “scapegoat” – the people to blame when things go awry, the people to criticize should they dare point out failings or “blow the whistle” – BUT also the people never to be consulted in respect of finding solutions. It is as though, in “scapegoating” Social Workers, society has forgotten that THEY may actually be the people who understand most acutely the route of all problems, AND may also have ideas as to how best to solve them.

    It strikes me that Social Workers speak without being truly heard. Sadly, they are becoming more and more akin to the service-users they work with – disenfranchised, vulnerable, faceless, unnoticed, impoverished, discriminated-against… Social Workers come into contact with some of the most dysfunctional and disenfranchised people in society. These are the people who make up their service-users. People with learning disabilities, people with mental illnesses, physically disabled people, elderly and infirm people, homeless people, abused and bullied people… ALL are the people whom Social Workers work with.

    Just THINK about this for a moment…

    The service-users that Social Workers work with are often vulnerable, and struggling. Many lack support and advocacy. Some may be sick, or disabled; others poor; others victims of abuse… They are what “Victorian polite society” would once have called the “underclasses”. It is a difficult job to work with the “underclasses” – to work with people who may be stigmatized by mainstream society, outcast by mainstream society. These people may have no voice, few resources; they may feel the world is against them. So, isn’t it more than a little ironic – or should I say suspicious – that the very staff who work with these “underclasses”, these stigmatized and sometimes vulnerable people are finding THEMSELVES treated much the same way? Social Workers may be tarred with the exact same stigma that affects their service-users. Ought we not to ask whether a profession that works with stigmatized and disenfranchised people attracts some of that stigma itself; becomes in this way somewhat disenfranchised itself?

    Could it be that the problem faced by Social Care is that it works on behalf of service-users who, at this present time, represent socio-economic and political “hot potatoes”? In a time of “austerity”, just WHAT DOES IT MEAN to work with homeless people, disabled people, victims of abuse, criminals, substance misuse addicts? To work with people who may be poor, infirm, or needy?

    Are these not the very people most likely to be affected by “austerity programmes”? Are these not the very people who have become the subject of endless social, economic and political debate? Debate about cuts to benefits. Debate about unemployment. Debate about how to tackle crime. Debate about the need for social housing. Debate about the cost of the N.H.S. and the cost of education, and the cost of policing, and the cost of providing support. If, as I suspect, it is the lives of these people which will be impacted upon most by “austerity measures”, then it makes sense to suspect that this WILL impact upon the nature of Social Care.

    I remember a French saying… “Le plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” (apologies for inaccurate spelling – can’t work out how to do French accents on this computer!). This saying means that the more something changes, the more it’s the same old thing. The change that is being brought to the Social Care arena just now represents this. Society has ALWAYS debated things like what to do with the poor. What to do with disabled people. How to deal with abuse. What to do with people who are mentally ill…

    The point, here, is that NO acceptable answers to such questions ever really seem to have been found. Each and every generation – and successive Governments – have changed their views. Each and every generation, and their Governments, have tried different approaches to such socio-economic problems. Some work; some don’t. Maybe the whole thing is trial-and-error? Maybe the sad fact is that there are NO simple, immediate answers, because things like poverty, unemployment, disability, crime… do not just suddenly appear out of nowhere. Rather, they have existed from time immemorial, and arise out of complex combinations of factors that are often hard to understand, let alone unpick.

    Sadly, Social Care sits in a very uncomfortable position in respect of the above, for Social Workers are some of the people most likely to come into contact with the aforementioned problems. Thus it may be that they form an interesting group, and pose an interesting conundrum. You see, from the perspective of a Government faced with trying to deal with a country in recession, Social Workers may represent an apparent “goldmine”. Why? Because…

    1. They are people who see firsthand, and work daily, with individuals and families suffering problems like poverty, learning disabilities, unemployment, mental illness, old age, disability, homelessness… Therefore, these Social Workers are a “mine” of information that any Government might potentially want to make use of – in research, in social experiments, in testing policies. The problem is that Social Workers, however, may very well understand the risks and implications of providing such data to the Government. They may know that there are issues of confidentiality and data protection. They may know that some of the issues covered are sensitive. In light of all the talk about “Big Data”, it makes sense to question whether the Government wants control over Social Work in order to “mine” data. Even though Government ideas such as “Big Data” may be well-intentioned, they remain fraught with risk; not least risks concerning confidentiality, personally-identifiable data, hacking, fraud, the possible sale of data without service-users’ consent to Insurance Companies and suchlike. Maybe the Social Care professions need to start asking timely and pertinent questions about the nature of things like “Big Data”, and other ideas to share personal data without human subject consent?

    2. Because Social Workers work with people who comprise groups that, in this country, may currently be considered Political “hot potatoes” in light of “austerity measures”, it makes sense to question whether many of the changes that are being imposed upon Social Workers represent a desperate need to do something quickly for these people. After all, we are currently a country in turmoil – experiencing a recession, and having to deal with the consequences of “Brexit”. Just what WILL this mean for Social Care? IF, as some people suspect, our country’s decision to leave the E.U. leads to less funding, fewer grants, a drop in the value of the pound, increased taxes, and fewer migrant workers then the implications for the country will be MASSIVE. The implications for Social Care will be MASSIVE. Just HOW does a country continue to meet current levels of care if starved of E.U. funding, with a devalued currency, and with a stark reduction in the workforce due to immigration restrictions? If this is something that I am questioning, you can bet the Government are asking themselves similar things!

    3. I hate to say this, but maybe the Government’s ideas regarding the future of Social Care represent some sort of desperation – the closest they will ever come to admitting that there IS a lack of money to fund Social Care? That the recession has caused the country to struggle? Now, I am not saying that their ideas are necessarily the best way to go, but maybe they thought that in fast-tracking Graduates, the Government could add quickly to a depleted workforce. Perhaps they thought these Graduates would bring new innovations to the job? Again, maybe they thought that after scandals like “Baby P” and “Climbie”, accreditation for Children’s Social Workers WAS justified, so that the profession could prove publicly that its workforce were NOT all incompetent? I am not arguing that this is necessarily right; but it could have been the thinking behind such ideas.

    My argument is that, in a country facing difficult and uncertain times ahead, even Governments may be at a loss for all the answers. Perhaps this is why we see empires, economies and Governments rise and fall! As I said at the start – much may be trial-and-error. Please don’t think I’m suggesting that this is automatically right; or that it excuses the apparent victimization of Social Workers. Please don’t assume that I think it is fair to treat Social Workers in this way, compared to Nurses or Doctors, Police or Teachers… What applies to Social Work should, justly, apply to all professions… It is merely a possible explanation. Rather, I believe that the public, and the Government NEED – now more than ever – to LISTEN to Social Workers, and to their service-users. Ask them what they do. Ask them what they can do to make the job better. Ask what resources they require. Look at how levels of funding impact on services. Look at how to recruit and retain happy, competent staff. Ask for ideas and innovations to be put forwards, by workers, and by service-users themselves. Support staff to implement more effective practices and innovations. Encourage outspoken and frank dialogue regarding pay, working conditions, practice… respect and listen to “whistleblowers” and people who highlight problems or failings. HEAR what these people say, and act on what they suggest can be done to make improvements. Listen to complaints about services, and investigate them appropriately. Ensure that you respond to complaints in a pro-active manner, learning from them, and making changes or improvements where necessary. Get involved in tackling stigma – the stigma that affects many of the service-users who use Social Services (e.g. mentally ill people, disabled people, old people…). By eradicating the stigma that they face, society can begin to make these people more visible, more acceptable, more CARED ABOUT – and in doing this, it makes it easier for society to accept that the work which Social Workers do with these people is VALUABLE.

    Apologies for the long post – but this is something that I am hugely passionate about. Still, I am likely “preaching to the converted”. It’s probable that many of you readers already have perfectly good ideas about things that could be done to improve the lot of Social Workers, and to make Social Care the profession it aspires to be.

    Perhaps what we need is A FORUM, on Community Care, where Social Workers, ex-Social Workers, Social Work managers and service-users alike, could write in and post questions, or ideas, regarding what they think might help make the job better for Social Workers to do (what improvements/changes could be made in Social Work). Once such ideas and questions have been collected together, might it be that with the help of Community Care magazine, they could be incorporated into a document and presented to the Government (esp. the Dept. for Education and Dept. for Health)? In that way, at least the Social Work profession could make an attempt to bring their own ideas about change before Government – it would be an attempt to have our voice heard.

    Just an idea! What does anyone else think? What does Community Care magazine think?

  4. Ellie July 13, 2016 at 8:48 pm #

    PLEASE don’t “moderate” my previous comment, if by moderation you mean censorship. I believe that I have said things that are valid, and needed to be said, with the best interests of the Social Work profession in mind. Furthermore, I should like to know if people do think a forum where questions about change could be raised, or ideas and innovations put forwards, would be any use.