Why is social work obsessed with buying in external consultants?

Tony Stanley talks about how social work can build its own practice leadership from within, rather than hiring people to sell a new practice framework

Photo: StockPhotoPro/Fotolia

by Tony Stanley

It seems that there is a lot of ‘knowledge for sale’ these days.

A decade ago, consultants were selling their skills to help local authorities prepare for inspections and then help reorganise the KPI machinery soon after in cases of failure.

Today, a new cadre of consultants are marketing practice models and practice approaches. Many of these are good people, great trainers and knowledgeable colleagues. But why do we need to buy in these expensive approaches to practice – so often packaged up as the latest solution – to improve the work?

There are quite a few of these new approaches for sale to local authorities, with costly trainers and software packages available, and yet we know little about how decisions are made in the selection and evaluation of the particular practice approaches chosen, and even less about the organisational conditions needed to make this a success.

Lack of understanding

Ofsted often references the use of a particular framework in its inspection work of children’s services, but offer little feedback about what they think this means or how to improve the utility of practice approaches or frameworks. Perhaps the real issue is we just don’t understand this area well enough.

How are decisions made to select one practice approach over another? What research, if any, is available and how much evaluation work is guiding decision making? Is competition and private, for-profit companies the best way forward here in our current financial state of affairs?

Much of what is available by consultancy is already publicly available knowledge, well publicised and hence ready for us to utilise. Some will argue that expertise in the training of a particular approach is necessary and ensures fidelity and rigour. More likely though, this highlights the challenges and gaps in practice leadership.

Many child welfare systems have utilised practice frameworks with varying degrees of success. Adults’ services are also in this debate to some degree.

Lagging behind

There is a dearth of understanding about how particular approaches and practice frameworks can really drive excellent social work forward and help us to raise standards.

Heart surgeons understand the frameworks of their practice. Lawyers and pilots also. Nurses work within agreed frames of practice knowledge and skills, and teachers share pedagogy and scaffolding approaches to education. Head teachers are often in the classroom. Chief nurses and professors in hospitals hold practice clinics.

These professions are not buying in new frameworks or the latest approach. They know what their professional activity, knowledge base, mandate and core purpose is. Social work in England has lagged behind.

Practice frameworks are referenced in the Knowledge and Skills Statements (KSS) – children’s and adults’ – so the onus is on practice leaders to authentically lead in this area. Principal social workers and practice leaders need to be critically debating the merits of one over another, and students and beginning practitioners need to understand what we are talking about.


The West Midlands Social Work Teaching Partnership is trying to figure out how to achieve the goal of practice and leadership framework success without recourse to consultants coming in with their particular version of a specific approach. What might be in the way?

  1. Perhaps we are still overly focused on ‘leadership’ as an activity for the most senior people, while we invest in external consultants to come in and teach the front line teams practice models and approaches.
  2. Perhaps, and more likely, practice leadership is not well developed. How do we sustain and improve our knowledge and skills in introducing, supporting and evaluating practice frameworks? And, how can we make this part of our workplace, at all levels:
  • Students learning about practice frameworks as they study – gaining critical skills in evaluation;
  • ASYE practitioners learning and leading their learning as they work within practice frameworks and understanding their practice as they do so;
  • Social workers critically reflecting on how and why they practice in particular ways;
  • Managers and supervisors – teaching others, researching what works and how;
  • Practice leaders/ADs/directors – evaluating the practice system from the standpoint of an established practice framework;
  • Ofsted – evaluating our practice systems through a clear understanding of the practice framework that we are using and promoting.

The West Midlands Social Work Teaching Partnership – with ‘leading practice’ as our strapline – is taking a fresh approach to leadership.

One of our key areas of work is drawing on practice-informed learning to introduce a new ‘leadership practice framework’ that engages our workplaces differently.

Practice leadership in action

Our aim is for directors and senior managers to understand and lead the decided practice framework, and to evaluate their practice system against it, as they work alongside practitioners in terms of quality assuring and system redesign informed through the prism of an agreed practice framework. We think this is practice leadership in action.

We are trying to understand how this might achieve more and cost much less. Too much of the present leadership focus is on senior people and the qualities and attributes they hold. This is a good start. We strengthen this through creating an overarching leadership framework that reinforces how the organisation is set up and professional activity delivered at all levels – from the student social worker to the director.

There is a lot on offer at present, mostly for sale, proclaiming to transform practice and our workplaces. Given we are talking about public knowledge, freely available, is this the best use of ever-shrinking public money?

Some new and innovative leadership thinking and activity is needed to ensure that what we do next doesn’t become another version of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’.

Tony Stanley is the chief social worker in Birmingham and chair of the West Midlands Social Work Teaching Partnership. His paper ‘A practice framework to support the Care Act 2014’ was awarded the 2017 award for scholarship in the Emerald Scholarship awards for adult social care. It is available to download.

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6 Responses to Why is social work obsessed with buying in external consultants?

  1. londonboy June 20, 2017 at 7:18 pm #

    As someone who had no involvement with Social Care until three years and now takes a very keen interest in all things children’s Social Care related, I was very surprised at how ‘productised’ Childrens Social Care is. -maybe not the ground but it looks that way.

    Imagine if NHS colleagues took the same approach where each CCG brought in experts trained in their way to deliver ways of treating depression or whatever and there was a market between these ‘experts’.

    As well as the points raised in this article I would also add that it seems to me that for example the NHS are grappling with effective ways to deliver services to high risk groups eg the Transforming Care Programme, as is the Youth Justice system and these agencies are coming up with really quite good answers around how to identify high risk groups, monitor effectiveness of support and keep data safe for example.

    I would also say this as the parent of a young man with an autism diagnosis but I really, really do not understand why (metaphorically) social workers eyes seem to glaze over when disability is mentioned and light up once the words ‘trauma’ and ‘attachment’ are mentioned irrespective of context, relevance or applicability. This is not to denigrate the value of therapists but a little more balance ( any maybe more training and self- confidence on the part of social workers?) would go a long way.

  2. HelenSparkles June 20, 2017 at 11:45 pm #

    Absolutely crucial article, as a SW, I’ve had quite a lot of experience of reading a report from a consultant that I could have written, for which they were paid £££. I would love to find a way to share practice methods/knowledge with senior managers for e.g. what Leeds are doing, might not be transferable to LAs which aren’t comparable but if a big city can bring in a philosophy across the LA, voluntary partners as well as public services, there is something to be learnt. (I suspect one of the messages from Leeds is invest to save and we won’t all be able to do that but some of the other learning is there for us all.).

  3. londonboy June 21, 2017 at 9:30 am #

    ”There are quite a few of these new approaches for sale to local authorities, with costly trainers and software packages available, and yet we know little about how decisions are made in the selection and evaluation of the particular practice approaches chosen”

    There are issues around probity with this. I think that the Chief Social Worker has sailed close to the wind on this with her links with Morning Lane Associates

    Bear with me but here is an analogy:-
    Say you were looking to procure toilet paper for all the LAs public lavatories. You would advertise to the market the opportunity to supply 3 ply toilet rolls or whatever and evaluate bids against success criteria – eg price and quality of service and maybe other criteria eg sustainability if the LA has a sustainability policy that is relevant. You would then award the contract based on ‘best fit’ with your success criteria.

    Say you wanted a particular type of toilet paper you might be tempted to tender for ‘3 ply toilet rolls with little pink hearts on each sheet’ but unless you can show why you needed the toilet paper with the little pink hearts ( and I’d suggest it would be very hard to), you have not complied with probity rules around public procurement.

    These are difficult and restrictive constraints on public procurement but they are there for a reason – if you cannot ‘back up’ decisions around why you choose one product, one service supplier over another you leave yourself open to a charge of at best ineptitude and at worst misuse of public funds.

  4. Ronnie June 21, 2017 at 1:12 pm #

    This article is less about using external consultants and more about developing capacity in social care, and publicising the West Midlands teaching partnership.
    There may be an overlap, but the two things are quite distinct.

    Notwithstanding that, all other agencies including health, are replete with external consultants and there is evidence aplenty to substantiate that.

    External consultants have always existed and they are able to bring a singular focus to the issue at hand, offer freshness and the best advice without too much unhelpful interference of politics and organisational dynamics. Yes they cost money, but so do internal staff and external consultants are dispensed with as soon as their purpose is served. If their use has increased, and it has, it is because of the increasing privatisation of social care and the fact that the market has driven this type of mixed economy of labour.

    Of course it is great if an organisation can subsume it’s own fire and meet all the increasingly complex demands made upon it very well and only internally.

    There are benefits and consequences of using external consultants and also not using them and developing internal expertise. I would suggest both have a place.

  5. Sarah Smith June 26, 2017 at 11:21 am #

    I have had consultants come into my workplace to ‘develop’ a new team I was heading. 3 months after they had gone, I had changed most of their templates and pro-formas. Within 6 months I had scrapped a lot of what they had put in place and after a year I had changed everything to suit the actual job I was doing. You would never know they had been there.

    When they were with us I was disappointed that managers had not spoken to me about the ideas I might have had for running my team, I also questioned the manager’s capability to manage me if they did not have the time or skills to help me set up the team themselves. It made me feel deskilled and lacking in management support and faith in me, and also I lost faith in my managers.

    What has happened to team away days, prep meetings, or group supervision? What about sharing knowledge between staff and asking the people who do the job day in and day out, some who have been in the role years and have probably seen lots of new initiatives come and go. Its an expensive way to demoralise staff, particularly when we have to beg for money to support the people we work with, and cut backs are affecting staffing levels and the calibre of service we can provide.

  6. Grace Easie-Edgar June 26, 2017 at 11:47 am #

    I read this article and the paper produced. I just wish LAs would just embed the good practices from any consultants. I have seen the committeement by LAs to for example Signs Of Safety Not just in Children Services but with partners and it works.