Two years ago Gloucestershire County Council found itself with a rare opportunity to reshape the culture of its adult social care service.
A restructure of adult social care offered a chance to foster a service with a culture built for the Care Act age.
The goal was simple: to create a culture of openness where social workers feel supported to make defensible decisions and positive risk taking is promoted, to enable citizens of Gloucestershire to lead the best quality lives.
“We saw an opportunity to change and we were lucky enough to be able to take it,” says Dawn Porter, the head of service. “The changes enabled us as a service to come together and shape what we want things to look like.
“We wanted to be a service that isn’t afraid of making a difference through changes that improve outcomes for people. But we knew that could only happen if our social workers feel supported and listened to.”
Led by social workers
The support that enables this culture takes many forms. There are regular meetings between locality social workers and the council’s legal team, and senior managers are always ready to discuss difficult cases with practitioners on request.
In addition the council has created a development offer so good its social workers now say a ‘learning culture’ is a defining characteristic of the service.
The supportive culture in Gloucestershire also means social workers can get more time to work with people when needed, says principal social worker Jess Beach.
“The whole point of social work is to build great relationships so we are not trying to allocate cases, churn out assessments, close cases and move on,” she says.
“If a practitioner needs to work with somebody a couple of months longer in order to establish a relationship that will result in great outcomes, then we encourage that. We’re led by our practitioners telling us what they feel they need.”
Brave social work
Together all this support gives social workers in Gloucestershire the confidence they need to make defensible decisions about their cases.
“I think you do need to feel really supported as a social worker in order to be the person who breaks with traditional approaches and does something outside the norm of what has come before to get the best outcomes,” says Jess.
Making those decisions is vital if people are to get the independence they should have. “People don’t want to be wrapped up in cotton wool – they want to be able to take some of the risks those who aren’t in receipt of care and support take,” says Jess.
“Changing a care package can unsettle other professionals and families so we support our social workers to make those brave but evidence-based decisions, supporting people to communicate what they want their support to look like.
“We don’t have a standardised approach to how we support people because it’s about enabling people to live as normal a life as they can. Just because a person has a disability or has care and support needs shouldn’t mean they have to live completely different lives.”
Senior social workers
Crucially the service’s senior managers pay close attention to what social workers tell them.
“There are lots of organisations that might acquire feedback from their staff but that’s not enough,” says Dawn.
“For us it’s more about ensuring that feedback is heard. We’re practitioner-driven and we try to implement what they suggest and when we can’t we make sure we have the conversations with practitioners about why we went down a different path.”
One practitioners’ suggestion that the council has recently implemented is to improve career progression for social workers who don’t want to enter management roles.
Gloucestershire introduced brand new senior social worker roles to allow social workers to progress their careers by sharing their knowledge, skills and experience with other staff, and working with increasing complexity while remaining in frontline practice.
“Our senior social workers are really excited by the role and the opportunity it gives them to develop and mentor staff and so co-work cases with them,” says Jess.
Defensible decision making
One of those senior social workers is Jo, who works in one of Gloucestershire’s eight locality teams.
Jo says the culture within the service really supports practitioners to make a difference to people’s lives: “The council facilitate active discussions with the legal team and share case discussions promoting positive outcomes, learning experiences and defensible decision making.
“The safeguarding adults’ team actively encourages social workers to be guided by the Making Safeguarding Personal and Positive Risk Management policies, ensuring the service user is always at the heart of practice and interventions are the least restrictive possible.”