Why practice leadership needs to be closer to the hard realities of social work practice

Tony Stanley writes about the importance of practice leadership in social work and why with it good social work can get around any workplace

The word 'leadership' highlighted
Picture: fotolia/niroworld

by Tony Stanley

The recent Care Crisis Review called for more inclusive social work practice and a far less adversarial approach by workers, with proportionate involvement and respectful relationships being at the heart of good practice. This welcomed call is very familiar – many fine writers and practitioners have long-argued for a more humane, poverty-informed and socially-just practice, with great leadership, to be the driving forces in children’s services departments.

Sophisticated quality assurance is another under-utilised set of ideas and skills necessary to help deliver great practice leadership. The agency or local authority delivery model is not my concern here, rather the way the discipline of social work is intellectually and morally embedded in leadership, and the role practice leadership has in the conditions of its success.

So if we know what is needed, and there are volumes of sociological organisational studies available, what is taking so long to shift the landscape from process saturation to a needed humane and helping social work offer? We need internal learning mechanisms that work to continuously inform, reinforce and drive forward the best practice leadership possible; and the closer to practice the better.   

Key interface

So how do we understand and learn about the actual practice being delivered? The Munro Review (2011) argued for Principal Social Workers (PSW) to become a key interface between practice and organisational leadership, and be at the senior table to inform and influence the direction of travel.

In a paper, Marion Russell and I argued for the PSW to ‘be in practiceto experience it, to learn from those who deliver and experience it’ and to use this ethnographic intelligence ethically to influence the organisational leadership.

My recent commentary that the PSW was a missed opportunity caused some outrage; I got some angry emails. But the argument is simple – by being in practice, qualitatively understanding the delivery and experience of practice, we can offer extraordinary intelligence to those charged with driving forward children’s services.  

This is best illustrated when a new a practice framework is adopted, often at a huge financial cost, and staff invited to practice thus. While success has been evidenced in a few jurisdictions, others struggle to embed practice frameworks, and decisions to drop or change it often follow a poor Ofsted inspection. The PSW is very well placed to inform such decisions, and advise on what would lead to better success.

They need to understand this by being close to, or even better, being in practice. They need to critically engage (both intellectually and morally) with how the practice framework helps us to deliver professional social work. They need to live it. 

England and New Zealand

I recently returned to Aotearoa, New Zealand, to spend time with family. Social work is the main discipline for UK and New Zealand (NZ) child welfare work, and so this should be a more uniform offer. Curiously this is not the case, and a reflection on both settings supports my argument that practice leadership needs to be informed by the lived experiences of practice.

England and NZ child welfare has much in common. New graduates are readily available, but a shortage of experienced social workers is a challenge. Risk aversion is an ever-hovering influence in both settings, partly emerging by a shifting partnership landscape with health and police constructions of risk differing to social work, and they need to differ.

We work with children and their families to bring about change and wellbeing improvements; other services draw on deficit or reified notions of risk and harm. Partnership work is not straightforward; in fact not always a universal good. Professional meetings and information sharing is very influential in both settings, with families easily relegated to the practice margins in both settings.  

NZ has recently adopted several other English initiatives, the DOH framework of assessment has been updated and rebranded as Tui Tuia; children’s teams and multi-agency safeguarding hub-type combinations of health, police and social work are now triaging and strategising risk cases and influencing practice toward risk aversion.

‘Expert’ dominance

We need to learn the practice lessons about these initiatives from our English colleagues, where professional ‘expert’ dominance and risk aversion are unhealthy bed-fellows.

The English and NZ systems are quite risk anxious and recent initiatives to improve inter-agency working may be producing adverse impacts for social work as we understand it. 

NZ and England also differ in the way child welfare operates and is experienced.   

Practice frameworks are now something most child welfare systems are introducing, and in England Oftsed are seeking these out and measuring success against. I am engaging with how the NZ practice framework I am working with actually operates, in situ.

I can then offer this lived practice experience to support the review of the NZ Chief Social Work office, currently underway. Now working in the NZ different context, in a very different role (I’m presently working in a frontline high risk child protection team) reinforces to me that excellent social work can transcend the confines of any workplace.

Professional discipline

Good social work can be delivered and experienced anywhere – it is the professional discipline and practice of social work that I bring, and I drive and utilise the computer system and paperwork to this end. This is an important unshackling from dominating workplace processes and dictate and one where my professional identity and IFSW membership are governing mechanisms for my work.  

The investment here is clear; shifting practice cultures toward a more humane and socially just offer needs practice informed intelligence. Marion and I were right – PSW’s (in NZ we have practice leaders in every office who hold responsibly for quality assurance and leadership around the practice framework), need to be in and close to practice. They need to understand it, and quality assure it against the agreed approach or framework, and experience how the computer system helps or hinders.

Effective practice leadership needs to argue from practice, and the PSW role is still a great opportunity to do just that. The Care Crisis Review argues that we need to learn from those who experience and deliver practice in order to keep reforming for the better.

My practice leadership will be informed by this year in frontline child protection practice; I’m learning a huge amount. The gains are invaluable. Imagine what we could collectively achieve if practice leadership was much, much closer to the everyday and often hard realities of practice.  

Tony Stanley is a social worker, most recently employed in the UK as chief social worker for Birmingham children’s services, and has recently moved to New Zealand.

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