“Think about children’s social care as an ecosystem made from many interconnected parts,” Dr Barbara McKay tells the group.
It’s April 2018 and she’s leading a training day in Taunton. In the room with her are 20 or so social work leaders from Somerset County Council. She continues: “Because those parts are interconnected, any change in one part of the ecosystem impacts every other part. And sometimes that impact is unforeseen.”
Barbara, who heads the Institute of Family Therapy, asks the group to consider the example of the social care front door: “If you strengthen the front door, what impact do you imagine it would have on other services in social care and on the partner agencies who refer children and families to the front door?”
Collaboration and experimentation
Barbara’s spent much of 2018 exploring such questions with key personnel from children’s social care in Somerset.
The goal? To foster systemic approaches and practices within the county’s service. As part of its improvement efforts, Somerset is instilling a systemic outlook into the organisation. It’s an outlook that’s redefining the way the service is lead, how teams operate and how supervision is done.
And the result of those changes? A children’s social work service where openness, collaboration and experimentation can thrive.
Lupupa is one of the Somerset social workers taking part in Barbara’s training. She’s a consultant social worker and already thinks her training in systemic supervision is making a big difference.
“For me, the training triggered a change in the culture of supervision,” she says. “It’s moved from a task-driven forum to one where there’s awareness of one’s self within a supervisory relationship and how that system exists and how the parts within it relate.”
And that systemic supervision is already encouraging systemic practice among social workers too.
“Since undertaking the systemic leadership training I have been mindful of delving deeper into the exchanges taking place in supervision, which I believe has helped improve the outcomes of these discussions,” says Jackie Miles, operations manager in Somerset’s children with disabilities team.
Hear more about systemic leadership at Community Care Live
Dr Barbara McKay will be talking more about systemic leadership and her work at Somerset County Council at Community Care Live London on Tuesday 25 September.
Barbara says a systemic approach makes a lot of sense in social work.
“It’s a very good way to think about connections, interconnectedness and knock-on effects between different parts of a system,” she says.
“It’s an excellent model for helping leadership teams understand how things fit together and for anticipating how, if you make a change in one part of a service, that might affect other parts of the system.”
Curiosity is vital to making the most out of a systemic approach. “Curious questioning is directly linked with good outcomes in any organisation,” says Barbara. “So one thing I’ve been doing in Somerset is helping leaders create questions that help them inquire and better understand the relationship between the different parts of the social care system.”
Coherent practice model
Thinking systemically is also useful in multi-agency meetings, adds Barbara: “If we use a systemic orientation rather than just competing or telling each other that we do not understand where each other is coming from, we can use curious inquiry to understand what is propelling each person into the conversation and what is also holding them back.
“It’s a no-blame inquiry because it starts with the premise that everyone is doing the best they can within the restrictions they’ve got.”
It’s something that she is convinced will make a big difference in Somerset.
“What the systemic training in Somerset is creating is a coherent practice model of strengths-based supervision that draws out creative practice that is safe and within a structure, rather than constraining social workers,” she says.
‘A real can-do mentality’
Somerset’s already got the right attitude to make the most of the approach too.
“My experience of working with people in Somerset is that there’s a real can-do mentality there – the groups I’ve worked with have really embraced the ideas of systemic thinking,” she says.
“There’s this family feel in Somerset too. I don’t know if that’s down to its size or something else but, having worked in plenty of councils, I do know that’s not always the case. Somerset County Council’s an authority where social workers can speak openly and that’s really refreshing.”