How I’ve used my Twitter interactions to reflect on my social work practice

Sophie Ayers talks about her criticism of policy, Frontline and the What Works Centre on Twitter and how it has prompted reflection

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Photo: anyaberkut/Fotolia

by Sophie Ayers

My recent engagement with Twitter has made me reflect about how I respond to issues I don’t agree with and whether I am fully open to new ideas or concepts which inform social work practice.

In doing so, I have identified some of my more negative character traits which impact on how I engage in debate: I can be reactionary; I am overly sensitive; I can be annoyed easily and also very fixed in my views. Twitter is a wonderful forum for debate but not necessarily for my style of thinking. In my social work practice, I need space and time to collect my thoughts and know how I feel about a situation. It may be useful if I extend this approach to my social media engagement.

I have always had a strong sense of justice and I feel that this creeps into my engagement in social media. I was raised in a very socialist family where justice was at the core of everything we thought about and did.

I was also brought up with a father who had a healthy cynicism regarding ‘managerial nothing speak’ that was casually creeping into the culture of the eighties and nineties. My disdain for phrases such as ‘touch base’ ‘strategic staircase’ and ‘movement’ continues and creates a visceral reaction in me that I cannot explain.

Two areas in social work policy that have led to most of my recent social media engagement, and perhaps highlighted some of those aforementioned negative character traits, have been in relation to Frontline and the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care. Debates have become heated on both sides of the aisles.

No power

I often feel frustrated that Frontline appears to be unwilling to engage in active debate with people who have legitimate concerns. It falls to brave current and ex-participants to fend off growing frustration.

Perhaps this is because social media is not the place for a wholesome argument. But if it is not, where can the debate occur? The risk with the current debate taking place in this forum is that current and past participants of Frontline feel scalded and isolated.

While I am trying to be fair and balanced in my reflections, it is hard to criticise practitioners who have been very forceful in expressing their views when they hold no power. Yet, Frontline has all the power through links with politicians, and can showcase new London offices at odds with the experience of many social work workplaces rundown through cuts and the financial tools to influence through glossy marketing.

One clear parallel in this situation would be to compare the distinct lack of power families feel in social work involvement. It must be so difficult as a parent, family member or young person, when you don’t agree with the social worker that you are working with. I am aware from many families I have worked with that they are scared to be too assertive as this may be viewed in a negative way.

I suppose challenge in many forums is considered to be difficult and the ‘protagonists’ are viewed negatively by the organisations they are in opposition to. I am mindful when working with families that challenge. and open discussions must be promoted rather than dismissed. I encourage debate, dissent and discussion, and understand that sometimes being vocal and forceful is often the last resort. I believe I may have adopted this principle in my engagement with social media.

Using social media to display social work values

The problem for me on social media is trying to challenge the rise of these organisations which I feel have come to embody that which I was raised to disdain: those who adopt managerial speak, glossy marketing, a lack of transparency, a lack of evidence base and othering people outside of the organisation with differing levels of exclusivity.

Outside of my personal feelings, I am driven by a desire to stand up for the profession as these new organisations with preferential government treatment and funding rise quickly to a level of seniority that needs to be challenged before the profession is redesigned completely in their image. These underlying beliefs are linked to my fundamental value base as a social worker and the global definition of social work. It states: “Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people.”

Clearly working in child protection, ‘liberation of people’ has always had difficulties and is notable in terms of its restriction on some human rights. However, with the government’s current agenda, this has become even more challenging because situations are often far worse due to poor earlier support and lack of interventions that could improve circumstances.

I found working in local authority social work increasingly difficult to reflect core, fundamental values of the social work profession. I have never struggled to assert my position with local authorities and the feisty behaviour I sometimes display on Twitter was also not well hidden when I worked as a local authority social worker.

This did not always serve me well, but I felt it was important to advocate and assert the core beliefs and values I hold.

‘Frustratingly difficult’

Recent discussion online regarding social work by politicians such as Theresa May, who labelled social workers as ‘heroes’ and perpetuated the ideology of ‘rescuing’ rather than working alongside families, represented to me a fundamental misunderstanding of the profession and the value base that we hold dear.

This also correlated with the ‘doing-to’, rather than ‘doing-with’ philosophies that have led to such drastic changes to the welfare state.

With the government’s increased austerity measures and reduction in preventive services, it became frustratingly difficult to uphold and deliver core social work principles. I struggle with the apparent frivolity of organisations such as Frontline at a time when social workers are no longer able to refer to appropriate services that may avoid more draconian measures because they are extinct due to funding cuts.

On reflection I believe that my grievances with Frontline and the What Works Centre are an extension of my bewilderment relating to the government’s agenda in relation to most policies that affect the delivery of social work. The whims and fallacies that drive many policies are exceptionally problematic for me and I truly believe that some policy decisions have affected social workers’ ability to carry out their roles in a safe, just and able way.

The underlying cause of my frustrations matter because so much money is being provided by the government to both Frontline and the What Works Centre and what if, after all of this, both interventions fail to make the required changes the government hopes for?

Munro has already provided the footprint for what needs to occur but many local authorities have failed to fully implement her recommendations due to a crisis in funding.

Even if we have more well-trained social workers and a core understanding regarding social work interventions, this will not make a tangible change unless some of the fundamental, well known problems are addressed. These include high caseloads, long working hours, poor supervision, lack of training and being allocated families who have complex needs beyond your competencies.

Labelled

It may be that both organisations are reluctant to engage in debate because they know that they have already been labelled neo-liberal outposts of the Conservative government.  But this is unfortunate, because while many practitioners are frustrated, they are also desperate to have their views heard and be part of any planning for change. After all, the practitioners who work in child protection are the experts and best place to offer guidance to both organisations to support change.

Therefore, social media can often feel like the last place where discussions can be held to vent and challenge. Every social worker has been affected by the Conservatives’ journey into child protection. The impact of such policies exasperates me and sometimes I, among many other practitioners, find myself debating core issues upon social media.

I can see that I sometimes engage badly in the debate regarding Frontline and the What Works Centre because I am frustrated. I am frustrated because the knowledge to transform the child protection system already exists, it just doesn’t fit into the current government’s rhetoric.

In looking at how I engage in social media, I promise to try harder to take time to think and reflect upon what I am reading and how I respond. I will try to be respectful and keep my knee-jerk reaction to use sarcasm at bay. It will be hard and as with anyone who is trying to change their behaviour, I am sure there will be relapses along the way.

Even if that is the case, I do not consider that my assertive stance on social media is in direct opposition to social work values. The reason I am considering changing how I manage my interactions on social media is because terse exchanges do not promote change and sometimes they close debate. But some very positive and healthy debates also take place.

Strength of argument

As social workers we must adhere to the HCPC’s standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics. Alongside this is the inherent culture of social workers where justice is at the core of most teams and individuals. Section 2 of the HCPC Ethical Framework is about communicating effectively and appropriately. Therefore, it is important that responses and interactions on Twitter are fair, respectful and just.

This does not mean that social workers need to shy away from key issues but that they should engage on social media as they would within their day-day role.

I am aware that the strength of my argument has sometimes been lost when I have become frustrated. I also know at the heart of my character I am kind and don’t like to upset people. Therefore, it is incumbent on me that no matter how cross I am, I give more thought in how I respond on social media.

Reflection and debate go both ways though, and I feel it is important for all organisations involved in social work to carry those key tenets of professional practice into their discussions, online or physical.

  • Be willing to engage in discussions with a wide range of practitioners and people who access services. If social media is not the appropriate area, please find another way to do this.
  • Stop using divisive language and business talk, it has no place in social work.
  • Acknowledge and appreciate the skill set and talent of the social work academic community that have done so much for developing social workers’ knowledge. Also value the existing exceptional skills of many social workers.
  • Become inclusive communities where all social work practitioners have a role and are welcome.

Sophie Ayers is an independent social worker. She tweets @sophieayers1982.

2 Responses to How I’ve used my Twitter interactions to reflect on my social work practice

  1. dk February 14, 2019 at 6:36 pm #

    ‘legitimate concerns’ is a phrase I’d avoid! Being glib, of course.

    As a Frontline guinea pig and now multiple practice educator, I sympathise with some (but not all) of its detractors. What I will say though, is that from my perspective Frontline’s perceived obstenince has been matched only by the university’s sector’s own intransigence in examining its own flaws. Academia’s gates are wide open, and too many students are benefiting from a culture of expection created by extortionate study fees. I fully expect newly qualified workers had a more hospitable learning environment years ago than they do now and that has framed Local Authority frustration with the ‘day 1’ capabilities of ASYEs, but the hard fact is that some intervention in standards for qualifying was necessary. I can accept a position Frontline may have been the wrong intervention, but have been frustrated by academia as a whole’s (is it too cynical to say vested?) refusal to meaningfully engage with this*. I can’t help but feel it has greased the wheels of the What Works centre, post-qualifying accreditation etc. agenda.

    I suppose it is difficult to critique yourself when you’re constantly under attack… It’s a dilemma that I think may in social Work leadership positions, traditional and new, have had a hand in.

    *I’ve read enough of these replies to know that I need to make explicitly clear I’m not slating those on Bachelors or Masters routes en masse. Excellent social workers come from all walks.

  2. Ed February 22, 2019 at 8:05 pm #

    Good to see personal reflection. Good to seem someone admitting personal faults as nobody is perfect and social workers need to recognise their own failings to be able to understand what they need to do to not allow those failings to affect their performance negatively. A bit concerned at this bit “I can be reactionary; I am overly sensitive; I can be annoyed easily and also very fixed in my views.” because that could impact on practice and not in the best interests of the family. But still refreshing to see a social worker making such admissions.