Senior leader buy-in critical to success of strengths-based social work, says government guidance

‘Confusion’ over strengths-based practice has led to it being ‘misused to justify cuts to care packages’, warns author of government handbook

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Senior leader buy-in is critical to successful strengths-based social work but the approach should not be used as a cost-cutting exercise, authors of new government guidance have warned.

Social workers Carmen Colomina and Tricia Pereira said senior managers had to lay the foundations to enable strengths-based social work, following the publication of the strengths-based practice framework and supporting handbook by the Department of Health and Social Care last week

Pereira, co-chair of the Adult Principal Social Worker Network, and Colomina, practice development manager at the Social Care Institute for Excellence, wrote the handbook, which is designed to help organisations and practitioners put the accompanying framework into practice.

Strengths-based tips

Do you struggle with putting strengths-based approaches into practice? Check out our tips on holding strengths-based conversations and on asking strengths-based questions in assessment. If you have a licence for Community Care Inform Adults, you will be able to access plenty more guidance on strengths-based practice on our dedicated knowledge and practice hub on this subject.

“Whatever model of strengths-based practice you want to implement, unless you have the buy-in and strong leadership from senior management, it’s [going to be] difficult to embed”, Pereira told Community Care.

The handbook said that many councils had been working in a deficit-based, care management-style way for a long time, meaning a shift to strengths-based social work required a change of culture, which in turn was based on strong leadership.

Directors ‘must model strengths-based approach’

This required directors and other senior managers to model what they expected of practitioners, behaving in a strengths-based way themselves to “cultivate and reinforce” the new culture. For example, interactions between managers and staff should be based on successes and learning from experience, not identifying what has gone wrong.

“There’s no way any of this can be done successfully if the director is not fully involved, and when I say involved, I don’t mean they know what [strengths-based working] means, but they are ready to do what it takes,” said Colomina

“There are many other elements [to consider], you need to look at your system, your procedure, your policies, your guidance, your culture and, then, if you shape all that in the right way, [staff] can put their skills and knowledge into place, otherwise they can’t – no matter how many skills and how much knowledge they have.

“A lot of directors tell you that they support [their] staff and they train them etc… but they don’t do what it takes to get there.”

The framework was developed by Tony Stanley, formerly chief social worker for children’s services in Birmingham, and Samantha Baron, professor of social work at Manchester Metropolitan University. It set out how a strengths-based approach should draw upon social work theories and methods, social workers’ knowledge-  co-produced with people who need support and families –  values, learning from experience and skills, and should be applied to supervision and organisations’ quality assurance systems, as well as direct practice.

The accompanying handbook said that a strengths-based approach was about working collaboratively with individuals and their families, focusing on their strengths rather than deficits, and enabling risk for the individual rather than managing risk for the organisation.

However, it stressed that it was not about reducing support or putting more pressure on carers.

Handbook on what strengths-based practice is and is not

What strengths-based social work is What strengths-based social work is not
An approach An outcome
Holistic and multidisciplinary About reductions in packages
Collaborative, proportionate and flexible About signposting and providing less support
Appropriate to individual circumstances About not helping
Focused on what matters to the individual and what is strong Focused on what is the matter with the individual and what is wrong
Identifying personal, family and community strengths and supporting the individual to link with them About shifting responsibilities to carers and friends
Applicable to any intervention, setting, type or level of need or profession One size fits all
Supporting community development About avoiding talking about problems or issues

Colomina said that “confusion” around the idea of strengths-based working had led to “misuse” of the approach, with councils using it to justify cuts in support.

“A strengths-based approach is definitely about looking at what is strong and what isn’t strong… but some places confuse strengths-based with independence and all they use the strengths-based approach for, or want to use it for, is to reduce packages or reduce support.

“Cost-efficiency is an important thing in a strengths-based approach, but [councils shouldn’t be] reducing packages for the sake of it. Financial benefits could be a collateral benefit of a strengths-based approach, but they are not why we do it, it’s a different thing.”

Importance of trusting practitioners

Besides strong leadership, the handbook said managers trusting frontline staff was another key enabler of strengths-based practice, with practitioners encouraged to apply their professional judgment and work creatively and enable positive risk taking.

“If I have a process that is so rigid that gives no room for manoeuvre to my frontline staff, normally that is done because I don’t trust that my staff have the necessary experience and knowledge to define the process themselves,” said Colomina.

“In a strengths-based approach, you will have to define a framework, you will have a policy and guidance, but you kind of have boundaries, so people know they have to do things in those boundaries, but the path they follow depends on the individual and the intervention.”

The handbook also set out how a strengths-based approach should be applied to supervision, saying it should be “two-way”, with practitioners allowed “to explore, reflect on and find potential solutions in their work”, rather than being given directives or provided with a range of solutions or answers.

It said too often supervision was task orientated, which was a key barrier to implementing a strengths-based approach.

Pereira said that supervision provided the “ideal opportunity” to model a strengths-based approach.

“When supervisors are asking questions about cases and case management, it’s not just about how many cases you have closed, it’s about quality of the interventions, the quality of the work and looking at the strengths of the individual.

“Also, looking at their potential for development as well. That’s how we hoped the strengths-based approach is modelled in the supervision relationship, and that in turn means the worker feels more confident to deliver with our services.”

Staff turnover a barrier

In addition to identifying how a strengths-based approach could be enabled, the document highlighted organisational issues which could hinder a strengths-based approach.

Staff turnover was identified as one potential inhibitor of strengths-based working, with the framework saying that momentum to build a new organisational culture “easily wanes” when a core group of staff is not retained.

10 enablers of strengths-based social work

1. Strong leadership: having a clear vision by senior management of how the culture within the organisation will be shaped is essential in order to move towards a strengths and asset-based approach.

2. Having shared commitment and accountability: ensuring consistency of messages across the entire organisation and its activities. The vision needs to be understood, recognised and shared by other council departments such as commissioning, children’s services and housing.

3. Promoting working in a co-productive and collaborative way: developing and promoting a culture of collaborative and joint working where staff and members of the community maximise their strengths in a co-productive way.

4. Trusting in the workforce: trusting the professional’s knowledge and practice, thus promoting creativity in the workforce.

5. Supporting personalisation: enabling flexibility in processes and procedures so that they can be adapted to meet individual circumstances and can therefore be appropriate and proportionate to them.

6. Ensuring staff has the right information, tools, processes and systems to support working in a strengths and asset-based way.

7. Learning and development: supporting staff to clearly understand what is expected of them and how to carry out their new way of working. Training can be used to communicate expectations and help to embed new behaviours. Modelling and mentoring will also help staff learn and change.

8. Focusing on developing the strengths of the workforce rather than focusing on what’s wrong.

9. Measuring outcomes and quality: ensuring the performance indicators reflect the strengths- based and outcomes approaches.

10. Continuous improvement: reviewing and improving all of the above to ensure at each step of the process of improvement all parties are fully on board and working together to maximise outcomes for individuals in the community.

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4 Responses to Senior leader buy-in critical to success of strengths-based social work, says government guidance

  1. A Man Called Horse February 25, 2019 at 6:22 pm #

    The problem is that this approach stems from The Big Society nonsense put forward by David Cameron and George Osbourn. There was no consultation with Social Workers about this policy implemented in the name of Austerity and translated into the Care Act. We as professionals have been told you will have no say in how social work is done but you will implement our vision of it it in your work regardless of your values and beliefs. Many of us firmly believe that strength based is a smoke-screen to push through cuts and impose permanent austerity.

    It has always appeared that the policy was based upon we believe in a small state and that communities and families should do more for their own people. To make this happen we will make huge cuts to Local Government funding, forcing them to close day-care facilities and cut funding to community based schemes at the same time. Familes are under pressure now to provide more support as social care funding for older people is slashed and childrens services are decimated by ideological cuts. We have no autonomy now at all and we are expected to cut care packages and tell families do it yourself. If Social workers are not on board it is because we have been subjected to an ideological con trick. We see people who have paid into the systems their entire life denied services, have their welfare cut and forced to endure poverty, poor housing and collapse of the social fabric of Society. What is the role of the Social Worker now? Are we to say nothing about poverty, social exclusion and the destruction of public services? A deficit model may not be entirely perfect but most certainly neither is strength based working. The policy almost presents as the fable of the emperors new suit of gold, I’m all dressed up and naked.

  2. Ruth Cartwright February 28, 2019 at 12:53 pm #

    There has to be a balance between a deficit model and a strengths based approach to service users and their situations. I remember reading in the 90s (or even late 80s) about how harmful the deficit model could be – rushing to judgement on families and assuming there were no positives or potential for improvement unless they did exactly what social workers told them to do; the family (including wider family and community) having little opportunity to explore what they could do and contribute their own ideas about what would work for them. Probably most social workers have tended towards the strength based and empowering model anyway, but we do have to accept that some situations are untenable and intervention is needed. This is exacerbated as A Man Called Horse says by cuts to community-based services, benefits, etc. Some aspects of this strength-based model are in danger of putting too much on to the service user, almost blaming them for their situation. We just need to have a balance and treat people fairly and respectfully.

  3. Colin Slasberg March 3, 2019 at 8:27 am #

    The list of ten ‘enablers’ misses the very one without which the other ten are irrelevant, and will leave strengths based practice to be just the latest false dawn – the ending of the eligibility driven approach to control spending.

    The eligibility system uses risk as the currency to determine resource allocation. Determination of risk requires deficits to be the core of the assessment. If support is to build on strengths, the assessment, risk must be replaced with aspiration which will mean deficits are replaced by outcomes. Assessments will have to cease to be about what people cannot do, and become about how people want their lives to be (however dire their circumstances).

    This can be achieved by replacing eligibility of need with affordability of need as the means to control spending ( Until sector leaders face up to the need for this fundamental change, their support for strengths based practice and the litany of other ‘transformations’ that transform nothing will amount to nothing more than fanning the smoke screen that continues to protect this dysfunctional system that serves only the cynical, political expedient of controlling spend whilst denying the existence of the gap between needs and resources.

  4. Heather Tyrrell March 3, 2019 at 6:50 pm #

    Adopting a strength -based approach is clearly not going to be the panacea that can reverse 10 years or more of austerity or redress the starvation of public sector services; neither is it a magic trick that will instantly lead us to a utopian existence. I would be the first to agree there is a real danger in the approach being hijacked and used as smoke screen for neo- liberal ideologies and policies. People who have experienced cuts in their welfare benefits or social care support are right to be cynical about any approach justifying and masking deprivation and social workers equally should guard against their complicity in this process.
    Successful implementation of strength -based practice clearly needs to be endorsed and supported by senior leaders and whilst the are some senior leaders who will not be in the vanguard of change, there are equally some who are. Having strength- based conversations about the capabilities of individuals, families and communities, whilst at the same time recognising the resources of our own workforce, is a start in working out how to “do things differently”
    Speaking from a specifically Welsh perspective, there is evidence that systemic change is happening alongside the adoption of strength -based approaches. A handful of local authorities have remodelled their systems and services in ways that support practitioners to develop strength- based practice. Initiatives led by Welsh government such as the Collaborative Communication programme, developing strength based and outcome focussed practice has begun to reframe and reclaim social work practice from the deficit despair ridden care management practice of the last 30 years. What is apparent in those areas where systemic and practice change is happening in tandem, is that it takes time to plan, to do and for the impact to be experienced by practitioners and people using the services.
    The Practice Framework provides a useful and welcome link between strength -based practice and supervision of social care practitioners. Bringing strength- based approach into the supervisory both mirrors and reinforces the approach in practice. Research also has a contribution to make in this area and notable studies have begun to explore the relationship and impact supervision has in helping achieve personal outcomes, both in Children services, also, although of a more limited nature within Adult social care services.
    Robust academic research is vitally important but so is practitioner/citizen led research modelling the co-productive values and helping “bridge the gap” between providers and recipients of social support, creating the potential for radical rethinking of social work relationships. Of limited scope and focus, my own research study of social work supervision in Adult service teams in Wales is a very small contribution to the strength -based supervision debate and exploration of a co-productive model of social work supervision may be developed. What the research has done is to consider new ways of thinking about supervision- how it is organised and importantly how citizens can be partners in that process and co-producers of the supervisory process.
    Whilst it is evident that significant work is still needed to fully appreciate and understand the potential strength- based approach offers and how it can be supported within social work teams, the Practice Framework presents opportunities for a different type of conversation.
    As any framework that seeks to redefine social work practice it will be limited by the environment in which is used. We should however, guard against the insidious creep of cynicism and be prepared to continue the dialogue to develop our understanding and practice. After all we have nothing to lose and much to gain by continuing the strength based conversations, involving citizens, practitioners, leaders and academics