A key part of being a social work student is service user feedback – why does this stop after qualifying?

Ryan Wise looks at the relationship between social workers, systems and feedback, and how the profession could do more

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by Ryan Wise

A key part of most, if not all, student portfolios is service user feedback. The student is required to engage with individuals, children or families to think about their approach, professionalism and their ability to be supportive and effective. Students are encouraged to think creatively about how they obtain feedback in a manner which demonstrates an understanding of power.

Seeking out feedback supports a student in developing skills of collaboration and humility. I found it provided a straightforward way of reaffirming the position of the professional as working on behalf of the client, be it the child or adult. Our role as a social worker is to provide an excellent service through advocacy, respectful relationship building and honest, open practice.

The social worker is a state employee and the position of the state is to support and help citizens thrive and live independent, safe and nurturing lives. Feedback enables a social worker to understand and appreciate how they may be doing in providing this service.

From personal experience as a social worker, practice educator and now engaging with local authorities outside of direct practice, I find the relationship with feedback can change once education ends. There are positive examples of feedback shaping local authority practice but I think it is important to consider feedback in more depth, for example, both at a system level as well on a relational level between practitioner and individual.

Feedback requires a sharing of power, a recognition that the family or citizen is an expert of their own lives. With excellent practice seemingly inextricably linked to strong relationships and collaborative working I wonder if the role of feedback is as promoted as it could be.

Encouraging parental feedback

We are all aware how bureaucracy can stifle good practice but also how a sensible and realistic approach to paperwork and process can allow and support better practice. If we consider the forms, systems and processes synonymous with current practice, how much of an assessment or report focuses on the feedback of families? We are all familiar with boxes or sections named ‘Parent’s views’ – this may be filled with an account of what a mother or father may think about the presenting situation – but is it common place for systems to encourage parental feedback of the service they are receiving?

My hypothesis would be that the importance of feedback changing is a symptom of the variance between education and practice. The ideals of ethical and collaborative practice can be lost once we start in organisations. The responsibility sits with both the organisation and practitioners to create relationships where power is addressed, that seek out feedback and engage citizens to lead on their experience of services.

I often wonder if in risk-averse systems there is an ambivalence in some quarters to recognise feedback from families and sharing that power as the right thing to do. Do systems and social workers feel prepared or backed to offer that level of equality? Do we hide behind our power, are we fearful of asking for feedback due to the risk of muddying the waters further when holding a position of protecting children but supporting families?

How does the question of feedback make us feel?

The purpose of this piece is in some part an invitation to consider the relationship with feedback in the sector. I would guess there is a spectrum of approaches to feedback both on an organisational and individual level. From an organisational perspective, I wonder how different responses may be to the questions of how does your organisation engage children and families to learn about what you are doing well, what can you do better or do differently?

How does the question of feedback make us feel, and why is it that way. Such questions I think are useful in exploring our own values and approach to practice.

A final thought is if the sector agrees that we want services to be shaped by those who use them?

I strongly believe they should, but I wonder if this shared universally. If we do indeed wish this to be the case, I wonder how, if we are not actively engaging in feedback, how do we know what we are doing is useful or in line with what is needed for families?

Or to reframe this, if we know that there are different approaches to feedback both personally and organisationally, what might this mean for consistency of service for children and families across the country? Similar to how thresholds have been described as a post code lottery, is the way we approach working in partnership as set out in the Children Act similarly different across the board?

Ryan Wise is a social worker at the Social Care Institute for Excellence. He tweets at @ryanwise18.

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