Sarah Parker, the new executive director of people at recently formed Dorset Council, is encouraging everyone in her service to pause for a moment.
Dorset Council is the product of two years of work to bring the county council together with its district and borough councils and become a unitary authority.
This long process, which happened while Ofsted inspectors and a local government review took place, is what Sarah wants staff to take stock of before Dorset takes on the next steps of its improvement journey.
Staff were involved in shaping the council’s future approach to social care throughout the transition, with ‘service champions’ from across the council drafted in to help shape the future. This signals an exciting transition for the service, but even with this Sarah feels the council’s social workers have been through a “rough ride”.
“They work tremendously hard, they are absolutely committed to our children and families, they come into work to do their absolute best,” Sarah says.
‘Our staff have a voice’
But that doesn’t hide the challenges the council faces, and Sarah needs to address, such as caseloads higher than she wants, stability in the work force and use of agency staff and high numbers of high need and looked-after children.
“There will be changes ahead and we’re not going to get to ‘good’ without continuing to have conversations with staff, being radical with our approaches and taking a few risks. But I’m just at the point now where we are pausing, there is some healing going on. Staff have been working tirelessly on the improvement agenda since the Ofsted judgement of our JTAI, social care and SEND inspections identified us as ‘requiring improvement’.”
Sarah is confident, however, these challenges can be overcome. Partly because of the sense of energy and improved opportunities and momentum for partnership working created by the new Dorset Council structure, but also a commitment to keep listening to social workers as it takes its next steps.
“I want to make sure our staff have a voice. I need to ensure our social workers continue on that improvement journey including their own self-development and professional practice.”
She sees staff as leading and building on initiatives to improve social work services in Dorset. Last year £2 million was invested to introduce the Reinvigorating Social Work programme, an approach focused on revisiting outstanding social work practice, and there has been a clear corporate commitment to reduce caseloads.
“We’ve got a framework in place now for genuine co-design of systems and process with our social workers, some at a practice level,” Sarah explains. “I think we’re going to upscale this approach across the whole directorate to include our SEND and education colleagues for a whole system approach.”
Connecting social workers and senior management
The council has launched new initiatives to get social workers talking with senior management and making suggestions, which now includes young people.
“Sometimes just giving staff space to have those conversations and get them out of the office, give them time and structure to really make their voice heard is key. It has made a tremendous difference which is why we’re going to upscale that even further and increase the frequency.”
Some of the feedback has been ‘smaller’ things the council has been able to improve, such as home and mobile working.
“Some of the ideas and suggestions coming through are absolutely bang on, such as our new approach to managing assessments and extending our front door support to out of hours and weekends. We’ve still a way to go, but I’m very encouraged by the direction of travel and hugely proud of our social workers commitment.
“You don’t deliver good services sat in an office. It’s the social workers that know best about the families they are working with and their needs and where some of those blockages are. My role is about unblocking the blockages so they can do what they are bloody well good at when they are given the opportunity to be.”