Mark Hewer’s about to call time on agency life. He’s spent a good chunk of his 14 years in children’s social work as an agency worker but those days will soon be over.
And it’s all thanks to his latest agency role as a team manager at Hampshire County Council.
“I’ve worked for a number of authorities, but the support offered at Hampshire has given me the push I needed to go back to being permanent,” he says.
So, what is it about Hampshire’s support offer that won Mark over?
To find out we sat down with Mark, head of strategy and operations (West) Sue Kocaman, district manager Laura Mallinson, and Steph How, head of strategy and operations (East) and the strategic and operational lead for transforming social care.
A bedrock of knowledge
Comprehensive and clear policies are the bedrock of the support Hampshire offers social workers.
“We have what we think is one of the strongest sets of policies and procedures of any local authority,” says Steph. “We really do have a policy and process for everything a social worker may need to navigate their way through in the course of their work.
“Now, you could say that’s a pain, but the reality is it makes staff feel safe because the support is always there, and the accountability is very clear.”
Crucially, the council has a dedicated policy officer who works with frontline social workers and subject matter experts to ensure the policies and procedures are constantly being improved and kept up to date.
Says Laura: “The policy officer ensures everything is updated annually and makes sure it is useful and easy for the social workers to use.”
Guidance on the go
The council also ensures that the policies and procedures are easy to access. They are held in a single online location, the new ‘Toolkit’, which social workers can access wherever they are using the council’s mobile devices.
The value of this is something Laura saw in action through the work of one of her district’s social workers, with a family where neglect was a concern.
“The social worker was able to access the Toolkit and find practical exercises to help understand the perspectives of the mother and child,” she says.
“She was able to just go into the appropriate part of the Toolkit, pick the exercises she felt were appropriate and put them into practical use then and there.”
Creativity and autonomy
But while Hampshire’s Toolkit is a powerful resource, the service also works to ensure it doesn’t result in social work by the numbers.
Steph says: “We want to support the workforce to be creative and autonomous while also feeling safe, ensuring that senior leaders have all they need to be accountable for the service for which they are responsible.”
That drive is something Mark feels the county council is getting right, especially as its new, strengths-based Hampshire Approach to social work beds in.
“I’ve seen a lot of other authorities take a practice model package off the shelf and say this is how it will be from now on,” he says.
“The Hampshire Approach feels more meaningful. It’s a true cultural shift. It’s not something that’s been thrust upon us – it’s something we’re all part of as social workers.”
Supervision is golden
Another pillar in Hampshire’s support offer for social workers is through its implementation of frequent, quality, strengths-based supervision.
“We’re very clear in our expectations about supervision,” says Steph. “We regard regular, reflective and effective supervision as one of the strongest ways in which we can support staff.”
That expectation is backed with regular audits to check supervision is happening as it should.
“The frequent supervision auditing means we find out very quickly if supervision isn’t happening as often as it should and address that,” says Steph. “Good, regular supervision is a golden thread through the service.”
Mark adds that there’s plenty of informal supervision being offered by the team managers and assistant team managers too.
“We treat individual teams as safe spaces where social workers can have discussions, talk with colleagues and get supervision,” he says.
“Team managers sit on the same floor, close to the teams. There are no separate offices and managers have a good handle on what’s going on and are very approachable.”
And since the council’s teams are located near each other, there’s also support across teams as well as within. For example, when a manager is off, they are usually covered by the manager from one of the neighbouring teams.
“The whole set up makes you feel very safe and supported on ground level,” says Mark.
Hampshire also invests in helping social workers deal with the emotional stress of the situations their work can present.
It runs training on resilience and mindfulness; and there is a counselling service.
“When we relaunched the counselling service there was a recognition that there is a group of staff – social workers being one – who can be exposed to traumatic events in the course of their work,” says Sue.
“So, we made sure the service has a degree of specialism that recognises the counselling support social workers may need.”
And that support isn’t limited to work-related issues either, adds Sue: “It could be that there’s something going on in your home life that will cause your resilience to drop if you can’t get support.”
A work in progress
While a lot is already in place, Steph notes that making Hampshire a national leader in supporting social workers is an ongoing project and that social workers are by far the most valuable resource in any children’s services department.
“It’s always going to be a work in progress, but we firmly believe that by giving social workers the best support we can, it will – in turn – enable them to provide the very best support for the children and families they work with.”