How leaders must put values into practice to make safeguarding personal

Transparency about core values and making them real both on the front line and higher up can result in more effective and personal adult safeguarding, says Jane Lawson

Hands holding up letters spelling out Values

By Jane Lawson, independent safeguarding adults consultant

Frontline social workers must be supported by the leadership and culture of their organisations if they are to be really effective in safeguarding adults. In fact, risk-averse leadership in adult social care is a significant barrier to the national policy of Making Safeguarding Personal (MSP).

MSP in practice is a human rights approach in which organisations and staff work together to get to the bottom of what is important for people and communities. If this is to happen, staff must be valued, listened to, supported and developed because only then will they be in a position to support and empower others, engaging with them to resolve and balance concerns about their safety and wellbeing.

Being upfront

It requires being upfront as an organisation about core values and making them real both on the front line and higher up. Values need to be transparent and non-negotiable so that everyone knows what to expect and so that challenge from frontline practitioners, as well as from people and communities, is facilitated where the culture on the ground doesn’t fulfil the vision.

When the chief executive of McDonald’s was sacked recently for having a consensual relationship with a member of staff, he emailed staff to say that he agreed it was time for him to move on “given the values of the company”. Where values are transparent and non-negotiable, this facilitates decision making consistent with these at all levels.

So, what are these values in social care? A simple internet search will reveal a consensus on organisational values, such as:

  • Openness, transparency, trust.
  • Valuing everyone’s contribution.
  • Enhancing resilience; empowering people and communities and staff to influence.
  • Promoting wellbeing.
  • Caring about the wellbeing of employees; support to translate principles into practice.
  • Engaging with research and best practice elsewhere.

Making values real

Implementing and seeking assurance on strategies to make those values real in practice is fundamental. Strategies to ensure that values drive practice might include:

  • Integrating values directly into appraisal and recruitment practices.
  • Holding people to account by the stated values.
  • Engaging with staff so that they can describe what the values mean in their role.
  • Placing an emphasis on wellbeing alongside safety to mitigate against a risk-averse culture.

Senior managers should consider the professional standards set out by Social Work England and how their organisational strategy supports staff in upholding those standards. The first two standards connect closely with MSP in promoting the rights, strengths and wellbeing of people, families and communities, and establishing and maintaining their trust and confidence in the organisation.

Social workers have a mandate from their regulator for challenging barriers to upholding those standards, which include:

  • Quality and nature of staff supervision.
  • Promoting and facilitating access to research.
  • Creating opportunities for critical reflection (including of personal values and impact on practice).
  • Establishing an open and creative learning culture.

Reaching the front line

Ensuring that learning from audits, case reviews, safeguarding adults reviews and research reaches frontline practice is crucial. Evidence from this learning, for example, points to the need to make sure staff have the knowledge to put into practice legal frameworks like the Care Act 2014 and Mental Capacity Act 2005 as well as an understanding of the six underpinning principles for safeguarding adults: empowerment, prevention, proportionality, protection, partnership and accountability.

Staff at all levels, people in need of safeguarding support and local communities should be able to make a contribution to leading MSP. Recognising and valuing equally what they all bring to the table is important. The Rotherham child sexual exploitation inquiry, led by Alexis Jay in 2014, is a stark example of how things can go wrong when the organisational culture is one that doesn’t listen and act on what it hears. Neither young people in need of support nor the Risky Business youth project were treated as equal partners or listened to.

Greater recognition is needed of the value and significance of face-to-face encounters, where senior managers in engaging with the public and frontline staff are open to change and to being changed. They listen to feedback and act on it. The culture should be such that there is potential for those encounters to disrupt firmly held views and protocols, challenging hierarchical structures that often characterise defensive leadership and cultures.

Achieving insight

In Sabrina Cohen-Hatton’s newly published account of her firefighting career, The Heat of the Moment, she reflects on the influence of her experiences when homeless as a teenager. Alongside encounters with colleagues these appear to have been significant in shaping her leadership, which is characterised by:

  • The ability to question one’s own assumptions; being open to altering them if necessary and not being “so focused on being in charge that [there are] missed opportunities to learn…”.
  • Empathy – understanding “the implications of what I’m asking my colleagues to do, but also how they might feel”.
  • Empowering people to make decisions and be confident – “you do not need to blow out other people’s candles to make yours burn brighter, but many do, and that sets the tone for the culture…”.

Senior managers don’t all have those personal experiences, but they can achieve a level of insight through face-to-face encounters with people and with staff in particular, allowing them to have an impact on their leadership.

In my work on a London “temperature check” (2017), several councils highlighted the presence of commitment from senior management where MSP flourishes. One borough said how “the safeguarding manager meets quarterly with the director, leader and chief executive to discuss safeguarding…The director has attended every staff briefing on the recent safeguarding adult review (SAR) and talks about how it relates to Making Safeguarding Personal”.

In that case the social services director had met the family of the person at the centre of the SAR, reinforcing his commitment to change. A year later the borough convened a conference to ensure the lessons continued to be learned, while a specific member of staff has been tasked with taking forward MSP.

Shifting the focus

In support of MSP, senior managers can integrate this openness to change into assurance frameworks, which should reflect a shift from a focus on numbers (staff trained; protocols in place) to a focus on information that speaks of decision-making quality, responsiveness, engagement, resilience, staff supported and empowered, partnership, and values put into practice.

In my guide to MSP in practice for Community Care Inform Adults, I see the most successful and well-led organisations as being those where there is transparency about core values and a determination to ensure these are lived out at the front line. They show evidence of a commitment to ongoing reflection and learning.

These are organisations that listen to people and are willing to change in response to what they hear. Everybody’s contribution – the public, staff, communities, partner organisations – is recognised and valued. And the proof must be that the impact of these encounters with people on ways of working and outcomes is clear.

Making Safeguarding Personal (MSP) is an adult safeguarding programme led by the Local Government Association (LGA) and Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) and funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. This article draws on work commissioned by the LGA and ADASS.

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