The new children’s social work model aiming to increase ‘face-to-face time’ by 60%

Community Care takes a look at a blueprint based on the Buurtzorg model of 'self-managing' teams and asks what it could mean for the sector

Photo: Photographee.eu/Adobe Stock

Social work is about making a real difference to people’s lives, which many practitioners and experts feel comes chiefly through building positive relationships with individuals and families. However, many practitioners’ working lives are dominated by case recording, compliance and the need to have decisions signed off by layers of management.

While the need to unlock more of practitioners’ time to enable them to build relationships is well known, achieving this has been harder, particularly against the backdrop of austerity and risk-averse cultures often incubated by high-profile cases.

60% increase in ‘face-to-face time’

Last month, the latest solution to this problem – A Blueprint for Children’s Social Care – was published by fast-track training provider Frontline, think-tank the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) and care organisation Buurtzorg Britain and Ireland.

Their paper proposed a model that it says would give social workers a 60% increase in ‘face-to-face time’ with children and families and a 20% reduction in caseloads, while also improving quality assurance through a 50% increase in group supervision. All of this would be achieved within existing budgets, legislative frameworks, inspection regimes and reporting requirements to government.

The blueprint takes inspiration from The Buurtzorg model of care, launched in the home care sector in the Netherlands in 2006, under which teams of nurses are given significant autonomy to organise their work and support service users. At the blueprint’s heart is the creation within local authorities of small ‘self-managing’ teams, with no team manager function, providing social workers with substantial professional autonomy.

Over 80 social workers and leaders contributed to the blueprint, and the three organisations behind it partnered with one local authority – which is being kept anonymous – to examine how feasible it would be to transition from the current model to the proposed one and used the existing council’s system as a case study. It was this that resulted in the claims about its impact on caseloads and contact time. The next step for the proponents of the model is to have a real-life pilot of the blueprint.

However, while it has attracted understandable interest and enthusiasm, the proposal has also sparked controversy, amid concerns about it opening up more private sector involvement in social work and in relation to the motivations of the organisations behind it.

How will the model work?

Family facing teams would have “near total decision-making power” over their cases, rather than have to refer them to managers, and would work with families from initial referral through all categories of risk to ensure continuity of support. They would also be fully accountable for use of their budget and the allocation of cases between team members.

As outlined in the diagram above, the model provides a structure around these teams to enable them to do their best work, rather than replicate current management hierarchies. This includes an ‘enabler team’ which would handle administration for the family facing teams, help with training, recruitment and IT and conduct performance analysis. An ‘insight team’, consisting of experienced practitioners such as current principal social workers and independent reviewing officers, as well as legal experts, would provide coaching and specialist expertise on cases when needed.

Accountability would be provided within the family facing teams by strong peer support and extensive peer supervision, but they would also be overseen, on a light-touch basis, by a ‘strategy team’ – the equivalent of today’s senior management. While its role would be to create a culture that enabled family facing teams to flourish, they would be required to get involved in cases above a financial threshold or those that most affect families. The boundaries of the strategy team’s involvement in family facing teams’ business would be set out in ‘team agreements’, ideally drawn up in partnership with the frontline teams.

‘Potential for social work to be turned upside down’

The model has had a positive, if cautious, welcome from parts of the social work sector.

Kathy Evans, chief executive of Children England, says she is “excited at the potential for social work to be really turned upside down and to learn from Buurtzorg, because it’s closer to the true nature of what the aspirations of social work should be”.

In a statement, British Association of Social Workers chief executive Ruth Allen said that the association was not endorsing the blueprint, but was “supporting the principles around relationship-based practice and increased autonomy for social workers”.

She added: “The value of this is that it opens up a debate, which is really helpful.” The aims of the model also chime with BASW’s current 80-20 campaign which aims to reverse the situation for many social workers of spending 80% of time on administrative tasks and 20% with service users, to promote relationship-based practice.

However, commentators have also raised concerns about the practicalities about implementing the blueprint.

Evans suggests that the wider council would need a culture change for a model like this to be implemented and that it would need to be local authority-wide, not just within social care.

“Trying the Buurtzorg model with children’s social work in isolation from the rest of the system is very unlikely to set social work practice free in the way that is hoped.

“If the wider council hasn’t had a culture change, and also if the wider network of services remains commissioned and managed on high targets and specialisms, then having a freed up social work team might not have the benefits that are hoped.”

‘Trying to squeeze something radical into an old system’

Concerns have also been raised about the blueprint’s compatibility with existing IT systems within local authorities.

At the model’s launch, Anna Bacchoo, head of practice at What Works for Children’s Social Care, said that “existing systems would not work with this model… without [improved systems] I think the model could potentially be undermined”.

Evans also commented at the launch that it would be like “trying to squeeze something radical into an old system”.

Ryan Wise, practice development manager at the Social Care Institute of Excellence, who contributed to the blueprint, says updated IT systems would definitely help but that “[the model] working is not dependent on a fully-fledged new IT system”.

Deeper anxieties

Aside from the practical concerns, deeper anxieties have also been voiced about the model from some social workers. At the blueprint’s launch event, there were many questions from practitioners in the audience about how it would affect them: newly qualified social workers concerned about career progression and managers questioning how their roles might change and if this would affect their pay. Some suggested that the model could see ‘natural hierarchies’ being formed within self-managing teams.

There has been some concern and confusion over the model’s structure with some questioning on Twitter whether the diagram above meant that the model involved local authorities outsourcing social work services to external agencies.

Wise responded to these concerns on Twitter by saying “[the model] is creating a flatter hierarchy within a local authority, not out of it”, but acknowledges how the diagram could be interpreted in that way.

Evans adds that there’s nothing in the model which signals an outsourcing risk to her: “This to me looks like no outsourcing angle at all, it looks to me like it’s finally focusing on how people do their work”.

There have also been wider concerns expressed by social workers and academics on Twitter about American consultancy firm Boston Consulting Group’s (BCG) involvement in the development of the model and in UK social work. BCG founded the Centre For Public Impact and has provided pro bono support for the blueprint project as well as pro bono strategy support to Frontline, on whose board of trustees it has a member.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These concerns related to the potential for the company to exert undue and negative influence over government and local authorities, in a way that ran contrary to the values of social work, through ostensibly charitable work in the name of improving the profession.

In response, Katie Rose, programme manager at the Centre for Public Impact, says: “The Centre for Public Impact is a not-for-profit organisation that was established by Boston Consulting Group, aimed at identifying and promoting innovation in government. We are a separate legal entity from BCG, and this work was led by myself at CPI.”

“So, while BCG provided expertise in organisational design for the blueprint, the effort was led by Frontline as the experts in children’s social care, CPI as the experts in the applications of shared power in government and Buurtzorg Britain and Ireland,” she adds.

Evans says that her concerns are less about the organisations involved and more about a real risk of it becoming a ‘new consultancy pitch’ sold to local authorities to transform children’s social care in a one-size-fits-all way.

“You have to grow your own version of good and that’s what’s at the heart of the Buurtzorg model so it is not a replicable model, it’s a philosophy to be grown from the roots up and that’s the risk of it being viewed as a pilotable consultancy solution.”

What happens next?

In the middle of an election campaign – in which social work is conspicuous by its absence in the debate – it is hard to know whether the new government will pick up and promote the model. In theory, given the assumptions that the model is compatible with local authorities’ existing statutory duties and reporting requirements, councils should be able to pilot the model without Department for Education approval. But given the radical nature of the change it envisages, some government support is likely to be needed.

In its conclusion, the authors of the blueprint say: “A transition to this model will be highly challenging, and a significant mindset shift will be needed to put it into practice. However, the benefits will secure better outcomes for children and families, while also addressing longer-term morale and staff retention issues. This blueprint offers a brave way of doing things differently and has demonstrated that the system doesn’t need to wait around for change to happen. It is the hope that LAs, groups of social workers and the DfE can find ways of creating the space to give this a go.”

Sometime next year we should find out whether this will be the case.

An online webinar by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) will be taking place on 15 January 2020. SCIE and CPI will explain the workings of the blueprint and look at empowering social workers and placing relationships at the heart of children’s practice. Find out more and register for free here.

8 Responses to The new children’s social work model aiming to increase ‘face-to-face time’ by 60%

  1. Ray Jones December 6, 2019 at 3:40 pm #

    What I find surprising is not only that this ‘revolutionary’ model of social work has been created by an American management consultancy in partnership with Frontline, which it helps resource, but that it is seeklng to import into the UK a model of community-based teams developed by nurses in the Netherlands. Well done to the nurses in the Netherlands, but there is little recognition by the authors of this ‘new blueprint’ for social work in the UK that relationship-based community social work in stable decentralised area and neighbourhood teams with devolved budgets and decision-making is a part of the rich history and traditions of social work. It is a tradition in children’s and adults’ services which has been stifled by the intense focus on risk management in the context of rationing and cuts amid politically-chosen austerity targeting poor people and public services. And it is right to be at least a little wary of American international management consultants whose roots are embedded in advising big private corporations.

  2. Sandra Chapman December 9, 2019 at 2:46 pm #

    It is always interestig that models that have been used before come around again and are then referred to as” innovative ” or” revolutionary”. Although I have not experienced the suggested model in full,when my career began ,we did work across the whole process in childrens services and remained with the child on their journey from duty and assessment ,through family support and into care if interventions had not succeeded in preventing that.

    As a social worker ,the role is much more satisfying and for the child ,they have the reassurance of having a social worker whom they really know, through very difficult experiences.

    I agree with Ray Jones regarding the focus on risk management and the need to be cautious when those advising, come from a very different background, where the perspective is unlikely to be in line with social work .

    • Steve December 12, 2019 at 5:53 pm #

      I would fully echo Sandra’s observations. Anyone remember neighbourhood teams in the 80’s. More local and autonomous decision making, with an emphasis upon community engagement and community resources. Not saying the good old days, but am saying “innovative” “revolutionary”??

  3. Do Galpin December 13, 2019 at 12:42 am #

    I first wrote about this model in 2014 & 2018 in relation with its potential for dementia care in the community. It is effectively a health care service employing nurses to deliver care at home. They have teams of nurses , approx 12 per team, to cover an area of approx 15,000 people. Each team is self sufficient and has its own budget .

    The 3 main issues I would suggest are firstly, nursing is not social work with children and families, secondly the funding model in the Netherlands is totally different to here and lastly the ratio of nurse to potential patient population is going to be different I suspect.

    Of course where Govt may like it is you have one professional undertaking a range of professional task, which may be suitable for nursing older people but not sure how this would work in children and families services .

    And I whole heartedly agree with the comments above . We have the answer to the issues here already, just ask any social worker on the real frontline, not the elite Frontline!

    See if interested https://digalpin.wordpress.com/2018/01/23/buurtzorg-the-dutch-model-of-care-in-the-community-that-is-going-global-except-in-uk-why/amp/?__twitter_impression=true

  4. Di Galpin December 13, 2019 at 9:46 am #

    P.s BTW Frontlne are not the ‘experts in children’s social care’. They are a smalll group of people with positional power who are good at networking with others with positional power to generously resource/fund their vision.

    There are many more experienced ‘experts’ in the UK but they do not hold the same positional power, these people are called ‘Social Workers’ and the majority are not fast track grads and they are the backbone of social work.

    Just saying!

    • Ryan Wise December 13, 2019 at 7:28 pm #

      Thats the whole point of the Blueprint. A way of supporting social workers to be experts, giving them the power and autonomy to do what they were trained to do regardless of what education route. The purpose of the Blueprint is to contribute to the current direction of travel. It is all well and good saying the ideas are not new and similar to what has come before, but what other ideas or suggestions are out there to address the challenge in the system nationally? Genuinely interested. This is not a panacea but a contribution. The principles of autonomy, relationships and empowerment are of course not new, this is an attempt to set.out and show how an LA could do something different organisationally. Moving theory of self management and organisational trust into possible action.

      • Simon Cardy December 16, 2019 at 11:13 am #

        We all agree with the aim of 80:20 but you have yet to explain how you over come the national single status agreement if the reorganisation stays in-house, how job evaluation will assess the new JD and if team managers & IROs will face a pay cut or social workers will have to be paid more?

  5. Simon Cardy December 14, 2019 at 4:41 pm #

    This is the latest incarnation to focus attention away from the very well documented albeit under researched problems facing children’s social work teams.

    The solutions are well known. One of them is even referred to in the ‘Blueprint’ which references the recent BASW commissioned research ‘UK Social Workers: Working Conditions and Wellbeing’ by Jermaine Ravalier. This stresses that there needs to be greater respect and understanding of the social work role, including improvement of the ‘material working conditions’ of those in the role. These include: a system of case allocation which more clearly takes into account both the number of cases allocated as well as the complexity; regular meaningful reflective supervision ands; help with administrative tasks. Put simply, we need more of us to get cases down to 14-16 cases each and be better supported in PQ training, supervision and thinking space.

    Other high quality researchers* have put forward similar ideas namely:

    • workloads, remuneration and working conditions
    • positive workplace cultures
    • supervision that addresses both organisational and professional requirements
    • opportunities for professional and career development.

    The Blueprint begins with the idea that ‘Deeper, whole scale transformational change is needed to create conditions that will allow social workers to have the freedom and responsibility they need to improve outcomes for children and families’. We can all agree with that. The Blueprint however is a distraction from the problems we face and disconnected from most social workers experience of austerity in local government.

    Stripping away layers of management – making people redundant – has been at the core of every local authority’s financial savings proposals in the last 10 years. In citing Kathy Evans, the Blueprint calls on local authorities to ‘stop adding’ layers of management. Where is the evidence for this? Any reading of recent local authority budget savings proposals or a couple of phone calls to those on the ground, would tell the authors the opposite is true.

    The Blueprint is prone to mislead, citing sources to make its case that that have since been discredited. For example, it suggests the Social Work Practice Pilots, implemented in England in 2009/10, attempted to bring decision making closer to front-line practice. They failed – every single one of them – particularly on the question of ‘trust’ – something at the heart of this new model too – as local authorities were unable to give up control of the external placements budgets. Moreover, the official evaluation found that there were very little differences in practice between the pilots and the local authority control sample sites.

    Arguably, the Blueprint is an attempt to resuscitate some of the flawed thinking behind the social work practice pilots especially on the question of ‘reducing bureaucracy’. Here the same old tired arguments have been regurgitated frequently conflating paperwork with accountability and the need to put stuff in writing.

    The self-management model ‘is designed to empower social workers and remove unnecessary bureaucracy’ it claims boldly – not that bureaucracy is ever defined in the report. Like the social work practices pilots – that had similar flawed ideas about the operation of bureaucracy inside children’s social work – it deems that the need to reduce bureaucracy rests on not having to interact with senior management. Like the social work practice pilots, the social workers on the frontline in the Buurtzorg model largely manage themselves at arms length from the ‘command and control’ as if somehow they will not have to enter data for KPIs or spend many hours of their own time often in the early hours writing reports to meet court and panel deadlines.

    As pointed out elsewhere – most notably on twitter – there is an air of fantasy and magical thinking at work – seeking to play on social workers aspirations to be able to have time and meaningful relationships with children and families. It seems hard to see how this would work without the IRO’s being relieved of their statutory duties chairing and writing up meetings and team managers from supervision, dip-sampling and dealing with complaints. Perhaps we might well see the new Johnson government revisiting the exemption clauses in the Children and Social Work Bill in 2016/17 that would do away with statutory duties? Surely something has to give to make this model work?

    It’s a distraction but no doubt it will get some traction with the new Tory government.

    twitter @simoncardy

    * Baginksy, M., 2013. Retaining experienced social workers in children’s services: the challenges facing local authorities in England. [Online]. London: Kings College London.