There has always been an uneasy relationship between bureaucracy and social work. If there are too few processes and procedures, then social workers may not feel safe; too many, and social workers spend all their time filling in forms and not with families and children.
Colin Foster, chief executive of Northamptonshire Children’s Trust (NCT), is very clear that the county has, for many years, tied up its social workers in too much red tape. So much so that he is convinced many left simply because they felt unable to be good social workers.
“Bureaucracy was one of the biggest problems here. For example, we used to have a rigid system when it came to auditing cases – to the point where more time was spent thinking about the audit itself rather than the impact of the practice on children and families.
“We’ve moved to collaborative learning discussions now, which are designed to be an opportunity to learn, not a means of oppression.”
Changes at the frontline
Since the shift to the trust model last year and taking on the role of chief executive, Colin has tried to ensure practice leads policy at all times and engages in regular consultations with frontline practitioners to achieve that end.
“I don’t want anything that’s in a policy document to ever come as a surprise to staff,” he adds.
The changes have already made a difference at the front line according to Craig Nkomo, a senior social worker in the children’s support and safeguarding team.
“We had such significant financial issues when we were part of the council. We needed to go through funding panels all the time to convince people to pay for the services we knew families needed. That took time and it was really frustrating both for me and the families.
“There were so many forms that had to be filled in. But now with the move to a trust all that red tape has been cut.”
Advantages of working in a trust model for social workers
A more streamlined management structure has also speeded up decision making, he adds.
“There is now a closer relationship between the person working the case and the person approving those decisions. It’s made such a difference when we want a decision to be made quickly.”
For Craig, it is proof of the advantages of working in a trust model.
“It does feel that the trust is more rewarding to work for. There’s more recognition of the work we do – both through our pay and benefits and the caseloads are becoming more manageable.
“We were definitely struggling before and I did feel overwhelmed. I was getting burnt out and I did consider leaving a few times. What kept me was that I work in such a close-knit team that I knew I would really miss those relationships we had forged to support each other.”
Colin pays tribute to those social workers, like Craig, who did stay despite all the hindrances in place.
“There were so many barriers – I’m amazed at those social workers who stuck with it and stayed. They have my immense respect and admiration.”
He says stabilising the leadership was the first step on the improvement journey for Northamptonshire. A succession of leaders and interim leaders has left scars.
“The question I have been asked the most since I’ve been here is ‘will you still be here in six months?’ Well today is my six-month anniversary! But it shows the need for a stable leadership team with a long-term commitment to the journey.
“I believe we are getting there. We’ve made a good start. We now have a clear vision constructed in consultation with everyone in the service with eight clear conditions for success. That is now the backbone of our workforce development strategy and practice standards.”
He is also focused on ensuring all policy and practice documents are concise, accessible and to the point.
“We have policy documents here that I’ve never read because they are so big and weighty, so how can I expect anyone else to have read them? Our practice policy document was over 50 pages long! But, we got a group of managers and social workers together who are our practice group – they worked on it and streamlined it so now people can actually use it.
“I’m not saying everything is perfect yet. We are clearly on an improvement journey, but I do feel we have made real progress.”
Jo Denny, a decision-making social worker in the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH), says she has never felt so in touch with senior leaders.
“We get regular communication from the chief executive and it does feel that they want to build relationships with us and create a united workforce. When a change has been made it’s not uncommon for one of the senior leaders to appear on the floor checking in and asking for feedback. I’ve never had that before.”
Encouragement to undertake training
Craig agrees and says feedback is visibly acted on.
“Even on small things. It sounds silly but our email sign-offs and emails used to be so long-winded it was getting ridiculous. It was brought up in one of these discussions and they made the change. So now our emails are really simple and straightforward. It just feels like they are listening and working with us to find solutions.”
But for Jo the biggest change has been the encouragement and support to take up training.
“In the MASH it’s always quite pressured so it always felt that you never had the time for training. I don’t feel that anymore. We are really encouraged and supported to do it and there’s a lot of emphasis on how important it is that we undertake regular training.”
Jo, who is in a job share, also says she no longer feels she has to sacrifice her life or health to be a social worker.
“It’s not always been sunshine and roses but I feel happy where I am now. I feel like I have all the things in place I need to be the social worker I want to be – I’m not overworked, I’ve got good management support, supportive colleagues, good and regular training and a good work life balance. So, for me, it’s all really positive.”
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