Last year I was one of the social workers who wrote ‘A Blueprint for Children’s Social Care’ with CPI UK; setting out a vision for a different system for children’s social care. This vision is built on two fundamental principles; the importance of building meaningful relationships with children and families, and social workers enabled and empowered to practice in line with their values. The Blueprint highlights how the current system is overwhelmed by a ‘command culture hierarchy’ where bureaucracy and performance management dictate action and shape culture.

In the current circumstances of COVID 19, children’s social care departments are under significant pressure, even more compared to recent years.

There have been many sector voices thinking about how COVID 19 may shape our society if-and-when our circumstances change. Some have expressed cautious optimism about the government waking up to what it should value and prioritise; realising that some of the systems we have are defunct which rely on processes that slow down action and create barriers to meaningful help and support. I was interested to explore the immediate experiences of practitioners, children and families to see how the system was managing a new, unprecedented context. Will this emergency underline in a very serious way that things need to change sooner rather than later?

 

With everything moving so fast it has been clear that on the national landscape, thought-leading organisations in the sector like the Social Care Institute for Excellence, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), the Local Government Association and others have come together to collaborate and support the Department for Education. But what is happening locally on the ground? How are Local Authorities working with children and families in this new world? To find out more, I spoke to three managers working in different parts of England within the first two weeks of the lockdown.

(Names have been changed so as to not identify specific Local Authorities.)

“It is like Ofsted turning up” – Beth, Midlands

Beth has been qualified and working in social work practice for 17 years. She shared that the current situation had brought some creativity and innovation but also a shift backwards to a stronger version of command control culture. Beth shared that leaders:

In the course of handling the crisis, had reverted to a style of micro- management which increased stress for social workers and had left morale low.

They were unwilling to allow social workers and frontline managers to problem solve despite being best placed to do this.  

Beth shared one story about how she had been asked to cover different teams due to absence which she was happy to do but was also mindful of supporting social workers on her current team who were self-isolating. Without discussion she was told to focus on a new team and discouraged to contact staff. This left her feeling frustrated and at odds with the values inherent to her role. For Beth the shift in senior management behaviours reminded her of similar responses to an Ofsted inspection with the same disingenuous ‘we really appreciate how hard you are working during this difficult time’ emails. Whilst appreciating the challenging nature of the context the move to a more restrictive management style where decisions are made at the top and enacted at the bottom was unhelpful. 

However, there were sparks of positivity with Beth identifying that

travel time had been cut significantly with social workers gaining more confidence in the use of video conferencing,

a different approach to meetings allowing practitioners to work smarter and with more freedom. Beth felt with social workers becoming more agile there was more time to do what mattered in meeting the needs of children and families.

“If you don’t move away from data, you won’t move forward” – Naomi, North East

Naomi reflected on the response in her Local Authority as being more of a “‘drip, drip’ rather than what she had heard in others, a shut-down of services”. Naomi’s first reflection was on language sharing that the “initial response from management was to state regardless of the situation safeguarding would have to take precedent”.

Naomi remarked that the wellbeing of staff appeared to not be an equal priority.

The focus was on ‘the job’ and specifically on the importance of ensuring statutory obligations and visits were met. Naomi felt “anxiety was rooted in a fear of performance data being affected”. Now this is not a fault of the system as social workers are doing their best to carry out their duties, but the focus remains on having to complete a visit so as to record and achieve performance management requirements rather than what is needed and proportionate.

Naomi was pleased that there had been new guidance issued. The local guidance set out social workers could work from home and have autonomy with their work. However, Naomi felt this was “slow to develop and most social workers were already innovating and meeting the needs of the situation”. Social workers and managers had the tools to manage the situation based on their own professional expertise but in a hierarchical system had to rely on layers of management above to do things differently.

Lastly Naomi spoke about how technology has quickly been repurposed to fit practice – “virtual core groups are being organised, direct work is being completed with children over video calls and daily manager check ins over online conferencing services”. This has added an extra option for not only practitioners but for children and families; a different and flexible way for relationships to be maintained. This does not replace the value of face to face connections but with social workers more technologically skilled this allows for more creative practice.

“I feel heartened by the humane, community social work response of my organisation” – Rosa, London

Rosa was already familiar with the Blueprint and first reflected on the differences with Buurtzorg, the Dutch Nursing organisation which inspired some of the Blueprint thinking. Rosa shared:

There appeared to be a clear regulatory framework for nurses in the Netherlands but at this time in the UK in children’s services things are far from clear. She felt there was a lack of strategic leadership to provide adapted standards that work for the current COVID context.

We discussed how this national gap in providing clarity potentially could explain local authorities adopting a ‘business as usual’ approach. 

Rosa spoke about how the team she was managing collectively “developed their own plan; considering national guidance to make decisions to how their practice would need to be modified”. As a small team Rosa felt they were able to act quickly and decisively. Rosa commented that in a vacuum of clarity, self-organising and managing principles appeared to work.

Rosa felt that decisions within her Local Authority were top heavy with overran senior managers having a great deal of responsibility which was slowing down the response to what is a fast moving crisis. She shared that “compliance expectations had eased considering the circumstances where the message from leadership was to do more what you can in spite of the challenges”. Rosa felt that this was a more humane response and fitted more with what social work was needed right now.

Insights from my conversations

When thinking about my conversations so far, what struck me in the conversations was the pressure on senior managers.

Within a hierarchical structure, decisions can become bottle-necked which does not help social workers or the children and families they are trying to protect.

The adverse impact of this is that competing demands and challenges can lead to reverting back to type where compliance and reporting appear to be a safety net or in Rosa’s case create slow, drawn out decisions which do not keep pace with the nature of the crisis.

COVID-19 appears in some cases to have led senior managers to take a more hands on, directive approach. This is understandable as it is a behaviour which we are accustomed to when we think about traditional discourses of leadership. However, what the conversations have shown is that this impacts adversely on staff but also for children and families. If we create opportunities for social workers to make their own choices and for senior managers to be on hand when needed, this may help to create a different narrative. I think there is an important caveat which Rosa mentions, there has to be a clear understanding and framework to orientate the practice; without this it is likely practitioners will not feel empowered but feel unsupported,

Secondly, what we can see in Naomi’s organisation is that there has been a realisation that it is best to bring in guidance where social workers can have greater freedom to manage themselves bringing in others when needed.

By allowing more trust and flexibility in the system, practitioners are clearly enabled to be more responsive to what children and families need. 

Lastly, what shone through in our conversations was how practitioners had adapted and embraced technology to complete their work. This had in some cases led to more agile and focused work. It demonstrates that if you give social workers the tools to do their work, you can cut through difficulties and problems of time, space, distancing. We need to continue to think about how we can apply digital thinking to creating more time for social workers to spend with children and families; for example, building on the recent work of SCIE and BASW.

So what does this mean for the system now and as we start to look ahead?

The current context is incredibly challenging and this article is not intended to criticise when each day social workers and managers are demonstrating fantastic commitment to children and families. It is more an attempt to explore whether under increasing strain the system as it is allows for excellent practice or restricts it. From the work we did with CPI UK in developing the blueprint, we saw that there might be a path through some of the challenges the social care system had faced for decades. And I believe that this crisis highlights the importance in us as a sector making those changes in the recovery and rebuild stage of this crisis to ensure we learn from it and maximise on the existing potential we have in the social workers in it.

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