On Professional Conferences and Frontline Workers

The thought for this post came during a brief conversation with my sister yesterday. I was berating and ranting about how I have a feeling that ‘no-one ever listens to us’. The ‘us’ in question, just to give the conversation some context, was front-line, currently practising social workers.

The reason for my railing was the way that I have been following the National Children and Adult Services Conference 2010. Mostly my links have been maintained through a variety of Twitter feeds that I am following. Twitter is good for checking while sitting on buses or when you are hanging around because you’ve shown too little faith in London Transport and turned up 20 minutes early for an appointment.

The National Children and Adult Services Conference has had a lot of influential speakers – ministers, shadow ministers, heads of various services and quangos. I see (and maybe I’m wrong in this) no place for actual practitioners at events such as this. It costs £500 a throw and there’s no way on earth any local authority is going to let loose anyone who actually works in the frontline access conferences that have expenses such as those.

Instead, they create little silos of managers talking to policy-makers talking to consultants talking to reporters. About Social Care. About us. But not to us.

Yes, Hilton Dawson speaks, the Heads of the College of Social Work speak but where are the people who actually work in social care at the front-line? Not in the managers’ officers earning comfortable pay packets to commission utterly inappropriate services and push us into working in unintuitive ways. We have a lot of people in ‘social care’ who would wince at the actual day to day work.

A few years ago, when I was in a different team (I’m sure I’ve told this story before, so indulge me for a moment or two), one of the assistant directors in the borough was doing an ‘on the coal-face’ type exercise. For some reason, I can’t remember why, I was ‘volunteered’ by my manager to take him out with me on my visits. I think because she was fairly sure I wouldn’t say anything rude! The cases I had on the cards (already booked up by the time I knew he was coming) were bread and butter stuff. Very straightforward and non-complex pieces of work – one initial community care assessment and one review with a carer involved.

On the second visit, when we were speaking to the user and carer, I explained what services we could offer, he chipped in and was very sympathetic – he was (I say ‘was’ because he is in a different role now) a really pleasant guy – actually offering more than we would under our eligibility criteria because it ‘seemed rational’. Afterwards, I explained to him that we couldn’t offer the care that he had suggested because it was outside the budget allowed by the authority. This surprised him. He had an idea how rationing actually works on paper but when you are on the front line telling people that they can’t get a service that they desperately need. That was a ‘new’ experience for him. He saw the stress of the carer and wanted to help. Wanted the service to be available for them. It wasn’t though.

It’s what I do every day. I am the person who tells users and carers that their local day centre is closing down and the social contacts they have made will be dissipated as the council see it as ‘unimportant’. I tell the overstretched and undervalued carers that respite has been cut because eligibility criteria have changed.  I am the person who people complain to when they get the bills for their care services and explain how ineffective the agency care workers are. I am the person who sits with someone in tears as we try and battle through a Self Assessment Questionnaire which has no subtletly  and reads like another DLA form, putting a price and a cost on something as ethereal as disability – especially fluctuating disability. I am the person who tells people they can only access minimal services because the criteria of the council have changed.

Not Paul Burstow. Not Andrew Lansley. Not the people sitting in the room at the National Children and Adults Services Conference 2010.  They may be experts in organisations but they are not experts in practice. They do not speak for the social care sector, they speak for the managers of the social care sector.

Now my sister, who is a lot less hot-headed that I, gently reminded me that this is not something that is exclusive to the social care sector. This happens in all industries. Managers talk to managers.

I have to wonder where the expertise lies.

When I hear Paul Burstow make statements about personal budgets and everyone nodding along at how awful it is on the ‘front line’ without any of them ever having an experience of going into someone’s home and holding the hand of someone who is terrified by another form, another set of bureaucratic functions that seem to be further removed from the reality of needing care immediately.

When I hear Cynthia Bower, I wonder how she would feel sitting next to me this week as I attend yet another safeguarding meeting at one of the ‘supposed’ ‘Good’ residential homes that can’t even manage the very basics of care and have not had an actual inspection for a couple of years.

Yet, she is the ‘expert’ who is able to make all sorts of claims about improving services by taking away controls and checks. And the managers cheer because THEY don’t like being inspected.

Sure, I complain about performance indicators. A lot. The reason I complain about performance indicators is not because I don’t think we should have our work measured objectively. I do. I just think some of the PIs are utterly ridiculous and have no relation to the quality of work we undertake.

Back to the National Conference of Children and Adult Services. It’s fairly interesting some of the noises that have come out of the processes. I know there are practitioner events such as Community Care Live. Indeed, on 17th November there is a Children and Families Event – definitely worth attending if you are involved in that area of work and available.

I know the different conferences are aimed at different groups. It would be interesting to know if they say the same things.

My father was involved in the disability advocacy movement as a disabled man. He expressed heartily the need for user involvement in the development of services (quite rightly!). Similarly, we in the profession need to advocate for our own professional roles in relation to our managers.

My message, and I’m channelling him now is ‘speak to us and not for us’.

One day, I’d like to see the same people attending events like Community Care Live as attend the National Conference of Children and Adult Services.

12 thoughts on “On Professional Conferences and Frontline Workers

  1. “Instead, they create little silos of managers talking to policy-makers talking to consultants talking to reporters. About Social Care. About us. But not to us.”

    Know what you mean. Same goes for Frontline Carers.

    • Yes, I appreciate your point, ians12. As I said in the post, my father who was physically disabled was very involved in advocacy projects. I have the same beliefs and values across all groups.

  2. Think this is the first time I’ve read one of your posts and felt the need to respond to redress the balance! I’m at NCASC and have been struck by how aware some of the delegates are of the frontline issues their staff are facing, I say some because I can’t speak for all of them.

    NCASC is the annual conference of the Association of Directors of Adults and Children’s Services – it is where they get the chance to spend time and network and reflect about the challenges they are facing, as Directors or leaders of social care. To that end I don’t think it is unreasonable that frontline social workers or carers aren’t in the majority. Having said that there are some present (and I’m sure there are a number of unidentified carers in the audience); I’ve heard people from both groups speak and present sessions over the last two days and I genuinely believe that lots of these people are not as far removed as your experience suggests they might be.

    I can understand the frustration you express but hope you can take heart from Eileen Munro urging delegates to get out and spend time on the frontline every month. It may come as a small consolation that I’ll be at both NCASC and CC Live and I would hope one or two of the Directors would be too. Perhaps in a year or twos time the National College of Social Work will hold an annual conference which would provide the forum for all three of these groups to come together at conference?

    ps I’ll link back to this post when I blog a follow up to http://www.ripfa.co.uk/social-care-research/ncasc-2010/

    • Hi George,
      Thanks for this and for your twitter feed!
      As far as I’m concerned Eileen Munro is wholly concerned with childrens’ social work and has no mandate over adult services. I personally, think that the fact that all the pushes towards change in social work have come from children and families departments is actually quite destructive to the cohesive profession but maybe the results won’t all be negative. I do worry about the position of adult services though.
      I don’t say there should be a majority of practitioners and users/carers but I do think it’s a shame a conference for directors is able to attract a lot more of the policy influencers and politicians than a conference for practitioners. That is the shame as we do have important contributions to make.

  3. The frustrations you flag up at national conference level are exactly the same frustrations I feel about working in Adult Social Services as a non-qualified worker. In our council new directions and projects are introduced without consultation or input from service users, families & front line staff. The ‘go-live’ date is met but without proper procedures in place & with staff training full of gaps. I am convinced this keeps happening because senior managers have an eye on their CV for their next job & are aiming for government posts. They can say ‘I implemented x, y & z,’ only if you are within the organisation can you see that its been chaos. This happens every time. They do not listen to service users & staff because they don’t need to. I love the daily work I do but it is very dispiriting when I think about the organisation as a whole.

    • I agree and understand. I think we need to be more vocal but its hard within some organisations that don’t accept criticism.

  4. (and I’m sure there are a number of unidentified carers in the audience);
    maybe there are (more likely they were ‘representatives’, well meaning but not the same thing) – but I’ll bet they are very few and far between. As a carer myself, there is no way I’d get ‘time off’ with paid for care for my son for something like this and £500 is an awful lot for a pensioner who is no longer eligible for Carers Allowance because he gets a state pension.
    The disabled themselves and unpaid carers should be the majority at these things – not the rare oddity. I tried to get the Guardian to invite a few carers to their national Conference this year but was met with a solid wall of silence.

    • I agree. You are the expert in your need as a carer. Sometimes it is too easy for policy-makers to ‘speak for you without speaking to you’.

  5. I was interested to read your blog and your comments about how remote the recent National Adult and Children’s Conference felt but can echo some of the comments made by George Julian. I can confirm that some of the people who attended like myself do have very close connections with services and practitioners , are registered social workers who are passionate about fighting to save services for the vunerable. However, one has to remember that many senior managers are in politically restricted roles and unable to make the public comments some people closer to service users would like to hear and yes like everywhere the fair sprinkling of careerists who change with the wind. Many senior managers who I believe to be genuine commented to me about how personally distressed they are at having to make cuts to services they fundamentally disagree with and at the same time try to offer positive leadership/support to staff, retain credibility. Having drinks in the bar afterwards there was a tremendous sense of responsibility in these times a commitment to service users and in some cases a few tears shed. There did however, definately seem to be fewer people there this year that were closer to the frontline and a plethoria of consultants and companies selling their services. I believe a number of people were prevented from going to the conference because of the cuts, some escaped these bans from having prebooked prior to the election. I am glad to see this kind of issue is raised on a blog and perhaps we need to think of how in future social work practice and its dilemas could be showcased at such events and better connections made between practitioners and leaders. I have been to the European Social Services conference and it is much more wideranging, there appear to be people contributing at all different stakeholder levels, this is the website , they publish the presentations which can be quite interesting.

    • Thanks Rose, for contributing. I do appreciate that I was perhaps a little hot-headed in writing this but that’s why I like to blog 🙂
      The ‘having drinks in the bar’ bit grates a bit while I sit in the office until 7pm trying to write up a lengthy safeguarding investigation but I get the point 🙂
      And being a registered social worker is very different from being a practising non-management social worker. But I want more conversation across all lines and increasingly technology is allowing some of these ‘boundaries’ to be blurred and for that, we should be grateful that we are living in changing times.

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  7. I’ve attended two national social work conferences in the U.S. this past year, one that focuses on research and the other on social work education. I feel both conferences, although for totally different reasons, also lacked the inclusion of front line workers and direct service providers. Yes, both gave perfunctory “space” to them, but it was superficial. It goes beyond the specifics of the profession of social work because I think in general it is a byproduct of professionalism in general. Certain aspects get silo-ed (research, policy) with the _intention_ (and the mandatory “reminder”) that it benefits clients and direct service practitioners, but often feels very much like it’s about who can tout the most interesting statistical model or who is trying to market their “innovative” program.

    In all areas of the profession we lack the inclusion of voices of those deep in the trenches – we lack the voices – the TRUE voices – of the service providers and we sure as hell lack the voices of the “clients” themselves. As someone working on a PhD in order to do research and policy work, this is something I try to remember every single day – whose voices are the ones that are being silenced?

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