I’ve been a local government employee for a good number of years but however much I try to ensure that I am fully linked into the policies that trickle down to us via my own employing council, I can’t help but feel an increasingly sense of separation on the basis of my ‘secondment’. Don’t get me wrong, I think the advantages of the secondment outweigh the negatives but it’s something I tend to just take for granted.
It isn’t uncommon for mental health social workers to be seconded to mental health trusts. It is the case in most of the mental health teams I know. While my colleagues whom I sit alongside are employed on NHS contracts, only the social workers in the team are local authority employees.
The background to this is mostly historical. Before community mental health teams were interdisciplinary in the way they are now, social workers within the local authority worked generically and so when these new teams emerged, some of those generic social workers were moved out and seconded into the new teams in the NHS. Legally, there was also a provision in the 1983 Mental Health Act that specified that Approved Social Workers should be employed by the responsible local authority. A change in the legislation with the passage of the 2007 amendments to the 1983 Mental Health Act mean that the employment is no longer specified and there are some noises about some of the social workers being employed directly by the NHS but I feel relatively confident in saying that my position of being seconded to work in the NHS by the local authority is likely to be the majority position for Mental Health Social Workers in England at the moment.
I moved into this team from a local authority social work team and without doubt there is an increased feeling of isolation and detachment from our local authority employers when I compare the experience to that when I worked in the local LA office.
On a very basic level, we are frozen out of the intranet and the local authority IT system. It wasn’t always like this and isn’t supposed to be like this but increased security both on the Local Authority IT systems and the NHS systems mean it is impossible to run both networks on the same physical PCs. Whisper it quietly but I haven’t checked my local authority email address for about three months and only get around to it when I visit other offices and can borrow someone else’s PC that is ‘on the network’.
The difficulty in this is that some people in our communication department, despise being told again and again and again, refuse to believe us and persist in sending all relevant information to our local authority email addresses.
Some people in other departments repeatedly try to contact me via the LA email address and although I have an ‘out of office’ response on it, I always find things that I should have seen much earlier when I check it. I know, it’s my own fault but they don’t make things easy for us!
It also means the ‘wonderfully efficient’ e-tools that the local authority has in place on its intranet to do all your appraisals online and to book annual leave and training online remain barren and unused and we are using scraps of paper to log our annual leave because HR wants to charge us for paper versions of the old ‘cardboard ‘real’ Annual Leave cards’.
It also explains why, apart from safeguarding training, I receive almost all my annual quota of training from the NHS Trust rather than accessing the local authority training schedules.
Recently, I did find myself in a meeting over in the local authority offices and I was actually staggered by the amount of policies I hadn’t been aware of, training I haven’t heard of and ways of working that had completely passed me by. Of course, none of it makes a massive difference to practice (which makes you wonder about the people who sit in offices and write reams of policies) but sometimes you feel almost as if you have a duel identity working in an NHS team as a local authority employee with neither ‘employer’ wanting to take overall responsibility. Mind, I’m still a bit bitter about the lack of our involvement in the development of personal budgets. I genuinely believe we could have created a far better system if we had been consulted about the way that process had been rolled out and piloted.
But the positives outweigh the negatives. Apart from the annoyances that emerge when trying to claim any kind of expenses back for travelling which involve begging a ‘friendly’ local authority team to let us please use their budget for our ‘permit to travel’. Fortunately having previously worked in the social services office, I have some contacts to lean on at the requisite moments but it is not something that is made particularly easy for us.
The main positive is the sense of independence for a start. We are slightly detached from the rest of the CMHT having different employers and can sometimes take a step back. Personally, I think it allows a greater freedom to challenge ‘from the outside’ as one thing that can definitely be said about the NHS is that it is a hierarchical organisation. By remaining slightly outside as seconded employees and being ‘representatives’ of the local authority within CMHTs gives it a slightly different hue and sphere of influence. The role of the Mental Health Social Worker in a team has to be about advocacy and promoting involvement and bringing the importance of social issues into the scene when looking at helping someone holistically.
Terms and conditions are generally (although this is arguable) better in the local authorities. None of the social workers want to switch over to NHS contracts (because yes, it has been discussed many times and is something that seems to be perpetually ‘in the pipeline’ since the change in the 1983 Mental Health Act).
I think the feeling of difference is remarkably important and it gives the local authority a physical presence in the team which is particularly important as care management and support planning is a massive part of our role in older adults services. The introduction of personal budgets to all our service users has meant that more information and documentation is channelled between the teams but I can’t help the nagging feeling that we are sometimes the ‘forgotten’ employees. This is not always a bad thing.
As well as the intranet and the lovely sparkly new HR systems that we can’t use, on a far more fundamental and basic level, we can’t use any of the local authority databases. Their attempts to move everyone to paperless working mean many battles trying to explain to whichever service it is that we can’t get onto the intranet to make referrals online seems to be a constant.
In my dream world, the local authority would issue some kind of communal email to everyone in the council telling them that not everyone who works for the council can actually access the intranet. I think that would come as news to them on account of the amount of times I’ve tried explaining this to baffled looks of astonishment.
But generally, I’m happy where I am. Taking a step back and looking at the situation in the broader context, I think I have and am continuing to learn incredibly useful lessons about the ways that organisations develop and grow and work or don’t work.
Sometimes there are frustrations but if everything worked perfectly, it would just be more boring and standing between both the Local Authority and the NHS allows for a more critical reflection of the ways that both operate and are managed in a way that I couldn’t have if I were entirely placed in either one or the other.