Why I’m wrong – A response from BASW

I am not going to add anything to this post. After I wrote a post explaining why I left BASW, I was sent this as a response and agreed to publish it.  I’ll leave the questions and comments for others and I have asked that someone from BASW respond to any questions or comments that arise from this post but obviously they are very busy so here’s their post. – cb

I’m disappointed that you are leaving BASW and, as head of communications for the Association and editor of PSW, I’m equally disappointed about your assessment of this magazine.

BASW is fortunate that more members have been joining than leaving for some time now but retention is just as vital as recruitment so any loss is frustrating.

Most members leave because their circumstances have changed – they might have lost their job, left social work or retired. On those occasions when someone contacts us to cite a specific issue for why they no longer wish to remain a member, someone from within BASW will usually correspond with them to at least try to respond to their concerns. Whether it makes any difference isn’t really the point – the main thing is to secure a grasp of what we’re doing wrong and how to do it better.

Your departure, inevitably more vocal and more public, is no different except that it seems appropriate to respond equally publicly, given the platform you have employed to air your views.

You cite BASW’s launch of the Social Workers Union (SWU) as the reason for now deciding to leave the Association. Clearly, the odd gripe apart, you are happy with your union and with your local representative. Fine. Really, fine, BASW has no intention of encouraging social workers who are happy with their trade union to up-sticks and join SWU instead.

We hope members in this position will still reflect on the range of member benefits being part of BASW offers, and will want to be part of their professional association, but in no sense is it making a play to poach you and others like you from other unions.

There are two reasons why SWU can be a good thing for the social work profession generally without impacting on the social work membership levels of Unison or any other union.

Firstly, there are well over 40,000 social workers in the UK who are not a member of a trade union or a professional association, so have little of the security such membership affords a practitioner in need of support – from basic advice to prolonged representation. By no measure can this be a welcome fact.

To date, a standalone BASW, acting solely as a professional association and without a union arm, has not attracted these people into membership. Nor too has any trade union appealed sufficiently for them to consider subscribing. BASW’s launch of the Social Workers Union offers these people something else, another option which some of them, just some, might choose to take.

Secondly, and most pressingly, there is one significant factor in BASW deciding to establish SWU that shouldn’t be ignored. A number of local authorities were increasingly unwilling to allow our Advice & Representation officers to attend internal disciplinary or conduct hearings. Although in contravention of ACAS guidance, this was leaving some fee-paying BASW members without access to the sort of expert representation they were entitled to have.

The ACAS guidance, it would seem, is just that, and if you are not a trade union then you don’t have guaranteed access to represent members with employers in the way we would want. By launching SWU, for no extra cost to members, we ensure, among other things, proper protection for local authority staff. This has to be a good development for social workers.

And let’s be very clear about which social workers. You describe BASW as ‘less relevant to me as a local authority social worker’ and ‘focused on either students and newly qualified social workers or independent social workers’. Yet SWU is, more than anything else, about ensuring we can support local authority social workers fully and properly in the increasing number of cases we are sadly being presented with where members are being poorly supported by employers.

You do allude to something very interesting though on the issue of how BASW represents local authority social workers and where we can do better. You suggest that the one thing you would really welcome is the chance for informal social networks – ‘safe’ places, physically and virtually, where like-minded people can discuss the future of social work. It’s a very strong concept and one BASW has recognised but could do far more in developing.

In this instance it is fair to say that we have gone much further down this road with independent members than local authority workers, as illustrated by the number of very successful independent groups holding regular meetings around the country. These aren’t controlled propaganda exercises – BASW staff usually only attend the first meeting to help get things off the ground – but informal meetings of independent social workers which BASW helps facilitate and that participants themselves then take forward.

We have staged a host of ‘tours’ within all UK countries over the past three years, many of which proved to be useful two-way discussion sessions, but facilitating networking groups within local authorities would be a good step for our members and should be explored further, and soon.

One of the most notable aspects of your blog, and the one I felt most keenly, was your assessment of PSW magazine. In particular, you referred to ‘pages and pages of propaganda’ and that there is ‘no space at all for any kind of dissenting or alternate views’. I will respond to this at some length but in brief I do not feel this is an accurate assessment of this magazine or BASW’s approach to dissent.

I have worked for a trade union where the members’ magazine became solely a propaganda device, where every editorial item was utterly patronising and where opportunities for dissent gradually dissolved to the extent it was untenable for me to remain with that organisation. I don’t miss it and I wouldn’t go back into that same environment or remain in an organisation that developed such a mindset. BASW is not that kind of organisation. Not even close.

Look at page 11 of this month’s PSW and you can see that one of the three letters is a direct attack on the magazine for publishing an article the correspondent loathed about lessons to be learnt from the Baby P case. I might disagree with the contributor but his was a valid member’s view which we published without hesitation.

Go back to March when we published a double page spread of comments posted by members online after BASW launched its own College of Social Work (as you will know, the name has since been dropped as BASW and the SCIE-sponsored College work to establish a single organisation for 2012) and you will see two sharply critical views and one far from convinced about the move. As a proportion of the 200 or so responses we received online this wasn’t just a fair reflection of dissent, it actually represented a higher proportion of opposing opinions than were actually posted.

Go back even further to the fall-out from BASW’s decision in early 2010 to hold a referendum of members on the kind of college members wanted to see. We carried letters from one BASW Council member who had resigned and another from a member at the end of his term, both of which were sharply critical of any move away from the SCIE college. No censorship, just publication.

It may surprise you but we actually don’t get a massive postbag of alienated members wishing to air their ire. Far more correspondents focus on something specific they have read, respond to requests for comment on a particular topical issue or, to my inevitable frustration, highlight minor errors of fact or grammar.

As for ‘reams of pages about how important BASW’ is, this is a tougher one because to some extent you have a point – we didn’t used to highlight the Association’s work that much in PSW at all. And people would complain that they didn’t know what BASW did.

People used to wonder why they were paying their membership fees if BASW wasn’t more publicly prominent, more vocal about the issues that mattered to them. BASW is definitely more assertive, more opinionated and, sometimes, more bolshy and for a lot of members that is a good thing.

Now, should that entail using the magazine for endless self promotion? No, in my view it should mean members get to read what BASW’s position is on key issues, whether on the riots in England, adult protection laws in Scotland, funding cuts in Northern Ireland or a consultation document on the future of social work in Wales.

As a monthly title PSW can’t present you, in print at least, with the very latest news, but it can reflect on the past month’s developments by offering the facts and adding a BASW view. This doesn’t change the facts but it does enable members to see what BASW is lobbying for, using the membership subscription fees they pay each year.

News is only a small part of the magazine though, so too is The Chief, where the chief executive is free to write what he wants to the BASW membership. Elsewhere you can read content including features, book reviews, advice columns and interviews, none of which offers a BASW view or seeks to evangelise.

Incidentally, though not without relevance, 345 members replied to a survey on our communications output in early summer and 92% said PSW was either a welcome or very welcome member benefit. It’s not scientific and there are plenty of members who haven’t expressed a view but it’s not a bad statistic considering it is an anonymous poll and I haven’t stood behind anyone’s back twisting their arms.

And just to go back to the issue of self promotion, only a couple of days ago, after reading your blog, I noticed a comment within a Guardian story about research it was co-sponsoring into the causes of the riots, in which the editor-in-chief waxed lyrical about the ‘great strides in the field of data journalism’ The Guardian was continuing to make. Possibly true but certainly self promotional.

BASW is an active, growing organisation that is constantly developing new services. We need to talk about this if we are to sustain our growth as, to borrow from your blog, there is ‘strength in numbers’ and the more members we have the more we can represent the interests of the social work profession – whether you are a student, local authority worker, independent or anyone else.

Joe Devo

………

As for those Annual General Meeting numbers you wanted. Around 230 people attended the Practice Symposium in the morning and 164 remained for the actual Annual General Meeting. Of these, 134 supported the launch of SWU, 21 opposed the motion and eight abstained. Proxy votes totaled just nine, with five opposed to the launch of SWU and four in favour.

Would we like more members to take part in the decision about the future of their organisation? Absolutely and we are trying to learn lessons from our attempts to promote the AGM in May. Several advertisements and e-bulletins actually attracted the biggest turn out at a BASW AGM in my time at the Association, around five years, but we must continue to try and up the numbers further as clearly those who attend the event are clearly a minority of our overall membership – though this isn’t particularly unusual for any union or association.

Considerable effort will be made to alert members to the next opportunity to shape the future of BASW on 1 November when an Additional General Meeting in Birmingham will be asked to determine whether BASW should transfer its assets into a new College of Social Work. This will commence in earnest once BASW Council meets on 21 September to consider the latest position ahead of the Additional General Meeting.

Lansley, Nurses, Social Workers and Colleges

Yesterday, as a part of Lansley’s so-called ‘listening’ exercise, he found himself at the conference of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) as they voted in favour of a  motion of no confidence in him personally by a fairly substantial 99%.  Rather marvellously when you take into account the 13 abstentions, only 6 nurses voted against the motion of no confidence. As was mentioned on Twitter yesterday, it seemed to be a miracle that 6 were to be found.

You’d have thought that that was quite a strong message for Listening Lansley to have paid heed to but no, he wanted to give a perception of listening (as if the vote of no confidence wasn’t a strong enough message!).

He asked for 60 specially chosen RCN representatives to talk to him while he ‘listened’ for 90 minutes in a room to which press were not allowed.

Well, nothing wrong with listening of course. I shouldn’t scoff but I can’t help it amid Lansley’s gruff and graceless apologies. Why? Because the listening should have been done before the plans were announced. The listening should be done with a whole wide range of people who have an interest in the health service.

He has got it wrong  but he doesn’t seem to want to listen as much as try and persuade and regroup around his message of privatisation.

The message from the Royal College of Nursing was strong, and powerful and it has caught the news media. People listen to nurses when they say things are wrong.

But we can’t forget how wrong the government got when they brought these proposals to Parliament in the first place. What does it say about a government that has to do its consulting AFTER it has taken a Bill to Parliament that has been so strongly attacked on all sides by public and professional opinion. It doesn’t exactly make one comfortable that we are ‘in safe hands’ as they like to promise at election time.  Maybe it’s because all the consultations they did before the Bill was presented were with private companies and party donors.

This is a government which is struggling under the surface and has been caught out already on many occasions by acting without any idea of what the plans that they propose actually signify. It is when they try messing around with the health service that people sit up and shout back but what about the other measures that they have proposed like the changes in the welfare benefit systems which seem force degrading and inappropriate ‘tests’ to claimants to jump through hoops to get the money they ‘deserve’.  This is what we need to speak up against as well.

And one of my sadder moments yesterday, when I thought about the impact of the nurses and the fact that they are at least being listened to for press purposes, is how we, in social work, have been poorly served by the organisations that supposedly represent our interests.

We should look at the RCN and what they have done and the effect a vote of confidence had on the ridiculousness of Lansley’s ‘listening’ exercise when with an almost unanimous voice they have humiliated him. Where is the nearest equivalent social work voice?

Community Care reports that the Chief Executive claiming that ‘he simply doesn’t believe’  Unison’s figures of having 40,000 social work members.

Honestly, is that the best he can do in rousing his members? Is that the best we can do as social workers when we should be at the heart of opposing the government agenda to heap the cuts on those who have the least? We just get into squabbles between Unison and BASW about who has the most social work members? Who is going to ‘lead’ the College of Social Work? Are we going to have a ‘Chief Social Worker’? Surely better to have a broad members organisation that can speak for all social workers rather than split members into different ‘camps’.  As for me, I’m a member of Unison AND a member of BASW. Generally, I’ve seen value in both.  It isn’t about a competition about who has more members and some people like me would be counted twice in the figures.

More than anything we can see the importance of having a strong, national voice as a profession and as representatives of a social care sector that is being and has been ravaged by repeated governments. Perhaps a broader College of Social Care might not  have been a bad idea.

The stronger the body the louder the voice.

Of course, that isn’t going to happen. It looks like we will be left with a College that few social workers who are on the front line will be interested in because we don’t have time for the politics within the profession. We have too much to do and need to focus on the politics of the country before everything that we know and love about this society is lost.  So while the College or Colleges (depending) spend all their time and money rewriting competencies or capabilities or capacities again and again and again ad infinitum – some of us will just be getting on with doing the actual work.

But the shame of it is that a College of Social Work/Social Care could perhaps have been a voice to shout against the Welfare Benefit Bill and the ridiculous tests that are put in place to make decisions as to ‘eligibility’  in the same way that the nurses are a voice to shout against the health and (oh the irony) social care bill.

We should be more like the nurses. We need to be if we are to survive and have relevancy.  We need to be listened to as well.  But in order to be listened to, we need to build support up amongst ourselves rather than squabble like schoolchildren. That is the pity.

World Social Work Day

Tomorrow is World Social Work Day. As I am taking a break from updating the blog this week (apart from today!), I am writing my post for the day now.

I wanted to consider a few things in relation to the ‘celebratory day’ such as it is although celebration seems a bit raw in the face of the  humanitarian disaster taking place in Japan. I don’t want for there to have to be these disasters to provide context. People do not need to suffer in order for me to learn. But my human reaction to those pictures is to look inside myself for ways that I can console my own thoughts. Part of human nature is to look for answers. We have enquiring minds. I am not religious although I toy with agnosticism. I thought the Independent’s piece was thoughtful though.

Back to World Social Work Day. I’m not doing anything special to ‘celebrate’ apart from going to work. Which I think, in this economic climate and amid the vagaries of chance and an angry earth, more to celebrate on this Monday morning than I might credit.

I am going to spend World Social Work Day not celebrating as such. I think for me, the day will be more about inward reflection and consideration of what it means to me to be a social worker. What the job has provided me with and the areas which I am still lacking in.

How can I learn to be better at my job? How do I reconcile the tough days when I arrive home exhausted with the good days when things fit together? How do we become more confident as a profession to the extent that we don’t need external bodies to ‘speak for us’ and we don’t rely on the morsels that the media throw at us but we can stand among ourselves and have enough confidence to be proud of being social workers without having to claim a need to be like doctors, or nurses, or occupational therapists or teachers.

I see an issue of a lack of professional self-confidence. We are, in the UK, generally, servants of the state and often despised. But we also buy into it and just as I would tell an adolescent that she needs to learn to love and respect herself before anyone else will – so I feel a need to tell our still, in some ways, adolescent profession, that we need to learn to love and respect ourselves – as social workers – before anyone else will.

Regardless of media interviews, regardless of social media campaigns. If we are not advising our children to become social workers, we should work on creating a profession that everyone, including our children, will strive to join.

This is no time to be bashful but before looking outwards for approval, we need to seek it internally – amongst ourselves.

So for those social workers, on World Social Work Day, it’s worth looking on what it is you want to achieve and how being a social worker will help you. And if it won’t, consider what needs to change in the profession for you – for us – to be able to realise our goals.

I love my job. I’m proud to be a social worker. I heartily recommend the profession and anything else I have done has not been as stimulating and challenging. I  have found qualities that I never knew I had and have been able to develop them  but now I see a flailing and unconfident profession.

Not helped in the UK by the bickering over the identity of social work by the professional organisation and the nascent College. My message to BASW would be to listen to your members rather than the Council and treat democracy seriously – while remembering you only represent 13,000 social workers – some of whom are not English (so wouldn’t be part of the College) and some of whom are members for the insurance benefits. You can’t take a unilateral decision and palm it off as ‘democracy’. My message to the SCIE ‘college’ would be to take listening seriously if you want to gain credibility.

As Social Workers we shrive for social justice and providing a voice for those without one. So a College for Social Work needs to consult and provide channels for the voices within the profession that don’t always shout the loudest.

Finally, I’d recommend this post by JaeRan Kim. Watch the videos. And reflect on why we do this and what we need to do to make our profession stronger. It isn’t about colleges and unions and professional organisations (although they all have a place) – it is about self-confidence, a strong moral and ethical compass and strong reflective practice.

Happy World Social Work – I’ll be back at the weekend!

 

NB Tomorrow, The Guardian Local Government Network are having a Q and A session between 12pm – 3pm about achieving a work/life balance in social care. Very topical for World Social Work Day!

BASW vs College of Social Work

It was with more than a little weariness that I read in Community Care that BASW (British Association of Social Workers) may be about to launch their own ‘rival’ College of Social Work having been in dispute and frozen out of the ‘official’ discussions with the embryonic ‘College of Social Work’.

My first response was sheer exasperation. I’m a member of BASW. I pay a not insignificant amount of money to them annually for that privilege and I have a generally warm feeling towards them (I wouldn’t be a member otherwise!). I don’t see them as an alternative to a union although I would actually prefer it if they were. I like the idea of a more specialist union but I’m also a member of Unison, the public sector trade union and I also pay them a not insignificant amount of money for the privilege.

A little disclosure before I continue. I’m a little miffed with Unison currently. I know their reps must be incredibly busy as jobs are going and people are being asked to take salary cuts but I’ve been trying to contact my branch officers for weeks about something at work that affects a few people – phone calls, messages, emails and haven’t even had the courtesy of a response. I must have paid them thousands of pounds over the years, have never asked for any assistance before and honestly, on the scale of things, this is a fairly minor matter and have been wholly and completely ignored. Harumph to Unison but you know, I’ll of course, keep paying. And paying.

But back to BASW and the College. BASW it seems are being steamrollered by the College and are trying to put up a fight in the form of an ‘alternate college’ plan.  It is ironic seeing as BASW were so forceful in pushing for the existence of a College of Social Work in the first place.

BASW, it seems are unhappy with the deal that has been made between the College and Unison –

Under the deal, Unison will provide employee representation services to college members and the college will provide professional advice services to social workers who are Unison members.

First, I welcomed this potential merger but I do see an issue if BASW are going to be frozen out of the process.

As a lay-person, I see the potential role for a College of Social Work to be almost an exact equivalent of the services that BASW provides apart from having a statutory footing and the addition of trade union functions via Unison. It seems more than a little uncouth to push BASW out of the process.

I know that BASW don’t have a large membership base. It can seem almost cliquey at times but as a newly qualified social worker with limited money, if I had to choose between union membership and the membership of a professional body, I would go with the union membership every time just as a means of self-preservation.

That is what BASW have to face up to.

The problem is that they seem to have taken some kind of decision to split off from the process of establishing the College of Social Work. Whether they are right or wrong (and I don’t necessarily think they are wrong) there is a big problem of perception about being seen as ‘disruptive’ to the process. I can see how they might feel betrayed by the process of these different interest groups vying to positions of power. Retrospectively, I think they should have been given the lead role in the establishment of a College rather than SCIE (Social Care Institute of Excellence) but that’s all in the past now.

I say this with a heavy heart, but I’m not sure BASW can exist as an independent ‘College’ and I am not convinced that their branching off will be successful in the long run. I would have prefered a BASW-led college but I think we are now too far down the ‘other’ path.

My ‘perfect’ solution would have been some kind of mass consolidation of BASW, the College and Unison (or trade union functions by another means) but that looks nigh on impossible now.

The problem is that there are few enough social workers who are engaged with the process of actively wanting to be involved in these organisations as it is.  All these bickerings will no doubt put many people off membership of ANY of the organisations. You don’t want to ‘pick the wrong one’.

These rumblings leave a nasty taste in ones mouth and may be a disincentive for people in the social work profession to become involved.

Which will lead to the same people who like ‘being on committees’ and being at the head of things – mostly managers who can give themselves time off work for these things or retired/independent members – to run the same organisations and to claim to be speaking for ‘front line social workers’ when, in fact, none of them do because the ethereal ‘front line social workers’ are way too busy working to be bothering themselves with who represents them!