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.

Life as a Social Work Student 4 – The Half Way Point

This is a guest post from the student who has contributed since before her course started. She first wrote here about her pre-course shadowing experiences, her initial impressions after a few months on the course,  the start of her first placement and the midpoint of her first placement. Here, we join her at the end of her first year of the Masters. 

Again, I’m very grateful to her for contributing, especially as she now has her own blog here – and she’s round and about on Twitter.

One Down, One to Go

As I write this, I’ve just received the official results of my first
year on the Social Work Masters course, which is that:
“You have successfully completed your studies this academic year and can progress to the next year of your studies.”

That one short sentence summarises all the various essays, lectures, seminars, placement work and portfolio, and dissertation proposal into a single pass/ fail. I am proud of the pass, I feel I had to jump through a lot of hoops to get it and I hope I’ve done so with a general good grace. I’m also proud of having written academic essays for the first time in my life and having learned to do it well enough to get a pass at masters level.

I think it’s a truism of any kind of training, whether academic or job-based, that you never feel that you get enough feedback. A sentence or two on an essay that took weeks of stress, reading, and planning can seem a bit sparse. It’s not that I even know what feedback I’d want, maybe just a chance to explain why I did the non-optimal thing, or why the references list may look a bit thin. At college it’s particularly odd because we have to give feedback on the courses as well, usually at a point where you’re pleased to have got to the end of the course so will give it a good mark purely for that. Or maybe that’s just me, I think some of my fellow students are far more critical.

Truth is, I have been generally happy with the standard of teaching. I have learned a lot over the past year, and picked up new skills as well. I can’t judge how relevant or useful any of these will be, except that I felt confident in finding appropriate theory books to back up my extended case study on placement and when I started the course I don’t think I would even have known which part of the library to search.

In any case, now is the calm before the storm of the second year, final placement, dissertation, job hunt, and things in general getting more serious. I really have no idea what the job situation will be like when I’m searching properly next year, I just know that I have a few backup ideas in mind and am not planning to put all my eggs in the statutory sector basket.

Some of my cohort are working through the summer ‘vacation’ which is a great opportunity to get more experience. I’m fortunate in that I get more of a break which I am very much appreciating. Next month I plan to spend more time down at the library making a start on scoping out the dissertation. Meanwhile I’m discussing a possible second placement with a placement agency that looks very hopeful (read: it’s perfect, but just need to sort out whether it’s practical or not due to travel issues.)

And hopefully I won’t have forgotten everything from last year when September rolls around.

There and Back Again

As I finished yesterday, I had left my first job and embarked on my little (well, it was two years) adventure and I decided to return to London and join the ranks of gainfully employed social workers again.

London Eye
I knew it was what I wanted to do. I had grown a little tired of living out of a suitcase/rucksack.  First thing I did was look for somewhere to live. I’d managed to secure room on a friend’s floor for the initial ‘return’ period.

I didn’t have too many boxes to tick regarding accommodation. I was looking for a shared flat ‘somewhere as central as possible’ because I didn’t know where I’d be working and of course, good transport links.

I registered with the social work agency I’d used before going. I needed to work as soon as possible so I thought I’d try and get an agency placement and could apply for permanent jobs in the meantime.

It wasn’t the flood of offers that I had been used to on graduation but a few noted signs of interest. I was concerned at how my two year break would look to employers. I didn’t have a massive range of experience but I got an interview and not only was it in an area ( adults services) that I was familiar with, it was also, by coincidence, in the same borough I had randomly chosen to live in. Walking distance – but just in case there was a useful bus and tube route I could hop on for speed.

I was nervous during the interview with the team manager while I was asked about a fairly standard scenario. I kept thinking about things I’d forgotten to say while I left and the manager didn’t exude any natural warmth, indeed, I could detect a hint of ambivalence at best.  At some points she almost seemed to snap at me. It was not one of those interviews you come out of with positive feelings.

Off I went on my day to day path to wait for the next calls. To my surprise though, they wanted to take me on as a ‘care manager/social worker’ in a much smaller adult services team than I had worked in previously.

I remember saying specifically in my interview that although I had a years’ experience, I had two years ‘out of the field’ and would need some support to get back into my stride. I didn’t want to be expected to pick up the baton immediately. I am glad I mentioned it but I realised in retrospect how hopelessly naive I was. Of course they nodded and smiled but they were paying high agency rates and I was given a caseload of things that had clearly been waiting for allocation for a while.

I was baffled by FACS (Fair Access to Care services) which seemed to have appeared while I had been gone. Direct Payments were beginning to permeate through the systems as had Carers Assessments although no one could really get any services from a Carers’ Assessment so it was just another piece of paper although I’ve tended to find the process of the assessment and discussion can be useful.  Charging was more widespread and the types of services offered where quite different from my previous place of employment.

Each desk had it’s own computer by this point and a new database system  had just been introduced – much to the chagrin of most of the staff.  All reports were expected to be typed up by now. I was also the only agency worker in the team which  had been so different from my previous job. Not only was I the only agency social worker but all the other social workers and care managers (qualified and not) had been there for a good few years. It wasn’t a transient kind of team. People rarely joined and always stayed. A good sign perhaps.

Saying that, they were the friendliest and most welcoming team that I’ve ever worked in and there was not a hint of any thought of me being ‘different’ because I worked through an agency. I was immediately taken under the wing of some of the more senior staff members who were the easiest people to ask questions of if a manager couldn’t be found.

And the rather ambivalent manager who seemed to scare me during the interview? She was one of the best managers I’ve ever had and then some more. She had a way about her of making people think she didn’t like them but when push came to shove, she would support her staff up to the hilt and seemed to rather savour arguments with more senior management. As I learnt, she had a fierce reputation throughout the borough but all the staff who worked for her were very protective of her. She spot-checked files when she was walking round the office to check notes were up to date and papers were filed in the right place.

She was also the manager who insisted we never refer to ‘cases’ and ‘files’ when talking about other human beings. Files were the physical paper documents, not the people and not the families. No-one was a ‘case’. They were individuals with hopes, dreams and aspirations. She was very strong on language and did not tolerate and thoughtlessness as she felt it reflected sloppy thinking.  Cases were not ‘difficult’  but rather ‘complex’. People are not ‘difficult’ just because they may not respond the ways we may want or expect to them. They take time or they have complex issues. I still refer to her use of language as a model to ways of thinking and interpreting things that I might find troubling about working in particular routine ways with particular people and families.

They say when you find a good manager, you hang around. Hang around I did.

I applied for the permanent job that my post was covering when I came up and am still working for the same borough although I moved into Mental Health services.

The manager I had, she retired a while back as have some of the people that shared the office with me, but others are around and we bump into each other from time to time.

They were difficult days and I struggled a lot at times, especially getting back some confidence in working in a field when I had been doing so many different things in the meantime but the time out of the country also taught me a lot about resourcefulness and self-belief.

I learnt about living in a different environment and culture and ‘being a foreigner’. I learnt another language. I learnt that there is a difference between solitude and loneliness and that being comfortable with yourself is inherently important. I saw amazing things, went to amazing places, met some amazing people and did amazing things.
Big Ben

Then I came home

My First Social Work Job

Czytelnia Humanistyczna BUR

Image via Wikipedia

I can’t quite remember my first day in my first job as a qualified social worker. I’m trying to think back. I remember a few things though and as university courses come to their ends and thoughts turn to employment, I considered thinking back to that time when I was pushed forward from my training into the world of ‘real’ social work.

Finding employment hadn’t been an issue. At that time, we had kind of mini-careers fairs and events in the university where employers mainly neighbouring local authorities and agencies would try to tempt us to join them. Some offered golden handshakes in cash terms and others endless support.

Later, in a different job at a different time, one of our managers remarked how at that point, all you had to do was sit on a street corner with your DipSW (or MA or BA) in Social Work and you would have people come up to you and offer you a job. Perhaps it wasn’t as much of an overstatement as we thought.

I went with a social work agency. My closest friends from the course – in fact, the only ones I’m still in touch with now – both took local authority jobs in neighbouring (different) boroughs – one in a Child Protection team and the other in a Leaving Care team. I knew I wanted to work in adults’ services. I’d known from before the course started. I wasn’t so anchored as to which part of adult services I worked in. I was open to anything.

I met with the agency consultant and we spoke about what I wanted in a job and how far I’d be willing to travel. About a week later, he came back with two posts available and both were in older adults services. As that had been where my ‘statutory’ placement was, I was more than happy as I felt I had a little understanding and experience in that area. I interviewed at both places and chose the borough which was nearer to me with the added bonus that I knew a few people in the team already as they had been seconded onto the same social work course as me as ‘workplace based students’. Even one or two familiar faces in a large office was enough of a draw.

It was a large office and I had no experience apart from my placement, in a social services department. In some ways, I felt more than a little out of my depth but the team was kind and friendly. It also seemed to be staffed by about 50% of agency workers. I had heard rumours of prejudices against agency staff due to the differentials in the salaries  but honestly, I never really experienced that. I didn’t pretend to be anything I wasn’t.

If anything, I noticed more of a tension between ‘qualified’ and ‘unqualified’ staff than ‘agency’ and ‘permanent’ because a lot of the care management work we did was generic and especially when I was starting out, I was taking cases with less complexity than the more experienced ‘unqualified’ staff who would be getting stuck in.

In general though the unity of experience was greater than the division of types and salaries. The team as a whole could not have been friendlier or more welcoming. I was able to attend all the training courses provided, despite being ‘agency’. There was no differentiation in the type of supervision I received nor the inclusiveness I felt. Looking back, I realise that perhaps I was lucky but I worked with and among many people that I had and have the utmost respect for.

I would be afraid, at times, to ask the stupid questions. Where do I find this form? How do I find this file? How do I contact about this? What do I do when subjected to a hearty rant? Can I help this person get this service?

It seems like a different world now. Before FACS. Before any kind of charging policies. When we still met needs that would later be classified as ‘low’.

We didn’t type much. I shared a PC with the person next to me and we had to take it in turns to write reports or arrange visits with each other so we weren’t in at the same time – both wanting to use a computer. Along with our carefully designed care schedules, we had to provide costings for every service provided ourselves on spreadsheets either completed by hand or for the more techno-friendly, on PC.  Later it all got fed into central databases and spreadsheets so the figures would automatically be adjusted but there wasn’t a desk at that time, without a big desk calculator on it.

I think my memories have been shaded with a little rose tinge at times. I remember a lot of anxieties about covering duty and wondering what would turn up. This was before the single access points and call centre type offices existed to ‘screen’ calls or distribute them appropriately so we had calls from everything about loose dogs on the streets to people who hadn’t seen their elderly neighbours for a few days and were worried. Some entirely appropriate and some.. more creative.

I don’t miss those days though. It was a different way of working and a good base. There were some very good people I worked with. It was an ‘older’ team. I was immediately the youngest qualified worker in the team when I joined. I think that made it easier for me to ask questions. I learnt that the most important thing is to ask and not assume and that old chestnut about there being no such thing as a stupid question never felt more true.

Did the university prepare me for the work I was doing? A little but it was the start and  not the end. I have never stopped learning since then and I have a long, long way to go.

I realised that the lecturers at the time were teaching us about a social work system that had existed when they had been practitioners, about 10 years previously. I realised that the time pressures between being a student on placement and a qualified member of staff employed and paid were exponentially different.

There were problems and difficulties. I still remember some of the distress I felt when the first service user that I had worked with extensively, died. I remember the fear of my first manager and some of the bullying tactics she employed on the staff under her.

I had dreams at that point (I still do now, but very different ones). I wanted to travel the world. I felt I had a lot still to do. I vowed to myself I didn’t want to turn into the older staff that I’d seen there, plugging away after 10, 20, 30 years in the same post and becoming insular and self-absorbed.

Those thoughts pushed me to save up and leave after a year. I did go off and see the world and do many different things. I realised I missed the work, mostly I missed working in social care and I missed, well, I missed home.

I came back to the UK, a couple of years later, I was lucky enough to still be able to walk into a social work job and I knew it was exactly where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do for the rest of my career.

Things have changed a whole lot and some things are a lot better.

I’ll continue with my story at another point when I got back to the UK to find new legislation, systems, agencies and.. everyone not only had their own PC but they were expected to use it!

To be continued..

The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

To continue my theme (at least initially) for carers’ week, I wondered a while on the purpose of these weeks and days and months we have devoted to various issues.  They are about celebration, gratitude and recognition for the most part. Celebrating Mothers Day, for example,  doesn’t make us less grateful or thankful for our respective mothers on the other 364 days of the year so what is it about having a special day or week that is necessary.

I’m not a cynic. It is a good focus for events and allows particular issues that can be forgotten to be drawn out into the news agenda for a discreet period of time (a week is good – it can focus the attention). Campaigns can be built around days or weeks or months and themes can be wound up in the consciousness of the ethereal ‘general public’ whose attention can be fickle and fast-moving.

So it is that Carers Week is upon us but for it to be truly meaningful over the longer term there has to be a more systemic change in the process of social care and the way it is done in this country.

I engaged in a very brief ‘Twitter chat’ yesterday with a carer, Casdok, who writes a blog here. She mentioned that since her child had moved from childrens’ services to adult services she had noticed that she was listened to less and (I’m extrapolating a little here because it was in very short messages!) the service received was less good.

A brief exchange mentioned the loss of the relationships with particular social workers – you know, when the social worker used to pop round for a cup of tea – made me wonder what we have lost in the rush towards ‘care management’ which was to be the way that adult social care was organised after the NHS and Community Care Act.

I worked in an adult social care team before I moved into Mental Health services. The office had something of a ‘production line’ feel to it. Assess, review, close. Assess, review, close. Sometimes you would linger if there were direct payments involved but that would mostly be about referring to a different agency or part of the council to set up the payments and advise about employment regulations and advertising for assistance.

The relationship was and is lost. Is this what we study for? To assess, review and close with some safeguarding thrown in with increasing regularity. The processes have been streamlined almost to the point of any independent thought and true ‘assessment’ in the sense of being able to give professional judgements being rattled out of the processes to simplify.  This process has streamlined the heart out of social work for adults.

Critical analysis and reflection, yes, there is an option but it has to be in your own time and at your own rate. When we lose the critical analysis and reflection in our work though, we cease, to all intents and purposes being social workers and become care managers.

And where is the relationship-building? The listening. The advocacy. It has been costed out of the equation. It cannot be reduced to a performance indicator and therefore it has no value.

The issue is that it does have a value. It has a value to carers and to service users but often that value is unquantifiable and in a world of measurements and costs, unquantifiable is not where you want a value to lie. Because it is discarded.

The reason I moved from adult social care into mental health social work was because I felt my brain was stagnating to a point. Of course, things may have changed with self-directed support being more available now but I hope I always assessed in a person-centred and creative way. I certainly set up a lot of direct payments packages.

For the moment, in the mental health teams we do have a little more time to spend building therapeutic relationships. We have  more time to listen. It is all measured, of course, against outcomes because we have to be able to justify every minute we spend on paid time  but the ability to build relationships and to listen are, at least, embedded more strongly in the role.

I can’t see us ever going back to the days of being able to pop in for cups of tea. And we have lost much much more than a piece of cake along the way. We have lost the soul of the profession at the sniping jaws of employers who want to distil creativity out of the job because we need to meet specified targets in specified times. Everything is quantified.

Sometimes though, we need to be less complacent as employees. There are jobs going. There are changes coming in our services. Last years cuts are only the very start. They will come more quickly. Social Work is changing. It will move out of local authorities and I don’t think that will necessarily be a bad thing. It may be the best thing for the profession as a whole, in fact, if not for individual employees who won’t necessarily have the rock solid pensions and the now laughable idea of job security.

Perhaps we need to take more responsibility for our own work and our own profession in order to retain the values that remain at its heart and move into community work and macro-social work.

I occasionally get glimmers of real hope and drive for the future and the ways in which this profession can change and be changed and then, I look at the people at the top and wonder if there is any desire for truly structural changes in the way that social care and social work is delivered. Yes, I want personalisation to work, I really do but I want the value of good (and I really mean good) quality social work to be recognised in the process.

Yes, there are coercive elements to our role. I know that only too well as an Approved Mental Health Practitioner. I didn’t go into this job to be loved and as for respect, for the most part, I can take it or leave it – except for self-respect. I have to be able to feel I am giving the best every day I am at work and that regardless of some of the more coercive elements of my work, I am able to work according to my moral and ethical compass.

Sometimes I worry that has been lost but perhaps among the structural changes that are going on around us in social care, some true change can be affected.

I hope so.

Between the NHS and the Local Authority – On Being Seconded

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.