The Past is Another Locality..

The RedBalloon office - an example of an open ...

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I’ve mentioned this before, but I have worked in a couple of different teams within the same borough. Through fair means or foul, yesterday, I ended up in the office where I used to work before I moved to my current team, roughly five years ago.

I was there for a meeting in one of the side rooms but decided to wander into the open plan area (after making my way through much better security than there had been when I worked there!). Fortunately, someone ‘official’ recognised me and ushered me in.

The room had changed. They have  moved to ‘smart working’ with laptops and hot desking. They have little lockers with their names on, reminiscent of school – as the lack of personal desk space means that things can’t be, as they were, left on desks.

Some of the faces have changed as new people have arrived and older ones have left. Retired or ‘reconfigured’ to different teams.

But there were enough familiar faces for me to find a warm welcome. It had been a good team to work in.

I commented on the desks and the laptops and I was met with some level of surprise that ‘hot desking’ hasn’t yet made it to our offices.

‘No’, I said ‘we still have our own desks’.

I was met with wistful sighs of memories long past.

As I said it, I could feel the preciousness of those words – and acknowledged, internally at least, how rare they  must sound to this team.

We passed some general conversation about respective families before inevitably asking about work.

‘How are things going here?’ I asked tentatively.

A few nervous laughs and rolling of eyes.

‘Busy – but that’s pretty much a default decision’.

I decided to grasp the proverbial nettle.

‘How about.. the cuts?.. are they affecting you guys.. are there any jobs going?’.

I still work for the local authority but feel a sense of detachment as I am seconded into the NHS – so I don’t always get the same information as those directly working in the local authority might get. I was really eager to find out some more information.

‘Think so’. ‘Yeah’. There were despondent nods and acknowledgments all around. ‘There’s no money left in next year’s budget, let alone this years’.

I nodded

‘People are leaving and not being replaced – that’s mostly how we see it – but we are being asked to do more. There are rumours about people being asked to leave but we haven’t heard anything concrete yet’

They told me about services that were closing – day centres, sheltered housing losing the on-site wardens, posts being amalgamated.

The  morale was notably low. It had been a happy team, full of chatter and jokes. I like where I work now. I like the work I do now. But that old team had been and is the friendliest I had ever worked in, as a member of staff.

It was flat and clinical now. People didn’t have the same opportunity to build relationships with colleagues. There were no students (a couple of the social workers there, at least, are practice teachers and a few more on top would be workplace supervisors). Usually, when I have been there there were always at least a couple of students around, this time of year.

I asked.

‘Nah, we haven’t taken any students in this team this year. We just don’t know what’s happening in the service. There are more meetings planned but it isn’t fair for a student to be learning in this environment at the moment’.

I was given the names of a couple of people who had left or were about to.

It was the team I remembered but it was a shell of what it had been. The spirit had more or less been sucked out of it as we are increasingly turned into mechanised automatons drowning under paperwork in what had been heralded as a system of paperless offices.

I think I might have seen the future.

It wasn’t working.

It was inputting.


The Way of Wirral

Wirral Council are planning to replace qualified social workers with unqualified equivalents. This is apparently in the face of the new ‘personalisation’ agenda where there will be a stronger focus on self-assessment and providing guidance and support through the new systems – none of which requires professional social work qualifications.

image DSNelson at Flickr

Community Care picks up on the story and digs deeper and finds out some more about the figures in question. The plan is, apparently, to replace 29 qualified posts with 26 unqualified posts.

The distinction between qualified and unqualified is a little disingenuous. Anyone who has worked in Care Management will know that something of this divide exists already – and I know when I took my first post-qualifying steps. I felt a little foolish and shamed that I, with my sparkly new DipSW felt I knew nothing in comparison with some of my colleagues who, although unqualified, had had many decades worth of experience in the field.  Especially (as was pointed out to me) as I was being paid more.

Community Care quotes some of the social workers in the affected council saying

One social worker said there was a “high amount of concern” among practitioners. “Initially, people were shocked and concerned about their personal jobs and they then started to think about the future of social work with adults.

“If we can be marginalised to this extent we have to wonder whether other councils will follow suit.”

The practitioner added: “Our view is that the majority of the work we do is complex. It couldn’t be done by someone without a social work qualification to the same standard.

So worrying times.

The model seemingly proposed by Wirral looks remarkably similar to a model used where I have worked. There is a single access point of contact and work is then either given to an unqualified worker if it is not ‘complex’ or passed on to a social worker if there are more complicated issues involved – usually personal care needs (rather than domestic care needs) or high level care, any adult protection investigations or any respite or residential care placements.

Actually setting up a care package and care management for basic needs is absolutely something that one does not have to have any higher level study in social work to achieve. There is no magic involved – it is fairly straightforward.

I am surprised at the level of disposability of workers in Wirral though – I don’t know much about Wirral except that it’s near Liverpool on the map – I don’t know the size of it but I don’t imagine it is that large that to lose 29 social workers won’t be insignificant.

The problems that we had when I was in the team that worked to a similar models were that sometimes things that seem very simple can actually be remarkably complex.

You can go into a situation where someone has just had a fall at home, for example, always been completely independent, but needs some help through the difficult recovery period – exactly what re-enablement programmes are set up for, in fact. The person, say, Mrs A, has never had any contact with Social Services before because she has never needed to. She’s filled in her self-assessment saying that she’s fine (because she doesn’t need any state help) – but is beginning to struggle so her nephew who visits monthly, makes a call.

Seems to be well suited to the new system. But on arriving and being a remarkably proud and dignified woman, she has held back on saying that really she’s virtually unable to move from her chair and hasn’t been able to have anything other than biscuits and water in a few weeks.

It happens. When social services start sticking their nose in, they uncover lots of unpaid bills because she hasn’t been able to get to the post office – which, in turn is a source of stress. Mrs A is still grieving for the loss of her husband just a year previously  who had managed all the finances. She’s lonely at home but she doesn’t want anyone to come in to see her – needs, perhaps, some active engagement.

Anyway, it’s a very quick example, but anyone with any experience in the area will know it isn’t always easy to separate simple from complex situations on the telephone.

Particularly with older people who might have very different perceptions of state help and be extremely reluctant to accept services  that either they are then expected to pay for with the meager pensions or not pay for and be taking ‘hand-outs’ from the state which although perfectly entitled to, is not something that their pride allows.

Anyway, back to Wirral. Maybe I’m being over-protective of the Social Work status. I can understand the concern of the workers in question. There will always be a need for qualified Social Workers in these settings because there will always be some work which is ring-fenced for us. Safeguarding Adults investigations, complex case-work, higher need packages. Personalisation is likely to lengthen rather than shorten that list.

And for care management? I’ve said before there isn’t a need for a qualified social worker necessarily. There are, though,  issues that need to be taken into consideration if it is just a matter of replacing qualified with unqualified in a wholesale manner.

Wirral council’s spokeswoman said, according to the Liverpool Daily Post

To achieve the ‘personalisation agenda’, as agreed by cabinet in March of this year, the access and assessment branch is being restructured. As a result, new posts within the branch will be established to ensure that going forward, social care staff have the right skills and experience to respond to the changes in the social care sector.

“A number of the new jobs in the branch will not require the postholder to have a social work qualification. This will mean that qualified social workers are deployed more effectively and can carry out more appropriate duties.”

I think the use of personalisation to justify this change is a smoke-screen. I’ve worked to the model of having more unqualified staff to do more work and it was nothing to do with personalisation agendas – it was to do with the cost of recruiting and retaining qualified staff.

The claim that self-assessment somehow reduces the need for qualified staff is completely baffling. Self-assessment for service users isn’t about replacing work done by staff – it is about empowerment of service users. Staff would still have to work on interpretation and implementation of care packages – and no, it doesn’t have to be someone who has a degree in social work doing that.

But it looks to me like a pure and simple cost cutting exercise by Wirral – dressed in personalisation packaging to ease some of the disquiet – rather than an alarm bell ringing as to future needs in the system.