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.

Trade Unions and Strikes

I’ve written about my background and my somewhat ambivalent relationship with Unison in the past but today, as there is to be a widespread strike in the UK, I almost wish we had also been called out to strike alongside the teachers and the civil servants.
Marching through Piccadilly Circus

I’m very far from a ‘trigger happy’ union member. My default position has been to vote against any strikes called because I just want to get on with my job. Saying that, my attitude has changed over the last year or so since the election of this government and the dismantlement of the welfare state. The difference is that now, I’m angry.

Yes, I have a ‘public sector’ pension so the issue that today’s strike is about does affect me directly. I think the amount of jealousy and petty spirited hate that has been stirred up by the current government against public sector workers is distasteful in the extreme. We are portrayed as ‘fat cats’ milking the State while we depend on the poor private sector to prop us up. Oh, I might have a ‘get out’ because I could be regarded (although who knows on what definition that go) as a ‘front line worker’  but I don’t want to be patted on the head and distinguished from those who work incredibly hard to make sure that the work I do ‘at the front line’ can be carried out.

The administrative support, the IT support, the care workers (as we still have an in-house service) the emergency alarm cord operators, the library staff, the receptionists, the training department, the HR team and the accountants.

I want to know who these ‘paper pushers’ are supposed to be as most of the paper pushing happens in the executive offices or in the Houses of Parliament.

Over the last year, when we have had endless consultations about the cuts that are coming in our services and the changes that are coming to our jobs, I have seen the real value of union membership. As a member of Unison, I have attended regular meetings in our service and have gleaned a lot more information about the process than I would otherwise have had. We have been involved because the council has needed to involve us and yes, some of the shop stewards can be a bit bolshy, but that has been a very necessary characteristic in their dealing with the council.

I do wonder if BASW’s idea of a Union of Social Workers would have the same fire and resources to fight so strongly on our behalf as local authority employees. At the moment, I am very happy with Unison and the way they have supported and informed us through these difficult times.

As for today, good luck to those on strike. The issue they strike about today is also my issue but my anger is much broader than the pension issue – it is the destruction of support in society and the way that those who have least as being asked to pay.

I have learnt more in the last year about the importance of union  membership than I had in the previous ten. I don’t expect to ever follow blindly but I do value my membership much much more in these uncertain times.

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!

Regaining Radicalism

An issue that has been swilling around in my head for a while concerns the ‘reclamation’ of the radical tinges of the social work profession and whether or not we are moving into a potentially more dangerous era as the government whittles away at some of the assumptions made about the welfare state and an implied social contract to provide and sustain those who are least able to in a civilised society.

I wonder to myself what the role of social work is in this right-ward shifting of the national political agenda and by extension, what I can do while preserving the job that I genuinely love.

There has always been the undercurrent of ‘care v control’ in the social care sector. Where can we place ourselves when the ‘care’ is cut to the minimum and we are agents of rationalisation of funding and the ‘control’ implies a forced manifestation of a political will which we feel may be counter-productive?

I have a couple of main thoughts about this. One concerns communal actions and the other about personal actions.

I have been a member of Unison – the public services union since I joined the profession (excepting the years I spent overseas and the brief period when I had a personal spat with a shop steward and resigned in disgust – only to rejoin a couple of months later after he had apologised profusely – I know, childish but I WAS right Smile with tongue out)

Mostly I saw union membership as a protection against mendacious managers. Although I can’t praise my current managers highly enough, I have worked in teams where there has been some poor, verging on bullying practices and it is best to know the union can support and guide in such circumstances. More recently, though, I am espousing myself of the wider political ideas of unionisation and the communality of experiences across the public service sector.

I don’t always agree with everything Unison (and particularly said shop steward) does and says personally, but I strongly believe that the best way to focus political activism and engagement is through the union as – working in a local authority – the lines of communication are pretty clear and the ties are fairly well bound between the union and the employers.

I am sure that somewhere BASW and the embryonic College of Social Work have a place to pay in the regaining of political purpose and will of the profession. I hope there will be some kind of blurring and possibly merging of roles as they seem to sit in the same place professionally.

I have also been actively following SWAN – the Social Work Action Network. Indeed, I went to an event held in London a couple of weeks ago and was impressed by the strength of feeling on display. One of the attendees specifically asked about how we retain our radical roots and work ethically while retaining our jobs as practising front line social workers. That was one of the elements that shaped some of my thoughts about the issues.

I did note that most of the people attending the SWAN meeting seemed to be students. It was great, in a way, as we need (and this was discussed) a radicalised student base. Perhaps social work students (through their lecturers) increasingly see the role as one of a lackey of the state because the ‘care management’ and ‘procedural’ roles are emphasised through both training and placements and with increasing fees for training and courses being able to produce ’employment-ready’ social workers but I feel it is ever more important to ensure that there is scope for radicalisation within universities and colleges and that the profession actively promotes social  justice.  There is a role for social work outside the statutory sector but that seems to be forgotten in the hunt for statutory sector placements as ‘gold standard’ on courses.

Perhaps the social work course should be a route towards a new kind of social enterprise entrepreneur? Theoretically and logically, the studies that we partake in should be the best ‘lift-off’ point towards a career in the ‘third sector’.

But even within teams the place for radicalism does not have to be lost. It can be rediscovered through discussion and debate. Yes, we have a statutory role but the need for people who have a strong value base in implementing even quite cruel policies is all the more important.

Does it compromise my values to be the person responsible for implementing restrictions on access to services according to criteria? Well, that’s debatable, I’m sure some would say it does. I say, and I use the same argument to myself when detaining people under the Mental Health Act, that if the task is to be completed, when working with people who may be vulnerable for whatever reason, it is better that the job and the role is taken by someone who is compassionate and who is mindful of the impact of every intervention they take rather than a faceless bureaucrat who might not have an active interest in the implementation and effect of social policy.

I believe that being ‘on the frontline’ gives me a certain power to argue on behalf of those whom I work with, both service users and carers. Can I make differences to macro social policy? Probably not but I can ensure that my voice is not lost to those at more local levels and that I constantly feed up my concerns.

One day, we’ll be listened to but without us, crying up from the bottom of the ‘career ladder’ the authenticity will be lost.

A part of my bleating against management cultures is that I believe that  (and I am aware this is my own prejudice talking) a lot of people can’t wait to get away from the front-line and into cosy management positions (and academic positions) quickly enough. I fully understand that is an irrational and unfair accusation  but it just feels like that sometimes.

I think that the best way of social work changing and making and effecting changes is by work on the ‘front line’ and a strong and experienced workforce ‘at the front line’ who are not afraid of our own managers and will be able to engage in debate and conversation about policy without needing to ‘move upwards’ professionally.

I once applied for a senior post. The post itself was actually deleted before the interview so it didn’t end either in success or failure but was one of those posts that just rattled along and is unlikely to be reinstated.

I applied partly because I felt I should. I meet people who started before and after me as they climb up the professional ladder and partly felt an element of competition but I’m so glad now of exactly where I am. It has allowed me to distil a lot of my thoughts. It gives me a very powerful voice to express the needs of those whose homes I visit every single day and I can’t remove myself from the relentless nature of the work – because I’m doing it.

My hope remains with the potential ‘advanced practitioner’ professional development route which we have been promised through a new (hopefully improved) career development structure.

As for radicalism, it needs to take different routes and we need to fully embrace the social media in a way that hasn’t yet happened across the sector. Just through writing this, I know I am able to get the message from the ‘front line’ out to a far wider audience than I would by relying on verbal communications and perhaps collective activism.

Perhaps the true change will come when it doesn’t have to be done anonymously but I do think we have the power to embrace widening and broadening social networks to use our expertise, knowledge base and engagement with the issues across the social spectrum to affect, promote and encourage policies that promote social justice across the whole of society, not just the ‘middle section’ that the government seems to obsessively pander towards.

A few months ago, I attended one of the ‘College of Social Work consultation events’. Amongst social workers from very different sectors and different local authorities, I was somewhat depressed when I was involved in a discussion where my colleagues were telling each other how they wouldn’t want their own children to become social workers. Partly due to the pay and hours and partly due to the feelings of powerlessness and stigma of working in the profession. I never even considered not encouraging people to go into social work. We absolutely can thrive with good people in the role. OK, the pay could be better, that’s true but it could be a whole lot worse too (perhaps that comes from my background as a care worker where I was paid poorly but as I didn’t have anything to compare it to and just felt grateful to have a job, I didn’t really consider it). I am actually comfortable with my salary. I have somewhere to live and can live comfortably with enough left over to put away some ‘rainy day savings’ so perhaps different people just have different expectations. As for the powerlessness and stigma about being a social worker – we absolutely have the power to change that. We must if we want to be effective in our role. I often say I never went into social work to be loved, and it’s true but being respected would be a fine start.

Powerful and independent voices from within social work have the power to nudge, prod and appeal to the social conscious of the nation. You CAN be independent minded and comfortably (and happily) employed by a local authority. I am.

In fact, we are obliged to do so in order to work actively towards promoting social justice.