This story caught my eye a few weeks ago and the more I think about it, the more I fume. For I have rarely heard of a more ridiculous idea.
In order to save money, Edinburgh City Council is proposing to close 21 local social work centres over the next four years and make all of its staff peripatetic. Some 5,700 staff will be affected, with 3,334 having to work wherever they can find an internet connection and a desk space. Another 2,000 will have a desk but might be relocated, 75 will become permanent home workers, a further 182 will be designated “mobile workers” expected to work from their cars and 39 will work from redesigned shared office spaces.
In order to make this transformation, the council’s corporate services reckons that 2000 laptops will be required. The office closures will save the city £31.6 million over 10 years, but the changes will cost £13.5 million, resulting in a “profit” of £18.1 million. Or £1.8 million a year.
This is the kind of hare-brained scheme that results when we allow the bean counters far too much latitude. It looks great on paper but will be a disaster, for staff and most importantly, the most vulnerable people who need and rely on their services.
Let’s just remind ourselves of what social workers do for a living. Day in day out, they deal with some of the most distressing and difficult issues in our society today. Child abuse, dementia, drug misuse, self-harm, mental illness, alcoholism, prostitution. Social workers assess and support or arrange support for some of the most vulnerable people in our society – women who have fled domestic violence, older people struggling to continue living independently, families with a disabled child needing a break, veterans suffering long-term physical and mental injury, adults with learning difficulties wanting to live on their own, children traumatized by sexual harm, young people leaving care.
There is no doubt that many of the services provided leave a lot to be desired but often this is because of ever-increasing demand for support from, at best, standstill budgets. Most social workers are over-stretched and over-loaded. Attrition rates are high, rates of sickness absence probably higher still. It is a stressful job and it takes its toll. Social workers make life changing decisions and if they get it wrong, they and their profession are pilloried by all and sundry. Routinely, we treat them with scorn, suspicion, disrespect and pay them buttons.
There is a reason why so many of the offices proposed for closure are located in deprived parts of the city: it is where the greatest need is. By being based in these communities, social workers travel less, can spend more time with clients and are generally more accessible to the local population. Some local authorities have co-located social work with health professionals, voluntary organisations, police and housing, to enable joined-up planning and working. Most importantly, such arrangements allow dialogue and shared problem solving. It is widely accepted that the way to improve services for vulnerable people is to enable different disciplines to work in partnership.
But Edinburgh City Council knows better. Isolation not integration appears to be the solution. Where and how are social workers to take part in team meetings, supervision with their line managers, case conferences, review meetings, shared assessments?
There are issues too about confidentiality. Certainly, there is a preciousness about information sharing among professionals which can often hamper decision-making and the effectiveness of the support provided to children and adults who need a range of agencies to support them in their lives. But it is driven by professional concern that only those who need to know get to know. How can confidentiality be respected in shared office spaces? On unsecured free wi-fi in Starbucks? Where does a social worker go to make a confidential phone call if they have only a hot desk available to them?
And what about safety? Effectively Edinburgh social workers will all be lone workers – how, where and to whom will they be able to report in from client meetings? Who will be there to help them brief and debrief from difficult appointments?
The savings identified are figures plucked from a spreadsheet. £2.5 million for the laptops and a new IT system? Double it, to factor in the cost over-run and lost, damaged and stolen laptops. Sickness absence will increase, as will turnover, resulting in higher recruitment costs. Time spent travelling to and from clients, office bases and meetings will also rise, resulting in less productivity. Fewer vulnerable people will receive essential support as a result. Any proposed savings will soon disappear.
Yet again, those charged with delivering public service reform have set their sights on the wrong target. There is no doubt that the number of social work offices could be rationalised and improved but removing social workers from the communities they work in and making them flexible, home-based and mobile workers is not the answer. If it was, those employed in Edinburgh council’s corporate services would be advocating it for themselves.
The way to save money, improve efficiency and enhance the service provided is by creating single resource centres, accommodating a range of agencies, organisations and professionals and also focusing on shifting entrenched habits, practice and culture. But that requires investment and innovative thinking, something bean counters have never been very good at.