It’s social work for a reason

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.


7 thoughts on “It’s social work for a reason

  1. I would not quibble with the Burd that the beancounters are probably behind Edinburgh’s debatable ‘savings’, which may indeed be misguided. Nor would I argue that social work is not a tough job and one that most people would find tough to hold down. But, nonetheless, methinks the lady doth protest too much.

    Far from ‘flatlining’, social work budgets across Scotland have quadrupled in the last decade while the number of people seeking their services has not even doubled. Social Work management, filled as it is mostly with ex-social workers, still cleaves to the (perhaps understandable) premise that they must find the best package for each client. As a result, their departments have lagged others in identifying economies, let alone reductions.

    Because of its touchy political nature (it’s not just the Burd who watches like a hawk) many social work departments have yet to be pressured to seriously review service provisions, still less consider economies like hot-desking and appropriate home working which (unlike Edinburgh’s scheme) damage little but do move money from the back office to the front line.

    And, given that the UK national salary data for this month for social workers is £17,870 to £37,000 (with bonus) at a time when the UK national average wage (with far worse pension and job security) is £26,000, they are hardly being paid a pittance for the undoubtedly valuable and difficult work that they do.

    But where the Burd does have a point is in the idea of single resource centres. However, Edinburgh City officials, in common with most other councils, health board and other sundry ‘public’ service quangos, have been evasive, if not downright obstructive, when it comes to shared services or other economies that swing axes anywhere near high heid yins.

    • One of the reasons for the disparity between budgets and service is a) cost of care increasing b) more people living longer requiring ever-increasing packages of care c) more children born with complex needs surviving into adulthood. So while the client group has not kept up with the size of budget, their needs have. The other issue is the impact of the Scottish Parliament – a whole new area of debate! – on workloads. New client groups added, new burdens, new rules, new guidance, new laws, and never quite the right amount of money from central to local government to meet the requirements.

      But you are right about the efficiency of social work management – there is a national scandal waiting to be uncovered about how much has been spent on IT social work systems since 99 and how it has been mismanaged and some systems even junked before being finalised.

      Social workers don’t get bonuses, they get extra allowances but that tends to cover the fact that they work unsocial hours etc which is fair enough. And while not a pittance, if you think that they do one of the hardest, toughest jobs in our society it is hardly a king’s ransom either. Social work is absolutely centred around the need to be able to share information and problem solve through team activity, as well as all the statutory and policy requirements to hold multi-agency meetings, conferences, and now involve children and young people in decision making about their lives etc. None of that is possible from home working or working out of cars or hot desking.

      There are many other functions in councils which should be looked at first for this kind of activity and indeed, many other areas that could be reformed/reduced in order to maintain. Hard times should not be about everyone taking their share, it should be about focusing on shifting spend into work that prevents ever-increasing social work budgets down the line and it should also just be about stopping doing stuff that we can no longer afford to do. Few councils are making those really hard decisions, as you point out. And it was always thus, that front line gets hit before management and white collar work.

  2. Is it not possible that by closing the offices, it will free up more resources to deal with the many causes of stress that affect social workers?

    My husband’s had a mobile contract for years – he’s not a social worker, but it works well for him.

    The important thing is to make sure that the workers are properly supported in their new arrangements.

    This may not be the disaster you think it’s going to be, particularly if it leads to better support tor staff and a reduction in their overall workload with more flexibility for them.

    I know that the violence at work policy is pretty robust and, will, I presume, be rewritten to take account of the new arrangements.

  3. It is certainly a monumentally stupid idea and worthy of one of Scotland’s foremost Authorities in such matters.

    I almost admire their cheery, devil may care approach to reality for it’s sheer blind optimism. Then I realise it’s just self-delusion. I wonder how many ridiculous wheels they can set in motion between now and May?

  4. Social workers in schools and health centres. You can still close most of the social work centres, and you might actually get some joined up working. Or is that too sensible?

    • You mean a return to the idea of community schools? Gosh, you really are being too sensible. Interestingly, in the areas where community schools did best and where most effort was put in to make them work, the partnership approach is still in evidence and working reasonably well. But hey, that would involve lessons being learned, rather than wheels being re-invented! Yours is a great idea…. it will never catch on.

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