When I was a practitioner and then a social work manager I was fond, when times were difficult, of asking myself, “Do I want to be part of the problem or part of the solution?” I remember this acutely during the time the local authority I was working in were ‘rolling out’ new processes to deliver the personalisation agenda. They were difficult times and social workers and care managers were rightly complaining about a myriad of things – mostly the administrative aspects of the change. During this time I was always left with that question – do I want to be part of the problem, or, part of the solution? And then, and now, I have always endeavoured, to try at least, to be part of the solution.
The problem we seem to keep returning to in social work is the misappropriation of social workers time. Social workers are directed towards report writing, case recording and a whole host of other procedural documents taking them away from relational work with service users. Those who insist on spending time with service users are then left picking up the paperwork on an evening and a weekend which is simply not a sustainable solution. Findings vary, but it is not uncommon to hear social workers talk about spending at least two thirds of their time at the computer. This position is enshrined in culturally embedded phrases like ‘if it isn’t written down it didn’t happen’ (Gibson 2016). This of course is simply rubbish. It did happen. You just didn’t write it down. And how does actually writing it down help prove anything. I ask you, – if in court, confronted with a service user who claims you said one thing, while you claim you said another – how does it being written down by you help in this situation? The reality is it probably does because you have an advantaged more powerful position. Well, after all you are a professional, and to be completely trusted, and service users in court aren’t. Is that how it is? Probably. No offence, but social workers sometimes mis-remember things. We all do. And sometimes may ‘interpret the facts’ of a situation in a particular way. It’s hard to avoid. We are both professional and human! But the mantra of ‘if it isn’t written down it didn’t happen’ forces us into an administrative approach to social work practice that demands we record it all so that our backs are well and truly covered. This happens at the expense of contact time with service user. And wasn’t that what you came into the profession for?
Gibson (2019) provides an excellent analysis of this in a qualitative case study of a child protection team. Firstly, he notes the importance of the administrative function within social work drawing on Wilson (1887) who stated that such things are a necessary part of institutional and social life in the same way that machinery is part of manufacturing. No one is denying the importance of appropriate recording and report writing.
The impact on practice though is palpable in the comments that Gibson (2019) reports from interviews he undertook. He discovered that administration was embedded as a primary task with this being prioritised at the expense of relationship building with service users. The primary focus of the social workers interviewed had to be focussed on the expectations of the agency rather than the service user. He suggests that such a focus also shifts the function of direct practice from relationship building to a more transaction based approach with the practitioner “interested in discrete transactions for the purposes of collecting information or ensuring agreed obligations had been met as laid out in some procedure or plan” (Gibson, 2019, p. 1191). This approach flies in the face of person centred work and what I personally see as the core social work task, that of relationship building in order to empower people. It hardly seems personalised to approach any interaction with a service user with the starting point being the agency requirements. Surely you start with the requirements of the person? This leads to disillusionment when professionals feel unable to make a difference in peoples lives (Gibson 2019) and leads to an ethos of ‘processing people’.
The neoliberal agenda that brought us performance indicators and what some considered the McDonaldsisation of social work – everyone gets the same but at least everyone gets something – was intended to provide fairness and equity and no ‘post code lottery’. The unintended (hopefully!) consequence of this is that what people get from social work is often, at best, adequate. And if we are happy with adequate then fine, but I don’t think most of us are. I think we want to be able to offer more. Surely we want people to thrive and achieve not get simply enough that only just suffices. The problem with such an approach is it often means we end up with practice being dominated by crisis intervention rather than supportive, life enhancing, planning.
Back to where I started this article…. my preference is always to try and be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The problem and the solution were brought into sharp focus for me recently when I invited two social work practitioners into the University I work in to talk about their lives as social workers in their particular role. The contrast was different and was nothing to do with the practitioners, who are both wonderful people, with nothing but a desire to support service users and do their best for them at the heart of their practice. One seemed liberated by the way their employer was asking them to approach the social work task. They had time to spend with people and time to help people with the practical aspects of getting back on their feet again after something had happened. The agency, for a large part required only the essential recording. Many interventions were simply case recorded without the need for long justification reports. I got a sense the social worker had the capacity to get on with the job. The other social worker seemed to be working in a more bureaucratic, process driven way, and seemed less content with this. I got a sense that maybe the paperwork was getting in the way of the social work task and as a consequence the social worker was frustrated by this.
The 3 Conversations Model, which is the framework that the first social worker was working within, was developed by Partners for Change who developed the model with a number of councils claiming it “has demonstrated how you can give a better deal to people and families who need support, create liberating and exciting jobs for staff, and also dramatically reduce the costs of the overall social care system. The 3 conversations approach is a great way of delivering on the demands and opportunities of the Care Act 2014” Partners for Change (2018)
The first conversation is focussed on finding out what really matters to the person and looking, with them, to see how they can use their own resources and the community around them to meet their outcomes. The second conversation, often when there is a crisis, seeks to create stability from which people can find their own solutions with support. This again could involve their own resources and those of the community but could also include some short term commissioned services. Crucially though the social worker ‘sticks like glue’ (to use Partners for Change’s words) to the person to make sure the plan works and if it doesn’t seeks to change it. The third conversation seeks to build a ‘good life’ for the person where there has been a significant change or development. It would still start with the persons own resources and the community but may well include a more extensive package of care. In the example described to me conversations one and two rely mostly on case recording of information, decisions and services with only the ‘full force’ of bureaucracy occurring during conversation three where extensive packages of care with significant financial consequences are required.
The impact of this seemed to me to be an increase in face to face work with people and less time in front of the computer. There seemed to be a much more person centred focus starting with the strengths of the person and their networks. This was refreshing as I hear many people claim that they work from a strength based approach but then describe their work, or the work of their teams, from an assessment of risk perspective. Starting with risk rather than strength shifts the way you think and therefore shifts the way you can support the person to think.
The 3 conversations model is being trialled in several local authorities and time will indeed tell if it proves to be the ‘solution’. I’m certainly hopeful of the opportunities it presents.
Gibson, M. (2016) Social worker or social administrator? Findings from a qualitative case study of a child protection social work team Child and Family Social Work 2017, 22, pp 1187–1196
Partners for Change (2018) Home Page http://partners4change.co.uk/ (accessed 4th Nov 2018)