Building a joined up service to help our most vulnerable people

Earlier this year Ofsted was attacked in a report that claimed its inspection of children’s services was outdated and even harmed the children it was trying to protect.

The report, entitled Breaking The Lock, argued there was a lack of consistency in the inspection process and that a single judgement of inadequate by Ofsted could trigger a “catastrophic spiralling effect” on a local authority. It’s worth noting some other key points in the report, particularly the last one:

• The rise in family breakdown is a leading cause of children needing support, exposing fundamental weaknesses in the current model of children’s services (a lack of early intervention is allowing manageable problems to descend into acute crisis).
• There is national shortage of social workers meaning that struggling councils are overly reliant on agency staff costing more money and leading to less consistency of support for vulnerable children.
• The best way to help families and vulnerable children at risk is to intervene much earlier and include health visitors, school nurses, teachers and GPs.
• Children’s services and Ofsted need to collaboratively modernise to reflect the reality of the public sector’s financial climate and the growing complexity of needs that vulnerable families have.

Many critics will be rubbing their hands with glee at the criticism directed at Ofsted, but the organisation is not alone when it comes to the need to modernise in the face of changing times and circumstances.

I’ve recently visited many local authorities where I’ve assisted with change and risk management transformation. In many instances it’s been clear that social work practitioners, first line managers and leaders are poorly equipped with the tools and strategies needed to “reflect the reality” of the changing environment in which they work.

There is no doubt that social workers and managers have a difficult and complex role, and are often caught in the middle of competing pressures from their team members, the organisation, the external community and the wider changing environment.

But the ability to cope with changes is a skill and requirement that all social workers need to be able to understand regardless of their role – whether they practice within a statutory setting, a community-based setting, a multi-professional team, or even as an independent consultant or someone who is part of a virtual team.

In my opinion leaders and managers do not have all of the qualities required to be the perfect leader or manager. Even the best director of social services needs a strong management team with a variety of backgrounds to shape a vision for the future, manage service transformation and perform day-to-day tasks.

For professional decisions, the director may rely on advice from middle and junior managers. Even if the director has come up through the service as a social worker or similar, once in a senior role they should allow the professionals to do their work in most cases, while they focus on managerial responsibilities.

As a social care director, one needs to have strong budget management skills and systemic thinking. Political insight and understanding are especially important given that leaders and managers of social services are working in a political environment.

This idea that management skills or techniques from the private sector are transferable to public is a contentious issue among some academics and practitioners. This may be all the more important where there is a need to tackle endemic corruption and clientelism.

As social workers we continue to work within the context of uncertainty. This uncertainty is brought about by external changes that have an impact at individual and team level, driven by events occurring in the wider organisation or as a result of legislation, policy or differing demands.

Public services are currently facing a unique set of circumstances relating to the implementation of the national deficit reduction plan. This will result in significant reductions in real terms spending and the public sector workforce.

Most social work services are already experiencing considerable cost pressures, related to rising numbers of children looked after away from home, significant growth in the numbers of frail older people and those with dementia, and increased numbers of younger people with substantial disabilities and complex needs.

Demographic and social trend forecasts show that cost pressures will steadily increase; and the impact of reduced public spending may itself give rise to increased demand for social work services and support among the most vulnerable individuals, families and communities.

The presence of a strong learning culture in an organisation goes a long way in ensuring that those in leadership and management positions are able to deliver the highest levels of performance when it comes to leading organisation change, as well as managing the day-to-day work of an organisation.

Therefore, investing in the continuous training and development of senior staff and their teams is essential, especially in difficult times when leaders of public services are being asked to make reform and efficiency happen. Ensuring that senior managers and their teams are equipped with the right skills is also important.

At this point it’s worth reflecting on what makes a good leader in the social sector, someone who ensures that social services deliver better outcomes, even in challenging political and economic times.

The leaders coming through needs to reflect on all this and work with partner organisations – including Ofsted, health and education – to build a truly modern joined up service that will help our most vulnerable people as we move into an uncertain future.