New model for social work ‘shows potential for reform across public services’

Two social work policy professionals discuss the benefits and challenges of a radical management system aimed at empowering frontline teams to make more of their own decisions.


By Colin Marrs

26 Nov 2019

Image by rawpixel from Pixabay

A new management model aimed at removing bureaucratic hurdles from the work of social workers would assist the wider public sector, the Civil Service World podcast has heard.

This week’s podcast delved into a report by the Centre for Public Impact outlining the results of a trial of a new model aimed at empowering social workers and removing paperwork.

Speaking on the podcast, Katie Rose, programme manager at the institute, a not-for-profit that helps government and public sector organisations to prepare for the complex challenges they face, said demands from central government to meet defined outcomes has hampered the ability of social works to do their jobs.


She said: “I think that has created an environment of mistrust of the public service professional.

“Not intentionally but, because we are working to targets that are set at a national level, the social workers have been naturally restricted from making any meaningful decisions, because they always have to look to the Department for Education for what data they want.

“So I think it's been something that has perpetuated a culture of mistrust of the social worker.”

The institute developed a new way of working based on a Dutch system called the Buurtzorg model.

It saw the creation of small teams of eight family-facing social workers covering specific geographic locations, with support from “referring”, “enabler” “insight” and “strategy” teams.

Social workers and local authorities would comply with all existing regulations and legislation, but the family-facing teams would have greater powers to make decisions without having to seek approval up the chain.

Also appearing on the podcast, Ryan Wise, practice development manager at the Social Care Institute for Excellence, said this was a contrast with the current system of top-down management.

Describing his time working as a social worker, he said: “I remember on a Friday afternoon, running around trying to get £30 signed off so I could buy a travel card for a 17 year old mother I was working with.

“She was quite young, becoming increasingly agitated because she just wanted to travel and see her family so I was having to deal with that, but then navigating what felt like 50 layers of management.

“It was just ridiculous. It was just something so simple that was out of my control.”

Rose said the new model enabled supervision and oversight from within an eight-person team that enabled social workers “to reflect on decisions and enables a support system that right now is only provided by one person, their manager”.

In addition, giving social workers more autonomy remove some of the pressures that currently stand in the way of relationships with clients, Wise said.

He said: “[At] the moment, this excessive focus on data comes from the very top and filters down management, the social workers day to day role.

“So you'll have a social worker, and I've had it myself, where I'm more concerned about whether or not I've put a note on the system, compared to whether or not I've actually been to see a child and have a conversation with them about how their day is gone.”

Other parts of the public sector could also benefit from the lessons learnt during the trial of the new system, Rose added.

“I think there are lots of ways that you can enact some of the principles that lie at the heart of this which is around trusting public service professionals to do their best work, and finding ways to create relationships that can really translate,” she said.

Wise agreed, saying: “I would encourage people to think about how power raises its head in your organisation or in your team in terms of your day to day work, and what would having a different relationship with power look like?”

However, implementing the system could require some difficult conversations with existing managers, requiring support for the principles from the top of organisations, Rose said.

“I think it's really on them to have the hard conversations with the managers to say ‘your job is to support everyone else in the team now, not manage them’. And I think that's a fundamental shift.”

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