‘We have gone from a trust-based culture to a fear-based culture’
Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 4 October, 2023
My role as an advice and representation officer for BASW has taken me to civic centres and occasionally NHS trusts or private providers all over London and the south east, with the odd visit to the West Country and East Anglia.
Sometimes I would come out of a heavily panelled town hall chamber or bold new glass palace on a ring-road after hours talking to a member about their issues and have to think hard where I was. But while the venues were all much the same, just about every case had its own distinguishing features.
Over the years, this variety and the privilege of working in quite a personal way with social workers whose wellbeing and even careers are often on the line has been rewarding and enlightening. I learned as they learned.
Along the way I have tried to help people understand the dynamic they have become part of and how to navigate it.
The realm of social work in the UK, and the kind of social worker it now requires, has changed so much. In my view, we have moved from a trust-based culture to a fear-based culture. Alongside this is a movement to make people more like machines.
Transaction – the fact, as opposed to the quality of contact – is nectar to the machine. But human interaction – the relationship which is established when two people meet – is too messy and hard to convey with any accuracy.
When trust fades in a system or organisation, power moves upwards and, with the resulting loss of autonomy, professional pride and feelings of being valued, a sense of alienation and grievance fills the vacuum. Often this is where the Social Workers Union (SWU) steps in.
The fear-based culture of so many local authorities and public sector organisations leads to thick walls of procedure and absurd levels of checking and watching being created to keep disaster and, above all, public criticism at bay.
To staff who are involved in overseeing this process, these measures seem unarguably essential and they quickly become routine. More junior staff who get caught up in them soon feel oppressed, infantilised and, ironically, inwardly fearful themselves.
In an environment where everyone feels a disaster is only a missed email or procedural step away, high turnover of staff, high sickness absence and a high grievance count are absolutely inevitable.
Such a culture is highly inefficient, producing no added value at all. It also takes no account of what are called opportunity costs. In social work, this means that the proliferation of superfluous checks and hyper-recording take up vast amounts of time and energy which should be invested in a more responsive, more accessible and, above all, more thoughtful service.
When things do go wrong, as they always will from time to time, inquiries and serious case reviews actually compound the problem and increase risk by recommending yet more procedure and layers of scrutiny.
But surely when introducing another long, detailed electronic form aimed at mitigating risk, local authorities and health trusts should consider what completing the process will prevent staff from doing elsewhere. I have been around for a long time and have never heard this question posed.
I can accept that my appraisal of the current state of social work sounds negative and that, as SWU reps, we are only involved where there have been difficulties. Our experiences are not necessarily representative of the profession. But as outsiders, we develop the knack of being able to read the music insiders can’t hear.
At the moment it is discordant and it masks hidden dangers, not least that the profession’s perceived failure around risk and a lack of integration and effectiveness in the area of social care will be seen to justify the use of AI in much of what we do.
This, in my view, would be a mistake. For human relationships and interactions can never be reduced to a computer algorithm. They are much too complex and nuanced for that.
I guess, finally, that I should bow out with some practical advice learned during my 13 years advising and representing members. So, here goes:
- Read and know what is in your contract (because it may contain hidden surprises) Always be one step of the game (for example, get to the relevant policy before your manager does)
- Don’t be conspicuous (organisations dislike this more than anything)
- Say less rather than more, keeping your cards to your chest (especially on social media, but around the office as well)
- Where you can, build in other activities related to social work (because you will feel less isolated and your main job will no longer feel all-important)
- Members will also have heard me say “trust no-one”. I don’t mean by this that one should be suspicious of colleagues. It is a very difficult position to achieve but I think our aim should be to be friendly and supportive towards colleagues at all levels, while at the same time understanding that they are also representatives of the institution. And institutions have the capacity to be ruthless and punitive
- Finally, I would say – be a bit Marxist! By this I mean you own your labour and you lend it from time to time to different organisations in exchange for a monthly payment. The organisation does not own you. And if you decide to apply your labour elsewhere, don’t feel grateful that you have been offered a job (a typical social worker failing). Do your due diligence and interview them as much as they interview you
Knowing the right time to leave a job is one of the hardest things in this odd career that we have chosen, or which has chosen us. I see many members who leave too early and about the same number who leave too late. For many reasons, I am banking on now being about the right time to move on from SWU and apply my fading skills elsewhere.