In the last two months, four important professions have suffered serious knocks. The world’s bankers have suffered a serious blow to their reputation for failing to foresee the current financial crisis and for continuing to selfishly look after their own interests in helping themselves to huge salaries and bonuses when they should be offering a better service to their customers. British politicians have had a torrid fortnight facing revelations about the ridiculous expenses claims which some of them have made to boost their income. The image of the Roman Catholic Church is badly dented, both for the catalogue of abuse suffered by children at the hands of clergy and others (most recently in Ireland) and for its defensive responses to criticism. And, of course, in relation to Baby Peter, social workers have come in for further serious criticism for failing to protect a vulnerable little child.

If we cannot rely on the integrity of the banks, the Government, the Church and the helping professions, we are in a sorry mess. Is it happenstance that all these events come together like this, or is there a pattern to it? When Job suffered disaster after disaster, he said that the only thing he wanted was a potsherd to scrape his boils. It sounds ghastly, but Gordon Brown may have some feeling of empathy.

Each of these failures is, of course, complex, and it would be foolish to suggest that there is a single simple cause. They do, however, share one common feature. In each case, the professionals involved were working within a range of expectations, professional codes, belief systems, procedures, rules, guidance and law, and the failures represented the shortcomings not only of the individuals involved, but also of these systems. These were not instances of one ‘bad apple’ in an otherwise sound profession; there were – and are – systemic problems.

Each Irish priest who abused a child was personally responsible, but so was the system which meant that a child’s word would never be believed against a priest’s. MPs will have signed their individual claims for expenses, but the system itself was known to be unsatisfactory. Bankers did deals and took their money within an insufficiently regulated system of banking that was bigger than any of them. And Haringay social workers were doing their work in an under-resourced undertrained service with multiple pressures on them. In each case the professionals should be expected to take responsibility for their personal decisions and actions, but the systems within which they worked also have to be scrutinised.

Whichever profession we consider, we need to be clear that our expectations of the professionals relate to what we want them to achieve, and their tasks need to be achievable. We also need to make sure that their support systems, such as management, supervision, training and quality assurance, really are geared to match what is expected of them.

Underpinning all of these we need to make sure that the values of the services and the professions are clear and consistent, and do not bear unintended consequences for those relying on the professionals. The rules set up for each profession’s ‘games’ shape the way that the professionals play.

If social workers get the message that the key test of success for them is completing forms, they will be liable to sit at their computers, making sure that every box is filled, rather than getting out and about, talking with their clients, at the expense of the ticked boxes. If a successful banker is one who makes a lot of money, he will try to achieve that goal, rather than earn less and have satisfied customers. If priests learn that wielding power provides satisfaction, they risk being corrupted and lured into misusing it. If politicians feel that they should not be personally accountable to their electorates, they risk – even in small ways – using systems to line their pockets.

We have mentioned the other professions to emphasise that we are talking about human behaviour, and not just the failings of the social work profession. From the point of view of children and young people, the big question is what sort of professionals do they need (or want) to have serving them. Then there is the question how we enable people to fulfil those roles.

There is a temptation at such times to regulate, to appoint external inspectors, and to set up disciplinary systems. These may be needed, but there is the serious risk that standard-setting becomes an external function, when professionals should be disciplining themselves voluntarily. Internalised standards are the most effective, and they need to be re-inforced, not undermined. This is not just a question of professions having codes of ethics, though they are necessary. It is a matter of the professionals each owning the profession’s values and being motivated to maintain them.

We have one major point to make at this juncture. Too little attention has been paid over the last thirty years to the motivation, values, beliefs and personal commitment of people who work with children and young people. Of course they need knowledge, skills and competences, but all these are useless if workers are not motivated to be of service to children. Their main satisfaction – year in, year out, throughout their careers – should be in seeing children, young people and their families overcome their problems. Maintaining and renewing motivation in the face of stress, under-resourcing, fractious colleagues and difficult clients can be hard, but it is vital if children and young people are to have the priority which they deserve.

And, by the way, the same goes for the other professions as well. Get the values wrong, and there will be problems. Get the values right, and the rest will fall into place.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.