Times they are a-changing. I know this is a cry that is heard perpetually throughout time, but never sung better than by Dylan! Often associated with the cry are shouts of “and not for the better” which themselves are countered by allegations of the lament being seen through “rose coloured spectacles”.
How do we know which is true? Both are probably. We are witnessing change on a day-by-day basis and over time. We have been remembering the miners’ strike of twenty years ago, and the structural changes since that time – to the economy, the public services and its underlying philosophical basis – have been changed for good.
We also hear the Prime Minister talk of the change that has happened in terms of external threats to our security and how individuals, governments and wider collaborative partnerships across nation states need to be alert to counter such threats.
I remember participating in some training when I worked in a local authority Social Services Department. The authority was undergoing some major structural change and the Chief Executive was keen to imbue values of openness, a person-centred approach, and cross-departmental co-operation. Important stuff.
Senior people from different departments came together to participate in workshops, seminars and role-play stretching over two days. I remember the role-play! We were allocated new personas in an imaginary department faced with implementing change. I was fortunate enough to be a grass roots worker and was on the receiving end of the change outcomes.
The outcome of all of this was obviously clear. Those at the top of the imaginary structure accepted the change and appreciated the reasons for the change and the benefits that would flow. My life, however, seemed unaffected. The benefit I experienced was minimal. I still had a bureaucracy to wade through, I still had no resources to call on, and I still had inadequate supervision and training opportunities.
So, what do we make of the changes that are being announced as to the structure of Social Service Departments and a new post of Children’s Commissioner. I think they are to be welcomed and the opportunities that they offer are positive. But the changes will not have the impact they deserve to have if some underlying tensions are not faced up to.
The tensions are :
- Lack of social workers. Especially in children’s services there is a very serious shortfall in the number of qualified workers engaged in front line activity.
- A move away from an over-reliance on process to a recognition that social workers are actively involved in encouraging change with the people they are working with.
- More resources to be introduced so that practice is not always based on “fire alarm” criteria.
There are some signs that this may be happening. I understand there is to be a campaign to recruit more social workers and some authorities have implemented imaginative ways of recruiting and maintaining staff. Some additional resources have been identified for the changes, which are coming.
What needs to happen as well, however, is a re-energising of the grass roots. Frontline workers have to be given clear evidence that they have an important role to play and their voices have to be heard.