Friday, 28 August 2009

The Fear

Every so often, usually as a "friendly" Alsatian leaps towards your jugular, someone, the owner, will utter "don't be afraid they can smell fear." If dogs can really smell fear then a Social Services office will turn the most docile lapdog into a snarling frenzy, whizzing round in an incoherent blur like the Tasmanian Devil in a town centre after a night on the Stella.

Social Services offices operate on pure fear. Social Workers fear that they're one mistake, one bad call, one lapse of memory away from putting a client at risk. Unqualified staff are terrified of getting out of their depth and being swept away by swift currents of disciplinaries and HR procedures. Even admin staff carry the fear that their mistakes will result in them being told to clear their desks.

For anyone facing a disciplinary and losing your job is a terrifying prospect. For Social Workers removal of their registration means they are left to wander the barren wilderness outside the high walls of the profession they worked so hard to enter. A loss of livelihood at the very least. If your mistake has put someone at risk or worse your livelihood will be the least of your concerns. Most people in Social Services take things home with them; We reflect on where we went wrong, where we could have done more, where we failed and usually what we will do better next time. For the condemned, stripped of their previous honours, judged to have been found wanting in the course of their duties, there is no next time. Only regret.

It is of course essential that the professionals who we rely on are up to the job. It is right that those who are unsuitable, reckless, untrustworthy or negligent should be removed from their posts. The great problem however is that in a climate of underfunding it is difficult to see where blame should lie. Should the individual Tommy take the blame for failure to reach their muddy objective, was it their poor handling of their rifle which led to their comrades perishing, or was it the plan devised by the officers that was flawed, poor training, poor equipment or a combination of factors.

It is accepted wisdom that mistakes take place in environments where there is poor leadership, scarcity of resources and high caseloads. When an individual is under pressure they are more likely to make the mistake which costs them their job. Often managers are keen to delegate blame to individuals. To admit a system is at fault is to admit they are at least partly at fault.

In the meantime the fallen are shrouded in secrecy; not to be spoken of. The remaining staff are told not to contact their colleague during proceedings. When a final decision is taken they are told the individual is 'no longer with the authority.' They no longer exist.

Thursday, 20 August 2009


After being told for some time that the long planned changes to the structure of the service, merging 5 Rehab Teams and 5 Locality Teams into 3 'super teams' complete with Community Matrons, would not affect the team we have now been told that the future is more uncertain. In an emergency team meeting we were told we will no longer be dealing with referrals from professionals, these will be made direct to the super teams, leaving us to deal with referrals made by the general public. There has been much discussion in the team since the plans were first announced and it was generally agreed amongst us that, despite the assertions of senior management, like a small boat, we would be inevitably tossed about by the waves generated by the supertanker maneuvering around us.

The plans will be 'going live' in mid-september. Office moves have been scheduled to take place and as everyone settles into new routines of hot-desking and parking problems half of my team will be sent out to help the new teams with processing the new referrals now be dealing with. The future of my team will we are told depend on the statistics generated in this first week.

Throughout the meeting I had a smile on my face. I was recalling when I first started at Social Services. Someone had blu-tacked some cartoons to the office wall, one was the excellent Clare In the Community another had a manager standing in front of an organisational diagram. The diagram had been amended several times, boxes crossed out and new names of teams pencilled in, things like Children's Team 1 was crossed out and Area C written in it's place. The caption of the cartoon was "We've tried re-organising several times so we just thought we'd mess everything up and see what happens" I couldn't help but think of it.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Gender in Social Care

Jane is dropping dollops of mango chutney on the table after a few too many vodkas, Sheila’s grabbed a fake flower from a vase and is stuffing it down her top. Everyone is having a good laugh. Fairly typical scene of a girls night out. Except there’s one guy. Me. “You are the luckiest man in town” I’m later told by a waiter bringing over my vindaloo. It’s been less than a year since I walked through the door of a Social Services department. I’m at a colleagues leaving do. Conspicuously the only male of the group on the night; one of only two in the whole team in the day. Brought up by my mum, along with two sisters and having spent three years on a sociology degree meant I’m not unfamiliar with being the only male face. In fact I’m comfortable with it. After five years in a boys school in some ways it’s a relief.

A few years later I’m in a car with Steve a locum Occupational Therapist. I’m shadowing him on client visits as he’s waiting for his CRB to come through. This is stupid. He’s probably had several CRBs since my last one which was when I received a permanent contract in 2005, but as he hasn’t yet had one since taking up employment with this authourity he cannot do visits alone. Steve, an ex RAF dog handler, was a welcome sight. I’d just had a period of being the only male in the team. As we head to the visit we’re talking about my experiences as the odd one out. Steve observes that from his experience working in all female environments is “all bitchy” and all male environments are “all Sunday Sport.” While I don’t completely agree with his sentiments I did agree that working in an almost exclusively female environment is a negative thing. Where earlier I had felt comfortable I now felt bitter, alienated and discriminated against.

The Stephen Lawrence enquiry gave birth to the everyday use of the term institutional racism. When we talk about institutional discrimination we talk about discrimination which is hidden in structures, everyday practices and deep down in attitudes we may not be fully aware we have. Quite often when a high profile ‘race-row’ erupts in the media the alleged perpetrators first line of defence is ‘I’m not racist ask any of my friends’. This statement may often be completely true. The difficulty with tackling institutional discrimination like institutional racism is that a person or organisation doesn’t need to be racist to be racist. My experiences, though I hasten to add these are not on the level of some of the racism people have experienced, as the only male in a department has provided me with personal experience of how institutional discrimination exists, even within a Social Services department which prides itself on diversity, in an authority with an ‘equality framework’ backed up by numerous HR policies.

There is the everyday conversation in the office. The discussions about which men my colleagues liked the look of. This could sometimes be fairly innocent of ‘isn’t X or Y nice looking’ or at other times slightly more graphic. I have even had the occasional comment made directly to me. Then there are the conversations involving negative generalisations about men. The out of favour husbands, boyfriends and men-folk in general who were, well, just men after all. ‘No… not you’ would be hastily added if I happened to be nearby. I’ve even heard comments like “typical man” added to discussions in the office when there is a case involving domestic violence.

There is the impact I feel gender has had on my career. I have received feedback from interviews where I have been told while I have knowledge I am ‘too academic’, that I lack communication skills, and the experience of dealing with people. In other words whilst I possess qualities traditionally thought of as masculine I lack the feminine qualities demanded by the field. I would describe myself as academic but I have also spent several years in the field where I have demonstrated an ability to communicate effectively. This may of course just be a case of me reacting to not getting the job, but what makes me feel this is not necessarily the case is that several female colleagues have made the observation that my difficulty progressing in the organisation is ‘because you’re a bloke.’ It’s not however, just men that are on the receiving end of gender stereotypes in the organisation for an overwhelmingly female organisation a very high number of team managers appear to be male.

There is also what I find to be one of the hardest things being the only male in an environment of mainly middle-aged females. No one ever gets your pop-culture or film references.. yeah that’s just like that film.. have you seen you seem to be giving me a strange look. Better get back to typing out this assessment. This can make it hard to form friendships, build good working relationships with colleagues and has at times made me feel excluded and alienated from the team.

Some of these observations may appear trivial, even insignificant. You might feel that I’m ‘touchy’ or take offence too easily. Yet I have never made a complaint. Why? To do so would, I feel have no point. I don’t feel that any of the people I work with are sexist, or even doing anything particularly wrong. I believe however, that many of them operate using a deeply embedded set of assumptions about gender drawn from wider society. These individual assumptions, when joined together, creates an everyday corporate culture which is in opposition to the official projection of an organisation which values diversity. I do not complain about individual colleagues as their actions, in themselves are insignificant. Complaining however, would trigger the organisation into dealing with the issue as an individual one. It will point to its policies that ensure diversity and deflect the blame onto one individual. The complainant is then likely to face consequences such as being regarded with suspicion by colleagues.

This is I believe how discrimination of all kinds and at all levels persists. An organisation needs to be pro-active in placing the minutest of day-to-day practices under the microscope to find where these are infected by prejudice. The problem is that so many organisations are unwilling to do this unless they are faced by external pressure. Otherwise why would an organisation ask such tough questions, questions which may make both managers and the organisation as a whole look bad?

Thursday, 13 August 2009

A Turning Point

Two years ago I applied for an MSc in Social Policy. I deferred for a year as I chose to move into a new flat and did not have enough cash to pay the fees. Over the last year I have been oscillating between going to uni or giving up my place. Decision day would have been the end of August as I would need to give a months notice to be able to begin in October.

Today, after a particularly frustrating morning dealing with a request for an extra toilet in a house as someone might, just might, be using the other one. I suddenly felt trapped. I have sat at the same desk in the same room doing the same job for too many years. I had the urge just to walk out on the spot. Instead I channeled the desire into striking off a couple of things which had to be languishing on my to do list. First I contacted the Uni. Could I pay the fees by installments? Yes I can; Two. One payment in October another in January. Then I sent an email to my manager. As of October I would like to work part time Mon-Wed. I am currently awaiting a decision on this.

Financially it will be a stretch. I will be having a very, very frugal year but, seven years after graduating with a Sociology degree I'm only now within touching distance of 20k a year. Social Care is not a sector which will make you rich! With the interest on my initial student loan still not being covered I desperately need to get something which will propel my career forward. I think the MSc will be what I need.

I have spoken to a few fiends about this. Without a professional qualification it seems very hard to progress your career beyond a couple of rungs up the ladder. It is like trying to gain access to a City without using a main road. There are back roads into the city but you need to have good local knowledge or a guide to navigate them. You're also likely to become stuck in a traffic jam as
everyone without a qualification is seeking the same route. A professional qualification on the other hand allows you fast, direct access into the heart of the city.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Fair Pay?

In my mail today, along with a bank statement which was more gory than Quentin Tarantino's innermost thoughts, arrived a ballot paper from Unison. We in the public sector must decide whether to accept a pay offer of 1.25% for the lowest paid grades and 1.00% for all other grades.

Even with the latest CPI inflation at a low 1.8% this represents a pay cut for the whole public sector. If we reject the offer this may eventually result in strike action. I have been involved with strike action before and feel it has been unsuccessful. As soon as the news breaks that we are to strike the politicians aided by some sections of the media reach into the box marked 'lazy stereotypes' and pull forth a cardboard cut out of a fictionalised public sector employee. Favourites being the paper pushing beauracrat; only too happy to stand in the way of your planning application, council tax payment or request for residential care for your mother-in-law. This creature exists only in the public sector as it is a virus which cannot exist outside it's environment for long. Dying on exposure to the dog-eat-dog hard faced 'real world' occupied by the rest of society. The other perennial stereotype is the 'non-job'. Often associated with that other demon of the public sector political correcness or 'elf and safety'. Playground Supervisors, Cycling Officers et al all on 'taxpayer funded' saleries starting at £25k a year and all doing jobs which are totally pointless.

As a public sector employee I will say that there are some job roles which are overpaid (usually with coordinator in the title) whose purpose can be questionable. Where these exist they are in part down to the vagaries of the grading system. Job roles across an authourity are compared using a set of criteria and banded into grades. The criteria for a band will include things like whether there are visits to the public, supervision of other employees, etc. Taken across a whole authourity this can overvalue some jobs, but it can often undervalue others. For example a Childrens Social Worker has the same starting salary as an Adult Services Social Worker, yet one job is seen within the profession as much tougher than the other. Consequently Childrens Service departments often find themselves understaffed. This grading system means that unlike the private sector pay cannot be deemed simply by a market driven supply and demand value. If it were Childrens Social Workers would be one of the highest paid workers in the Authourity, rather than being equal to Adults Social Workers, Town Planners and, Painters and Decorators.

Not many people find great wealth serving in the public sector. This is not because, as many would have it, they would not cope in the 'real world', but because they beleive in what they do and are trying their best to make a difference. For all the talk of 'paper pushers' and 'non-jobs' the public sector is full of dedicated staff who are underpaid and often battling to do essential jobs to the best of their ability to a backdrop of declining resources. It is not uncommon to hear stories of staff routinely going without breaks and working 5 hours overtime in one day just to get the job done and putting up with spectacular amounts of abuse from joe public. Of course our detractors will say this is all comon to the private sector too, but no-one is accusing them of having a free ride. For all the dedication I see everyday I think my colleagues deserve more than 1%.

Welcome to Going Public.

Welcome to my Blog. When I was at university, in my room adorned with a Che Guevara poster, I dreamed of making a difference in the public sector. Not for me the huge profits of the fat cat private sector world. Why then, almost five years after I first timidly set foot in the council offices as an employee, am I so dissilusioned?

I've been inspired to start this blog by the other public employees who have written about their experiences. People like Nightjack. Maybe no one will read it but I hope, like all those years ago, that I can finally make a difference, if only to make people ask the questions which so badly need to be asked of the public sector today.

I work in an Adult Services department of a Local Authourity in England. In my five years, starting at the very bottom rung of the ladder, I have worked in three roles under two administrations and four different managers. I am currently working two roles, of which I will talk about more in future posts; Provided I last that long. I'm already thinking about my exit strategy but my colleagues have heard that many times before.

I will in these posts use alternative identities and will not name my employers. I will not publish any information which can lead to the identification of individuals. I will however, discuss the issues as I see them, the problems I encounter every day in my job and my views on the governments policy. I hope you enjoy reading them and please feel free to post any comments I am more than happy to correspond about the issues affecting the public sector.