Wednesday, 14 April 2010

and another thing...

Working in social care certain words get a great deal of use. One word which passes the lips of anyone in the field with a rhythmic regularity is 'empowerment.' Empowerment is seen as a universaly positive guiding principle. As an employee I saw my role very clearly, I was there to empower; to empower people who had little power, to enable them to participate in the community and society in a manner which they chose to, not one which was dictated by society's predjudices and iniquities. The reality of course was more messy, taking a step back I performed functions counter to this aim; gatekeeping according to the norms of the institution I worked for and implementing policies (most notably a highly punative charging policy) which arguably disempowered. Empowerment though was soley thought of in the context of service users, staff empowerment was something which received little attention.

I consistently used to argue that staff needed to be empowered (and still do in the private sector where the situations seems even worse - though do so in hushed tones). Staff need to have the tools to do their jobs and their views need to be heard above service manager level, rather than being treated as irrelevant. In my old authourity several policy changes led to a number of quite major issues which many staff had been flagging up as areas of concern long before. The impact on me was that I felt very disempowered. One aspect of the Conservatives plans, announced yesterday, therefore does appeal. Encouraging staff to take control of service provision seems to be a radical step and one which could potentialy see hierarchical 'buracratic' organisations flatten and become responsive.

But isn't this inviting an animal farm type scenario; replacing the farmer (in this case an exec. director) with an oligopoly of professionals. Hierarchies can be flattened but power dynamics will always exist. The alternative is a more pure kind of constitutionaly protected democracy which results in levels of arguement which are personally draining for all participants. There are also the usual unanswered questions, how will this all work in practice, will this be in the context of quasi-markets where staff collectives compete against the third sector and private sector to provide services not to mention the obvious question, is this just a ploy to buy off professsionals who would otherwise be hostile to a policy of pushing state functions onto the third sector, a sweetner to assuage concerns of declining areas of influence for professionals? Or am I being cynical again?


  1. I think most Health & Social Care settings fall under the Hierarchical & Modern organisational structure. It is an unfair reality that most care workers are unqualified, with those who do have some sort of qualification usually having an NVQ Level 2 which is GCSE level.

    Managers therefore often believe that with qualifications and status comes a better understanding of this type of work, which on one side is true, however what they fail to remember is we work essentially with people and not products. How can a manager believe they know the best way to support someone purely because they are a manager, if they've never supported that person or built a relationship with them.

    Social Policies are often taken from the top of the heirachy but implemented way down, but they are essentially 'open to interpretation' which can lead to conflicts in level of care between workers. Now if I went into work today and said the main roles within our profession are to empower individuals to lead more fulfilled independent lives, lessening their dependency on others. And advocating for individuals my colleagues would probably look at me with blank expressions.

    With that said most have them have worked within the profession for 30+ years.

  2. That's a really interesting point. It reminds me of a situation described to me by a former colleague who had recently qualified as a Social Worker. They had done a placement and some temping in my team before taking up a post in a neighbouring authority; their first proper position. The job entailed responsibility for a 'low needs' project. Several carers were allocated to this and the aim of the project was to switch from a simple care giving approach to a rehab focused approach. Being newly qualified my former colleague was steeped in the current academic discourses around things like empowerment. Their ideas were however very different to one of the carers they had responsibility for and who had been in the profession for over 20 or so years. This caused a lot of conflict much to my former colleagues dismay. For me this was a classic example of someone new showing up and saying this is how things should be done, I've got a qualification so I'm right. Whilst the individual situation could have been handled a lot better (for the record my former colleague is a very committed social worker who was very well intentioned but, suffered from a lack of experience) I think it is symptomatic of the wider hierarchies in social care, namely the opinion that knowledge lies with the professional practitioners who need to then disseminate this to those below them. There may be some vague nods towards the expertise of those carrying out the work, but in general the position adopted is that this is inferior form of knowledge. In their turn the professionals views are disregarded by those above them in the management hierarchy.

    I remember too being given a talk on 'the golden thread' which was about how our individual practice is informed by the more abstract priorities set by the division. The way it was illustrated was unproblematicaly top down; we set the priorities you implement them.

    At the time even I did not question this but, like you say, and I am in total agreement the knowledge about how to do a job is held by the person doing the job. Not a manger who rarely gets involved with or has left being front-line work or a person with no experience of that work themselves.

    Not that I mean this to sound like an attack on managers or university educated social workers. They do valuable roles. What I do argue for however, is the need for a more democratic approach to decision making coupled with the recognition that the people who do the jobs on the front-line have a unique and in-depth knowledge of their jobs which deserves not to be ignored.