Privatising or Pioneering Social Work Practices

Yesterday, I came across this article on the Community Care website about new pilot ‘independent social work practice’ set up as a social enterprise. It made me pause for thought and ponder a number of things about where social work is going and what social work is.

The article extols the wonder of the ‘Topaz’ team in Lambeth which is described as

One of the six independent social work practice pilots for adult services, it has £91,300 start-up funding from the Department of Health until August 2012.

and explains

The team has three core aims: early intervention, preventive work, and promoting people’s independence and wellbeing in the community. To keep funding next year, it has to show that this is keeping people at home for longer, which saves the council money in care home and nursing fees.

Working with local health services, voluntary, faith and community groups, the idea is to create more resilient communities and raise awareness of services within Lambeth.

People who were assessed in the previous year and deemed ineligible for services are contacted to review whether there has been a change in circumstances.

It sounds wonderful. Really it does. So this team looks at people who might be at the lower end of the ‘needs’ spectrum and works towards ways to prevent a future dependence. It sounds a little like some of the work some voluntary sector organisations like Age UK might have scope to do but the council have gone a different route through this social enterprise model.

Topaz, according to it’s websitealso provides support and guidance to those who are ‘self-funding’.

So why do I have to rain on this parade of wonder and innovation?

Firstly, it’s about my discomfort about the talk about ‘getting back to ‘real’ social work’. What does that mean? Is that disparaging to the current social workers in a statutory setting who don’t get have the same role regarding ‘cherry picking’ those who need to use the services. Or is community social work (which no doubt is very valuable) the only ‘real’ social work that goes on. There’s a little hint of superiority in that attitude that I find discomforting and disconcerting.

The Team Manager says

It’s about improving the image of social work, telling people what we do, how we can help, that we are not agents of control who take children away

Which is great, but you know, sometimes we are ‘agents of control who take children away’.

As I said, I think it sounds like a fantastic project but it employs social workers and pushing them out of local authority ‘bounds’ – it seems very benign and creative – but – I see it as the start of a slope to eventually push statutory functions outside the local authority control and most importantly, beyond the local authority democratic mandate. While that’s fine as long as you are working with people on the fringes of eligibility criteria and having picnics in the park with them, it may carry a very different status when involving more serious safeguarding issues that arise – indeed, that would be my question back to the Topaz team – how do they deal with safeguarding investigations? Do they go back to the local authority for that or hold them within the team themselves?

My other concern is the terms and conditions of those employed in the service – they are employed on locum type contracts – as the article says

No pension, sick pay, maternity leave or job security beyond next year might not sound like ideal terms and conditions. But for a group of pioneering social workers in Lambeth, the risks of working in a community interest company are worth taking because it’s enabling them to do use all of their social work skills.

Well, you know what? I believe I make full use of all my social work skills in the job I have now. And I have sick pay. Who’d have thought that should be something I should be surprised at expecting as a social worker.

And this team won a wonderful award last year in an award scheme which, like most, operate by either self-nomination or endorsement by senior managers. I can see why it is completely in Lambeth’s interest and the government’s interest to promote these social enterprise teams. I can see why they want to be presented as ‘pioneering’ but actually is this going forward or is it going backwards? Isn’t this about the roots of community social work so actually far from pioneering?

Perhaps I’m overly cynical. I do want more scope for social work in communities however I’m not convinced by this model and propaganda which brushes over working conditions and limited contracts will not help allay my scepticism.

Because my worry is that it is a slippery slope towards pushing essential services away from the democratic mandate and when the cuts come, these services which have been presented as the ‘pioneers’ will be the forerunners as far as models go but when the other core services follow, these will be the ones which will be the ones to go when the cuts come. And the cuts will come.

So tell me if I’m wrong or just over sceptical because I want to find hope in the future of social work but I don’t want to be blind to the risks that may exist if we embrace these ‘practices’ without critical thought.

12 thoughts on “Privatising or Pioneering Social Work Practices

  1. I think your point “Which is great, but you know, sometimes we are ‘agents of control who take children away’” is an extremely important one. It’s all very well having this arms length organisation who are all nicey nice, talking to Mother’s outside the school gates etc, but where does this leave us if taken to it’s logical concusion?

    Assuming this scheme is successful and replicated elsewhere, it seems to me this runs the risk of creating a sort of two tier system where semi-private organisations are seen as benign and good for a chat, but Social Services are left with the drudge work, the stuff the private sector doesn’t want to touch, the stuff which requires oodles of legislation to be properly implemented. IE exactly the stuff this organisation is glad to be rid of. For better or worse the entire point of social services is to help those noone else wants to. I’m not saying talking to people on a more human level isn’t extremely welcome and beneficial, however it should be done within Social Services proper, a sort of active PR policy if you will, not outsourced so the private sector can take all the credit!

    That said, if their strategy does work, then their experiences should be noted and brought into regular SS operations and procedures, however all of that usefulwork is going to cost money!

    Aside from anything else, by removing them from being directly under the LA’s umbrella you are removing them from direct accountability and increasing risk. Now one might argue that if their positions were abused then funding would simply be withdrawn, however Winterbourne seems to indicate this isn’t a faultless model.

  2. I think you’re absolutely right to be concerned about this on many levels. Cherrypicking is nice and lucrative for the private sector, but deprives the public sector of the kind of work that reinforces morale and positive perceptions of social work. Employing staff with no maternity pay, sick pay or pensions might be fine for those particular staff, but it’s not going to be attractive to women planning families, people with long term health problems or people who are closer to retirement age. And shifting statutory functions into the private sector comes with a loss of transparency and accountability. Those latter issues could potentially be addressed through legislation, but I don’t see many genuine efforts to in government, and I suspect many parts of the private sector would suddenly find publicly funded work less attractive if that happened.

  3. Thanks all for your comments and thoughts – as I said, I’m happy to be persuaded but despite the post from Ruth (and thanks for that) I’m not entirely convinced. I can see about wanting to present positivity but my concerns remain that such sparse terms and conditions become ‘normalised’ in the sector and that people have an unusual perception of what ‘real’ social work is.

    I don’t know that talking to a journalist about a low risk, non-controversial, preventative scheme was particularly brave to be honest. It’s unlikely to see a lot of anger targeted at this Topaz team as they aren’t the ones who say ‘no’ – unlike the gatekeeping role of social workers in more traditional statutory sectors and I don’t understand what they are doing that voluntary organisations (who have had their funding withdrawn) could already do – it seems to be about shifting resources, secure terms and conditions of services and opening it up to private companies (I think we need to be careful about what ‘social enterprise’ involves as I’ve heard some use the term very liberally).

    Preventative work is fantastic of course, but what services does Topaz provide actively? What are THEIR eligibility criteria? Do they work with people with mental illness/learning disability or is it physical disability/older people? Unclear.

    I just found there were more questions that I’d like to be answered – what is their process of safeguarding? What social work specific tasks do they undertake? How does ‘agency’ style employment allow equality of opportunity for those who wish to be employed in this service? What do they do that is truly different or pioneering or innovative? I see it as signposting and advice.

  4. Emitrude, I 100% agree with you. I am fearful of social work idolizing the social entrepreneur model. In the US, privatization has been detrimental to our mental health system. The reports of private mental health providers billing for services they did not provide is outrageous. I am fearful that social services are next. Helping the poor and exercising statutory authority should not be in the hands of a for profit business. Part of me believes that efforts to correct failures in the governmental system is minimal to justify letting the vultures swoop in.

  5. Pingback: Is Social Work necessary in Assessments? « The Not So Big Society

  6. I am not sure why we need a private sector to provide a flagship for the fantastic work that social workers do throughout the country, i feel that if the public were made more aware of the integral work of SWs and the support that they provide, the money spent on privatising could well be better used supporting the charitable/voluntary organisation that already do this.

    i am a practicing SW and have worked in the public and private sector which in essesnce are needs led services which actually are finance led decisions, lets stop outsoursing these services and give the Local Authorities the ability to make decisions that have far better outcomes for service users, rant over!!

  7. Some of us are politically active and are united together in an organisation known as the Social Work Action Network. You are right to be cynical – the work we have done on SWP’s in SWAN argues they are camouflage for privatisation see:

    Click to access SWAN_newsletter_4_autumn2011.pdf

    The DoE published the 3 year evaluation of the 5 children’s pilots last week

    This concluded that “none were fully independent or autonomous” as the local authorities not prepared to transfer control of the placements budget to the SWP’s. Crucially the governments own researchers also said that the payment by results was not tested and “ Since these elements were a source of resistance and concerns about SWPs, continued insistence on their inclusion in the model seems inappropriate” … which will come as a blow to the group of supporters around professor Julian Le Grand and the government. All this does not of course mean the experiment will be halted – privatisation marchers on – our task is to continue to resist.

  8. A4E . . .Southern Cross .. . .Castlebeck . . .just some of the private companies we could find ourselves working for in this wonderful “social enterprise” model . . .we have to say – NO WAY!!!

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