Working with young people: A profile of projects funded by the Partnership Drugs Initiative
Chapter 7: Project Management and Staffing
This chapter examines a number of themes associated with the management and operation of the projects. These include:
the significance of particular management styles;
the importance of teamwork and support;
and issues relating to the recruitment and retention of staff.
Management and teamwork
As far as the management of projects was concerned, three things were identified as being important to their success. These were teamwork, mutual support and empowerment. These features were, in turn, facilitated by management styles which were inclusive in nature and by physical locations and contact schedules which encouraged staff to meet, both formally and informally, to share information and discuss cases.
According to the accounts provided by project workers, most projects seemed to be well managed with clear lines of authority and accountability. Regular supervision appeared to be a feature of all of the projects. Most of the workers reported feeling well supported by their managers and the great majority of them came across as being well motivated. Frequent team meetings were a feature of all of the projects and these appeared to be important to their success. In addition to providing support for individual workers, they helped to build team spirit and empowered staff members by involving them in decisions about the project and its direction.
Interviewees repeatedly emphasised the importance of teamwork to the success of their projects. However, the culture of informal support which was said to characterise many of the projects, including relations with their host agencies, was seen as being at least as important as formal meetings. In several of the projects, a pattern of mutual support, either within the project itself or with workers in partner agencies, was identified as being of particular assistance in the management of day-to-day problems as well as more problematic issues:
"Personally, it's a great team, supportive-wise everybody's really brilliant, everybody supports each other, and it's great for suggestions, great for ideas. And there's such a wealth of different experience, different backgrounds that you get a brilliant view, you get somebody else's view and it's completely different and it makes you think, which is quite good".
Informal support was greatly facilitated if workers occupied the same building or, better still, shared an office.
In a number of the projects, the safety of the workers was an important issue. This applied particularly, though by no means exclusively, to those who were operating in an outreach capacity. The risks associated with the latter were exacerbated by the fact that the young people with whom the workers made contact might be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. All of the projects had developed policies and procedures for minimising the risks to staff. These included ensuring that a worker was never alone in a project's premises, arranging meetings with clients in neutral territory such as schools, health centres or youth centres and requiring a lone worker to phone into base before and after a home visit.
Staffing and recruitment
Projects' ability to cope effectively with their workloads and the demand for their services was frequently compromised by persistent difficulties with the recruitment and retention of staff. According to the project managers, finding suitable staff was a serious and widespread problem which resulted from a shortage of workers with skills and experience in appropriate areas:
"Recruitment in general is difficult - but trying to find somebody with the right kind of background as well. Yeah, I think there's a recruitment problem right across the whole voluntary and statutory sector".
"I think since I've came into post, they've advertised twice and failed to recruit anybody. I think the first time they had no applicants. That's the kind of general state of youth work at the moment across the country".
Sometimes this meant the project having to arrange expensive training for a worker in order to equip them with the necessary skills for the job:
"Because we're finding that people that had the Social Work qualifications, community work qualifications, background in psychology, they didn't have the substance misuse experience. So there was a steep learning curve for staff when you first came into post in relation to working with substance misuse. So we spent lots of money on in-service development and training".
As a result of recruitment problems, the progress of one project had been so seriously delayed that project staff had still to make direct contact with young people eight months after its introduction. Staff turnover was also very common with some projects experiencing a succession of resignations. As a result, one project endured a gap of four months without a co-ordinator while, at the time of the interviews, another was struggling to cope with only one detached worker instead of its full complement of four. This state of affairs was extremely disruptive for projects and had a material effect on what they were able to deliver.
In response to these pressures, aspects of a service might not be provided at all, or only in a reduced form. The effects of staffing problems could also lead to the overloading of those project workers who remained with consequent implications for their morale. It would often mean staff working extra hours in an attempt to cover their existing programmes. Constant interruptions to staffing also disrupted a project's continuity and, thereby, made it very difficult to build and maintain relationships with clients.
The small scale of the projects not only made them vulnerable to resignations and delays in recruitment, it also meant that staff absences, for whatever reason, could create significant difficulties. Some workers were conscious that their holidays could leave clients unsupported over crucial periods. In other cases, sickness absences were difficult to cover, especially if they were long term. Even if a project had the resources to provide temporary cover, it appeared to be virtually impossible to recruit a replacement worker on a short-term basis. The impression that was gained from the site visits was that, because of staffing difficulties, some projects only survived because of the professionalism, dedication and sheer hard work of those who worked on them.
More positively, the calibre of the projects' staff was identified by all of the managers as being one of the most significant factors in their success. Many of the workers had qualifications in social work, youth work, community education or nursing while some also had specialist qualifications in relation to drugs and alcohol. However, there was a fairly widespread view among managers and co-ordinators that formal qualifications could be less important than certain other experiences and attributes which their workers might possess. Certainly, in projects which were concerned with youth work, the ability to engage effectively with young people was frequently regarded as being more important than formal qualifications. One project co-ordinator made the point in the following way:
"The core skills are about being able to engage with young people and children and being able to step into their world and understand what their world is like for them. If workers can't do that, they can have all the drugs and alcohol knowledge, but they're not going to be very successful working with that young person".
This was also a dimension of the work which project workers themselves were very conscious of:
"I think the main thing is a good understanding of community work and youth work. The main thing… I think its brilliant if you've got your degree and stuff like that, but I think being a good people person and being approachable, being able to talk, not being judgmental and stuff, just being able to talk to people and not be apprehensive and stuff, be easy going. You're working with people that maybe have lots of barriers and issues and stuff like that. You need to be light-hearted to just break down some of the barriers. I think that's the main thing".
There was also a feeling that having had personal experience of the kinds of issues that young people face could provide workers with unique insights and earn them respect and credibility with their target populations. For example, one sessional worker in a street work project believed that his personal experience as a former drug user and recipient of youth services had given him particular insights and made him more acceptable to the young people with whom he worked:
"But essentially, I'm a product of youth work. I've been a service user, I've been involved in a service all my life, from when I was a teenager, as user or a worker. That gives me a lot of wide experience which is very useful…And because I've been a bit of a wild boy in my own time I'm quite happy to talk about my personal experience".
The idea that the personal attributes of workers were of prime importance appeared to hold particular sway at the point of recruitment when the skills and qualities which enable workers to relate effectively to young people tended to be accorded greater weight than their knowledge of drugs and alcohol. While managers believed that the latter could be fairly readily acquired through training, the ability to engage with clients was seen as being more a product of experience and personality.
There was also a belief among managers and workers alike that local knowledge and credibility could greatly enhance a project worker's effectiveness. Some project workers were already well-known in the local area as a result of their work in related posts and this, it was claimed, enabled them to establish a credible reputation and to engage with clients relatively quickly. For example, in the Inverclyde project most of the staff had been seconded from other related jobs in the area and, as a result, were familiar and credible figures within the community:
"I mean there are people who know me in all the schools from managing over ten years, and social work, health, community drugs team, you know, everything else. It's credibility as well, you know. We've all done a good job where we've come from before so we're not only known, we're known in a positive manner".
In some projects the fact that some of the project staff were local people themselves was also seen as being advantageous by providing them with a detailed understanding of the communities in which they worked.
It almost goes without saying that having appropriate premises from which to deliver their service was vital to the projects. First of all, the accommodation had to be capable of housing the project workers comfortably. Second, it had ideally to be shared with partner projects in order to promote collaboration and strengthen integration between the project and its host agency. Third, in order to be readily accessible to clients, the premises needed to be discreet, informal and non-stigmatising:
"It's a perfect setting. We're off the main street. So it's accessible for young people. But at the same time people don't actually know why they're coming into the building. It looks like a house, it could be anything. Makes it quite a safe setting for young people".
Despite its importance, several of the projects reported significant difficulties in acquiring premises which they considered suitable for their purposes. Some accommodations were regarded as not being large enough, others as being inadequately equipped. A number of the projects reported having difficulties in securing suitable accommodation for outreach work. Other projects were struggling to find premises that were accessible to their clients. For example, because their current accommodation was not accessible to young people, the staff in one project were having to find other places to meet with them once they had made the initial contact. Lack of a permanent base also meant that this project was unable to publicise and promote its services within the area. In other projects, there was a risk of adults and children encountering each other on the premises.
While a number of projects used assessment tools to measure the progress of individuals, none of them had developed systematic procedures for evaluating the work of the project as a whole. In the absence of such measures it could be difficult for project staff to get much purchase on how effective they were being. Apart from their awareness of the progress they were making with individual cases, success tended to be measured in terms of recruitment or retention, both of which were taken as indications of the need for the project and its work. The retention of clients was regarded as being especially significant because it could be read as indicating a measure of client satisfaction with the service.