Chapter 2: Social work now and in the future
The social service workforce delivers essential services day in and day out to some of our most vulnerable people. Theirs is life changing work. We have found countless examples of social work services which transform people's lives and protect them and their communities from harm. We have found dedicated staff going way beyond what is expected of them, sacrificing their own time and personal energies to support people in need. Most of this work goes unnoticed and unremarked and it is important that we celebrate the skillful and innovative work seen in current practice.
It is also important that we are clear about the size of the challenge to develop social work services which meet growing and increasingly complex demands. This chapter looks at the strengths we can draw on in meeting that challenge and the areas where we want to see change. This is based on evidence (summarised in Annex A) from a wide and diverse range of sources including from:
- practitioners and leaders in the public, voluntary and private sectors;
- people who use services and their carers;
- partner professions and agencies;
- observing practice; and
Throughout, the findings have been remarkably consistent and we describe them below.
Strengths to build on
We found many strengths in social work services, which need to be kept and developed as a basis for delivering future services. In particular we found:
- many examples of good practice across the whole range of social work services, often not acknowledged or celebrated;
- a social work profession with a strong and highly relevant knowledge, skills and value base, and a passion for social justice, which is attracting an increasing number and diversity of new recruits;
- professionals working in the most challenging of circumstances, balancing conflicting needs and views, juggling resources and making the finest of professional judgements about risk to both individuals and society;
- a strong drive for change through the creation of an honours degree in social work, the Scottish Social Services Council and the Scottish Institute for Excellence in Social Work Education, working together to raise the professionalism of the workforce and improve the competence and quality of social workers' practice;
- services which deal skillfully with complex problems, helping people to find a way through their difficulties;
- a real commitment to developing joint services and a recognition among partners of the distinctive contribution that social service workers make to multi-agency working;
- a mixed market of services across the public, voluntary and private sectors each with the scope to learn from each other;
- an appetite for performance improvement and revitalised inspection; and
- that most people who use services were generally satisfied with the service they received.
Challenges to tackle
Despite the excellent work which is done on a daily basis we have found a profession and services under great pressure which are not delivering to their full potential. This has resulted in a growing mismatch between the value base of social work and the experience of people who use services and of workers. In particular, we found:
- unreasonable expectations of what social work services can do to sort out the problems society faces;
- an aversion to risk in society as a whole, which poses a very real challenge for social workers, who must always be making fine judgements about risk. All too often this means local authorities restricting practice in order to protect themselves from media and political criticism, which in turn limits opportunities for people who use services and for their carers;
- a social work profession lacking in confidence in its own skills and unclear about its distinctive contribution;
- highly skilled professionals carrying out work that didn't require their level of skills and expertise and little opportunity for the best practitioners to advance their careers and still keep working with people who use services and their carers;
- the decision making ability and professional autonomy of social work professionals constrained by line management arrangements that require escalation of decision making up a chain of command in order to manage budgets or risk;
- the professional leadership of social work services eroded by pressures to manage services and budgets. This means front line workers have little idea of the values or professional priorities of their employers;
- services and professionals overwhelmed by bureaucracy and systems, often gathering information for local and national use which is of little value;
- a lack of focus on learning within organisations both in terms of matching the skills of individuals with the needs of the service and in making sure that organisations themselves learn from best practice and from mistakes;
- a relationship between voluntary and private sector providers and local authority staff involved in delivering care which is inequitable, inconsistent and lacks a strategic approach; and
- people who use services having little say over how they were delivered, often having to accept what was available rather than what was needed.
Services for the 21st Century: our aspirations
This section sets out the way our recommendations, if they are implemented in full, will make a real difference to the people who use and work within social work services.
People who use services should:
- influence the design and planning of services and how they are delivered;
- find it easy to contact services and receive a helpful and prompt response;
- know what to expect from services;
- have their strengths, interests and aspirations built on by services;
- be active partners in finding and developing solutions to problems;
- be able to get the help they need when they need it;
- regard social work services involvement as a positive option rather than a last resort;
- have a consistent and reliable relationship with their worker; and
- have someone to advocate on their behalf.
- be recognised as active partners and care providers, able to influence how services are designed, planned and delivered;
- be able to choose how much involvement they have in providing care; and
- be able to have a wider life outside their caring role.
Social service workers should:
- be able to use their skills and knowledge effectively;
- work to their full potential and be able to make sound decisions, supported and challenged by quality professional consultation;
- use evidence based practice and continue to learn throughout their careers;
- have a range of career options that allows progression in practice as well as in management;
- work in supportive teams and feel empowered to find innovative and creative solutions to meet people's needs; and
- have access to technology that helps them do their job effectively.
Employing organisations should:
- trust their employees to practise safely and effectively;
- support the development of the whole workforce;
- promote and celebrate excellence, learning from good practice and from mistakes; and
- resource employees to deliver first class services.
The general public should:
- have confidence in the work of social work services;
- understand how and when services may be able to help them;
- be clear about how to access services;
- have a realistic expectation of what services may be able to do to help them; and
- value help and support from social work services.
Partner professions and agencies should:
- understand the distinctive contribution that social work services can make;
- have effective joint service planning and design arrangements in place to make sure that best use is made of social work skills; and
- respect and value the contribution that social workers make to achieving shared priorities.
Political leaders at national and local levels should:
- understand and value the contribution of social work services to protecting vulnerable people and promoting wellbeing;
- provide clear and consistent leadership;
- be able to take well informed decisions about social work services; and
- present a positive public image of social work services.