Forgive me for the slightly self-absorbed post. Blogging by its nature can be the epitome of self-absorption but I attempted to write with a look to the wider world, particularly in the sector I know best, social care. I put this in the past tense as this will be the last post I write.
When I started writing, I had the voice of a social worker and AMHP (Approved Mental Health Professional) in a Community Mental Health Team. I was trying find that voice amid the policy and processes that we found ourselves, as practitioners, caught up in and trying to extend outward some of the frustrations and observations garnered from the ‘frontline’. It felt and it feels like that policy happens from afar, away from the homes I visited, the wards we attended, this was my world and it felt like a completely different world from the one defined by officials in the Department of Health when they remember ‘social care’ is a part of their remit.
I believe wholeheartedly in social work as a profession and social workers as professionals but I became frustrated at the lack of professional leadership. There is no doubt that the last year of my professional life has been one of the most challenging. I’ve worked in social care for 20 years (gulp – I look younger, I promise!) as anyone can imagine, I’ve seen many changes in that time. ‘Reconfigurations’ were nothing new to me. Working with change and in organisations that change frequently is one of my fortes but the most recent one was the most painful by far. While parts of my job, I loved – particularly when I was able to work with and alongside individuals and families and walk with them through some of those moments of crisis – working in an organisation and delivering services which were being ripped to pieces was difficult. Defending organisational decisions became impossible. The fight was still there inside me to promote and present a better way of working and honest interactions with everyone who needed our service, I saw waiting lists grow and discharges of people who I felt would benefit from more support. I saw the effect of the programme of cuts in the NHS in a very visceral way. I was and am very lucky. I have been able to walk away. I find myself in a job that excites and interests me and presents many new challenges. The same ease with which one can move on cannot be said for those who are reliant on the support of social care services and I remain acutely aware of my privilege in being able to.
I found a different (but related) job and thought I’d be able to continue writing with the passion I never stopped having but I can’t. The situation has changed and the voices need to be heard from the frontline I’ve stepped back from. I have become the person I resented for so many years. As a social worker, I always had a hint of scorn for those who took the ‘desk jobs’ and moved away from the direct work with people who use the services we provide but I’ve become one of those people.
In defending myself to the old me, I’d say that changing the world can happen in different ways. I am no less committed to the same ethical standards of making the world of health and social care better for those who use services. I am seeing that social work and social care happens in many different places. Is it an attempt at justifying my decision to leave social work behind? Yes, probably but that’s something I’m reflecting on a great deal at the moment.
I have been disillusioned by the time I spent working in the statutory sector as a social worker. As a parting salvo as I head off into the sunset, I want to reflect on a couple of themes that revolve around social care at the moment.
Kneejerk funding decisions lead to more expense, both in terms of quality of life and finance in the longer term. I’ve seen panic cuts both at a national and local level. The problem with panic cuts is that the things that are easily destroyed cannot be built back up in the ‘good times’.
‘Choice and control’ the buzzwords of change ring very hollow to me now as I saw in both the NHS and the local authority, the way that data and information is manipulated to meet performance targets that are meaningless to people who use services. Choice is one of the most nefarious words in the sector in my opinion. ‘Choice’ is very much defined by what organisations allow to be chosen and the confidence, communication skills, advocacy support of the individual doing the ‘choosing’. I railed against processes that favoured ‘he who shouts the loudest’ but it was to no avail. Presented by the government as a panacea of positivity, I have seen the downside of ‘choice’. It has been the creation of a two-tier service in adult social care that provides those who are able to choose with fantastic opportunities but those who may not have the capacity/support to choose are left lagging behind, in poorer, oft forgotten services. With funding drying up and fewer third sector organisations able to pick up the slack, there is a massive void of support which often falls on family and friends – the ‘informal’ support networks that the government still feel able to criticise.
Dementia care is a particular interest of mine. Professionally I have worked in the area for a number of years. Dementia is moving further forward in terms of government policy making and the so-called ‘dementia challenge’ which is currently trying to increase diagnosis rates. That’s all well and good and I won’t enter that conversation but I will say this. In order for dementia to be better understood by the public it has to be better understood by the government agencies who are supposed to be providing the information. There is a horrendous lack of information about the role that supportive social care services play in improving the quality of life for people with dementia. As I worked alongside a ‘memory clinic’ which had been decimated by cuts, I laughed hollowly at the words of the government ministers about increasing diagnosis rates in primary care and for hospital inpatients. See my first point about panic cuts and lack of cohesion. Reading some of the Department of Health missives you’d be at a loss to think they ever discussed any of their plans with anyone with a current social care background. Perhaps the new Chief Social Worker (or one of them anyway) will provide a sticking plaster to this but it’s very apparent at the moment that there is no cohesive, current social care voice in the government department and it makes some of their policies woeful. The level of ignorance even of government ministers who clearly haven’t been briefed by people who understand social care would be embarrassing if it weren’t desperately sad.
Lastly about Social Work itself. I retain my social work registration and will now until 2014 at the very least. I suspect far beyond that as I don’t want to give up my registration. I am very proud to be and to have been a social worker. The ethics and values of the profession can really shine a light and guide many of our colleagues in allied professions and we shouldn’t be shy of realising our own worth. Often I hear social workers talk of status and comparing ourselves unfavourably to nurses, teachers, doctors, psychologists etc. We shouldn’t need to constantly compare. We have a fine profession with its own knowledge base, standards and codes. Having worked in a multi-disciplinary mental health team (and I think being an AMHP helped with this as we are known to be a stubborn and independently minded bunch) I never felt anything but an equal to the other professionals I worked alongside (and challenged – psychiatrists – I’m talking to you ;)). We do need to ‘sell ourselves’ more and we can’t rely on waiting for ‘good press coverage’. Do the job, however hard, with the ethics and values at the heart and remember why we are there – it isn’t to promote organisational will but to walk alongside and guide. Sometimes there are difficult, coercive decisions to be made but reference to values and ethics become all the more important there. The nature of a job that sometimes has a coercive function is that ‘hearts and minds’ will never be particularly straightforward. I didn’t become a social worker to make friends or to swan in adulation of my ‘goodness’. I went into it because I felt it gave me more opportunities to make a positive difference in someone’s life. More often than not, certainly over the last couple of years, it became more about saying what wasn’t possible than what was – but if I could deliver that with as much humanity and empathy and transparency as possible, it could be a start.
Many thanks to Zarathustra for this space and for the support he has offered to me.
And thanks to everyone for reading, commenting and responding over the last year or so. My reasons for stopping are work-related but not in a bad way. I just think my voice has changed now and it’s important that those ‘on the ground’ have the way left open to them to find it. I won’t say I’ll never write again, I may at some point in the future, but if I do it won’t be anonymously I will, though continue to knock around on Twitter I expect!