I’ve decided to save social work. It’s a task I’ve been putting off for some time, and it has worried me how it might come across. The arrogance of it. But, then, finally, SWT has provided the perfect opportunity. He wants thoughts, ideas, actions, words. A blog full of them. And by the time you’ve reached the last of mine, you’ll think A-ha! At last the profession is saved! People will be queuing round the block to join our trade.
Honestly, everyone is down on social work these days. Just look at any job-satisfaction survey and you’ll find our trade languishing at the bottom – mixing it with industrial cleaning operatives and parking attendants.
And, on the face of it, it’s hard to see why. We’re well paid (sort of). We’re respected (most the time). We’re even doted upon, local authorities lavishing us with golden hellos, bonuses, even relocation expenses if we sign on the dotted line. Were it ethical to be wined and dined, most of us would arrive in post pig drunk and well-stuffed, such is the eagerness with which the world embraces us.
And yet, still we’re miserable souls.
Why? This is what has so vexed HR departments over the years. But it’s actually not that hard to work out.
First of all, it’s nothing to do with the service users. People talk of burnout – that they just can’t handle any more harrowing cases or neglect and abuse. And, yes, there’s something in that.
But you want to know what really raises a social worker’s blood pressure?
It’s the computer – that awkward, unwieldy piece of kit that coughs and splutters into life each morning, like Del Boy’s van, and then has a meltdown should we try and finalise an assessment without all the ticks in the right places.
That makes life difficult because we’re forever being slowed down, we can’t use our initiative, we can’t, ultimately, do social work. Instead we have to do something else. Some people call it administration but I call it staring at the computer and wishing the damn thing would fizzle out in a cloud of smoke.
And this isn’t because I’m not IT savvy. At home I shop, book holidays and do all my banking online – all in a matter of minutes. But then I come to work and can’t write a simple assessment in under three hours. Partly, to be fair, that’s the obstinate computer’s fault. But it also has something to do with the fact an assessment – in adult services, at least, with all the score sheets and small print – can now stretch to anything from fifteen to fifty pages.
Just to put that into perspective, that’s about the same length as Genesis in the Old Testament. Which is to say that one of the world’s major religions can summarise the beginnings of the world, the universe, the makings of Heaven and Earth, in about the same quantity of paper it takes for me to explain how Mrs Cartright struggles on the stairs.
Just think about that for a second… How is that even possible? And yet it is. If you do social work by the book, it takes forever. And that forever is spent in a noisy office using an awkward computer system which, incidentally, is also timing how long you’re taking.
Because that’s another thing. Performance management is big these days – which, when you consider the mountains of paperwork, is nothing less than perverse. If you wanted a task doing quickly you’d make it easier. But every development in social work seems to make it harder. We have another form, another process, another working group, another meeting, another re-structure, another clever acronym and slick PowerPoint presentation. But none of this ever wins us more time with our clients.
You want social workers to stay in their job? Then give them more time with their clients – and you can do this by reducing paperwork and providing a useable computer system. Better yet, give us apps, like we have on our phones already, so we can arrange home support with just a few taps of the screen, or make a referral by swiping left or right. All this technology exists – we just need to transfer it from ordering pizza at home to managing cases at work.
The money to pay for this transformation exists, too, in the coffers of local authorities up and down the land, most of whom still commission their IT systems individually – even though they’re essentially all buying the same product. Pool this together and you’d have some serious spending power. Then ring Bill Gates, who’ll cut us a good deal since he’s a modern philanthropist these days.
As for the mountains of paperwork, let’s just have a big bonfire. Assessments in the future should be concise and to the point, and in no way comparable in length to a biblical text.
With this done, workforce morale will soar. No-one will want to leave because everyone, at last, will be able to get on with the job in hand. And it’s a magnificent job – working with children, families and vulnerable adults. It’s a hugely rewarding and satisfying career.
So maybe in writing this I haven’t saved social work, but at least I’ve pointed out how it canbe saved. And it comes from a curious place – with computers and paperwork, the very things that ruined the profession in the first place.
Matt Bee is a social worker and writer. Every Monday he brings his unique tales of social work parody to socialworktutor.com.