Painting by Numbers

A number of years ago I delivered the following presentation on behalf of BASW. Reading this again now it still seems to hold true – regrettably probably even more so than it did then – not just for social workers but also for many health care professionals as well.  This presentation offered an analogy between developing the skills to be able to create a painting, (using visual references to da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’), and the professional development and work of social workers.

All of IPE’s  Associates reflect back their observations about how very many of their colleagues in  Local Authority and NHS settings increasingly express feelings of disempowerment, erosion of skills and frustration at not being able to do what they were trained for, amidst the rising public service requirement to measure and monitor quantity rather than quality of activity.  Top of the list of frustrations for nearly everyone is the abandonment of free recording and report writing and the replacement of this with lengthy and very complex IT based recording systems that use up huge amounts of expensive time and stifle creative and original thinking.

Read now what I said six years ago and see whether or not you agree. Perhaps tackling the above and what I discussed in this presentation would release more professionals’ time to work with service users – especially important when so many cuts in budgets have to be considered, often resulting in fewer health and social care workers.

Andrew Lane

“Putting the Art back into Social Work”

There are three sorts of professionals: The experts;  those whom aspire to become experts; and those who don’t aspire at all.

To become an expert requires talent, training and tenacity.  If we start out to achieve this we should all remember that   “To travel is more important than to arrive”.
We won’t all become experts but without embarking on this journey we will not have any chance of finding out if we can achieve this.

When an individual decides to begin the process of becoming a social worker they embark on a process of training that should build their knowledge and skills and develop their individuality and creativity within a framework of professional principles and values.

Like the artist, once equipped with the basic tools the qualified social worker uses these, in partnership with their individuality and creativity, as a process through which to travel towards a practice objective.  This should ensure that there is some possibility of their arrival somewhere near their intended destination.

As professionals, through this conscious practice and utilisation of skills, knowledge and personal qualities, we set ourselves apart from those with similar intentions. However well intended, those (non professionals) who lack formally acquired skills and evidenced based knowledge, and the informed discipline of practice that goes with this, will not be able to emulate the actions of the competent professional.

A Social Worker’s Professional Code of Ethics and the Principles of Social Work Practice should be integral to this discipline. This basis for practice, in whatever area of social work we are engaged, is not vested in us as individuals by our employer.  We draw on our training, experience and our formal status of ‘Social Worker’ to achieve a professional status.  It is our personal (professional) authority that should be evident.

Everyone is entitled to expect that this professionalism exists in every social worker. Neither individuals or organisations should be entitled to expect to be able to successfully undermine this principle.  The requirements enshrined within the recent process Registration of Social Workers underpin this.

Since the 1970sI have been part of the gradual continuation of the professionalisation of social work.  However, latterly I have witnessed an unexpected paradox.  Coupled to the intention to achieve an extension of training, knowledge and professionalisation there has been a parallel (intended or not) undermining of the process of professionalisation.

At what point this began to happen is open to debate but I suggest that this process probably began to be significant around the early 90s.

During this period the impetus to radically modernise social and health services accelerated; this coincided with pressure to raise practice standards and extend social work training.  There was a dismantling of aspects of services modernisation philosophy and principles from the late 60s and 70s (enshrined in Sebhom). This led to a return to separation of children’s services, mental health and adult services.
The division of local authority resources and the introduction of Community Care philosophy and legislation brought with it an emphasis on organisational systems, central control.  The introduction of ‘Care Management’ philosophy coincided with the use of untrained staff and undermining of a specialist social work role.

During the last 15 years we have seen an unending sequence of social and health legislation and reorganisation of public services coupled to a blossoming of “Management” philosophy and intervention.  There has been a drive for greater efficiency and accountability.  This has been linked to pressure to achieve better value (financial as well as quality) associated with a requirement to measure and monitoring everything that may impact on this.

Through this there has been an inevitable pressure on social workers to re-focus their activity on service prioritisation and resource management.  As desk based activity increased client contact and social work activity decreased.

It was in the 90s that independent social work practice and use of independent locum agencies began to increase. Almost certainly these two developments were influenced by the rising disillusionment of social workers.  There has been a stifling of their professionalism, frustration of their creativity, and limiting of their ambitions to raise standards of training and professional practice.

To return to my analogy: every time they started to make progress with their canvas it would seem to be taken down and a new one put in its place.  At some point numbers were added to the canvas and the prospect of creating anything original further curtailed.  For some of us at least this was not what we had been trained to do, or in what we believed was in our client’s interest. Some of us are here this evening.

There are now many social workers practising outside the direct employment of public services.  The majority of them work through locum agencies but increasingly the more confident, and perhaps the more experienced and skilled, elect to work completely independently, directly contracting their services

This is not a total escape and does not exempt us from involvement in the changes taking place with public services. Independent practitioners experience endless change and frequent uncertainty. We understand the principles of change, it was a core part of our training.  We are not preoccupied with change though. Nor are we caught up with the undercurrents associated with organisational change in the way that those employed within changing organisations may be.

For those of us who have become fully independent and contract directly with our clients we have managed to preserve our personal professional independence, authority, identity and integrity.  Practising our ‘art’ as experienced independent practitioners enables us play a part in the process of change whilst resisting being sucked down into the swamp of public service bureaucracy that feeds the machine of endless change driven by 21st Century Policy.

For many of us our professionalism, independence, enhanced skills and expertise have become a major factor in the promotion of our services.  It is these qualities that public services are increasingly short of, and which they will now value and buy in. All to frequently they are no longer able to develop, nurture or retain these attributes within their organisation.

I would not like to convey a sense of smugness or superiority.  None of us unsympathetic or critical of those social work colleagues who work as public service employees.  These people are still the lifeblood of public social services and must be valued and supported to recover their full professional status.  Much of my, and my colleagues, time is spent in working alongside those who remain within public service employment; despite its frustrations.  Thorough example and support we strive to promote and encourage the importance of retaining the integrity, professionalism and professional authority of social work.  At times it feels as if there are counter forces that effectively undermine this.

To return to my analogy again, few of us can claim to, or perhaps even aspire to, create an original masterpiece.  However, we can all strive to emulate the best and perhaps occasionally make modest contributions to enhancing original work all already undertaken.  We will never achieve this if we stifle creativity and individuality or limit people to a process controlled by numbers.  We must develop systems and processes that allow innovation, originality and the expression of an individual’s professionalism. Achieving this is dependent on creating an environment in which appropriately managed independent thinking has a place, is expected and, hopefully, demanded.

I am sure that da Vinci would have forgiven his students and his followers their less successful attempts to emulate his work.  He is less likely to have had time for those not attempting individual creativity and original thinking.  Certainly he would have been appalled at the notion that any skilled activity could or should be reduced to a restricted process using numbers (tick boxes) and the eliminating of choice and creativity which is necessary to appropriately respond to variable human circumstances and conditions.

Andrew Lane
November 2005