How did we do today?

I’m extremely grateful to Rachel Hughes, Lecturer in Social Work, Goldsmiths, University of London, and Tim Fisher (@familygroupmeet) social worker and expert on Family Group Conferencing and Restorative Practice, who offered me this guest blog which starts with public services asking for feedback they don’t really want, and explores how social workers and citizens can have meaningful conversations at a time when the ‘social contract’ between people and services can feel at breaking point. I met Tim when Shared Lives people were involved in one of Camden’s ground breaking seminars in which citizens, practitioners and leaders explore different ways of working together – a video link is in the text below to give you an idea of how unusual and inspirational Camden’s approach to coproduction is!

Rachel and Tim write:

It started with a discussion – or a mutual moan – about feedback in public services.  How it revolves around forms and data categories.  How it never tells anyone anything.  How tiresome it is to produce – for all involved.  And yet. . . on rare occasions, a conversation between a public servant and someone who uses a service manages to change things. What creates that opportunity for real clarity and change?

As with many problems in contemporary public services, the answer lies upstream.  Asking for feedback is a process intended to ’empower service users’ and ‘enable’ them to influence the way services are delivered in future.  Yet it does not in any way challenge pre-existing power relations, since it is a process directed and controlled by services themselves. So compliments tend to be gratefully accepted and pinned to the virtual or actual service noticeboard until they fall off, while any critical feedback is liable to be treated as ‘complaint’ and fended off with all the resources services have at their disposal. Either way, this feedback is rarely seen as a resource for transforming services.

The key to escaping the feedback bind, we think, is to conceive of the activity upon which feedback is being given is as a shared enterprise (or shared endeavour, in the words of the new Chief Social Workers for Adults).  If this happens from the outset, then, when the activity comes to an end, shared reflection is possible.  What do we mean by shared reflection?  We mean a relational dialogue in which each party takes as its starting point the questions:  who is this other person? And what are they teaching me?  In contemporary social work, there is a focus on ‘strengths-based working’.  What we are talking about might be thought of as a dynamic extension of the strengths-based perspective.  Not a fixed professional assessment of someone’s capacities but rather an alive appreciation of mutual learning, a belief that people can surprise, constructively challenge and teach us things.  A parent activist, Kevin Makwikila, with experience of the child protection system in Camden, often uses this quote from community theorist Peter Block in presentations to express what we are trying to articulate here:

“If you are working to make the world a better place, there are few experiences more rewarding and useful than having your thinking turned upside down. A shift in thinking is the essence of transformation. It is the basis of renewed faith.”

As things stand currently in UK social work, there are a number of barriers to conceiving of social work practice as shared enterprise.  In particular, there is a breakdown of the social contract, and there is the symbolic and actual distancing of social workers from citizens who might need their services.  Previously, citizens accepted (or felt obliged to accept) some measure of intrusion in family life (by schools, health services, social services) in return for the State’s commitment to protect and care for them or their dependents should they, for whatever reason, be unable to do so themselves.  But, as a consequence of the policy of austerity, this contract no longer holds (a point made and evidenced in compelling fashion in Featherstone et al’s 2018 book Protecting Children:  A Social Model)In adult social work, we can see people with no continence issues – entirely legally – offered incontinence pads instead of toileting assistance.  Restrictions upon people’s dignity or liberty are authorised because there is no better alternative available.  Meanwhile local authorities’ pleas for additional resources to enable them to fulfil their duties in law go unheard by central Government.

It is not only austerity which erodes the social contract, however, but also the distancing of social workers from citizens, which is both actual, and symbolic.  The ethicist Gert Schout writes of

“hyper-professionalism” – a “positioning of professionals as the exclusive or primary agents of change and their privileging of certain tools and interventions of their choosing, which erodes the social contract, increases stigma in communities about statutory social work and decreases community strength.”  

Similarly, the social entrepreneur and author Hilary Cottam talks about a system of protocols which has slowly accreted around care professionals: “there is a premium on being dispassionate, on keeping our distance.”  That distance manifests in a very real way in the gated and guarded office buildings where many social workers now work.  Gone are the locality offices tucked away within family centres and adult day services.  The new buildings are state-of-the-art, more efficient to run, better insulated – in every way.  But what price that insulation?

For us, the collapse of the social contract and the distancing of social work risks making practice which is ineffectual and, at worst, inflicting relational trauma on already traumatised families and adults.  If we are to achieve the sense of a shared endeavour upon which shared reflection is possible, we need to abandon the rigid separation of public and private spheres which currently blights social work and make space for reciprocity and mutuality.  We must redraw the lines within the everyday of our practice and our relationships  learning from people who have their own insights into using support, like James (speaking here).

This radical reshaping is already underway in a number of places. In Camden, its citizen-led Family Advisory Board is now in its 6th year. Camden Conversations  – a family-led child protection inquiry – born out of a partnership with academic Professor Anna Gupta and ‘Annie’ from Surviving Safeguarding – is a developing case study in the power of parents to change how social workers conceive of their practice. And Camden Adult Social Care, under the What Matters transformation, are developing a new Shared Lives offer, a big increase in Family Group Conferencing for adults and Full Circle community meetings where people help people to problem solve together.  Camden is recognising that we need to move to connect. There are thousands of crossroads where we work – places where we could pass each other by – or form new connections.

In Barking and Dagenham, the New Town Culture project – a partnership between the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, the Serpentine, and Goldsmiths, University of London – is bringing artists into social care spaces, and social workers and social work service users into artistic spaces. Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are finding their voice in encounters with Franz West at the Tate. Former Ford Dagenham employees and their social workers are meeting leading artists including a Turner Prize candidate to plan and undertake projects which allow mutual interests to emerge in exciting, surprising and sometimes messy ways. Because, as Alex Fox has pointed out and as the Shared Lives project demonstrates:

“For real change to take hold, you need to involve people who don’t always agree with each other and you need a tolerance for messiness: the neater the plan, the more fictional it is…ultimately, we may need to replace our existing power structures with decision making that feels more like those movements: collaborative, decentralised and human.”

We’re off to reflect on our shared enterprise.  Unsolicited feedback welcome!

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