Podcast Episode: Freshly Squeezed: David Williams
Category: Freshly Squeezed
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
MD - Michelle Drumm
DW - David Williams
MD Hello and welcome to ‘Freshly Squeezed’, an Iriss podcast which aims to squeeze information and inspiration from key influencers in social services in Scotland. Today I’m speaking to David Williams. David qualified as a social worker in 1988 and worked for 2 years in Easterhouse and then for 7 years in Drumchapel as a social worker and senior social worker. He moved to the children’s charity NCH in 1997 as Service Manager to set up and bring in a range of integrated children and family services in the Moray Council area until 2004. In 2005 David moved to the post of Service Director at Quarriers where he remained until returning to Glasgow as Assistant Director of Social Work Services in June 2009, becoming Executive Director of Social Care Services in December 2012, and Chief Officer Designate for Glasgow City Health and Social Care Partnership in July 2014. David was appointed formally to the Chief Officer position by Glasgow City Integration Joint Board at its first meeting on 8th February 2016. David, welcome to ‘Freshly Squeezed’.
DW Thank you.
MD And happy Social Work Day today. World Social Work Day it is, isn’t it?
DW Absolutely. Something to celebrate.
MD Absolutely, and you’ve had quite a career in social work so it’s probably a very apt day to do some celebrating. Tell me, did you always want to work in social services?
DW Not at all. If I went back to my early 20s I was 23 before I knew what social work actually was.
DW So but I guess one of the tendencies and characteristics of learning to be a social worker and becoming a social worker is that whole thing around reflection and reflecting on what brings you to a certain place in your life that you actually start doing things. So if I was to reflect back to my childhood and my adolescence and live it, growing up in a small village in the west coast of Wales there were probably things that happened throughout my childhood and formative years that brought me into a place where I was ready to learn to understand issues of equalities and issues of social justice, and issues of actually just being a giving kind of person if you like. So just to give you a couple of examples, if we went back to 1971, 72, at the time of the expulsions from Uganda and Idi Amin, the place that I grew up in had a former army camp that had been disused for a good 10 years before that. It was reopened and we had about 6 or 7,000 Uganda nation refugees come and stay and swamp the village, and you suddenly have no choice but to learn a little bit - at the age of whatever I was, before my teenage years at that point - and try and understand what was happening to my community and to learn. So you become a bit more - what I’ve reflected on later is I probably had become a lot more self-aware of other people’s circumstances. One of the things that my parents were always involved in was charity work. We did jumble sales, as they used to be called. Pretty much every other Saturday morning of our childhood was something that involved doing something that was about giving. My mother was a Community Organiser of the WRVS, as it was in those days, and we had a remit for going over all of North Wales organising things for the people, and we got involved in that. I say we, I’ve got a twin sister.
DW We didn’t really have much choice but those things just about what my parents were involved in was formative in relation to understanding that place that allowed me to open my mind to other things once I’d left university.
MD Uh-huh, and what did you study at university then? Was it social work itself?
DW Not at all. No. I did modern history and economic history and as a joint degree. I came up to Glasgow to do my undergraduate studies, and don’t get me wrong, a large part - again that reflection that those early years’ experiences focussed my mind in terms of my particular interest within history. So and that within the modern history part of my degree I focussed a lot on the American south leading up to the Civil War and the years before that and subsequent, and within the economic history side of the business a lot of focus on migration, emigration and urbanisation, and what happened in the development of urban environments through the course of particularly in the 19th century, and what that impacted and how that impacted on people.
MD So how did you move then from doing history into social work then?
DW Well a big part of that was I had no idea at all what I wanted to do with my life when I was in the last year of university. The only 2 things I did understand and appreciate was that I didn’t want to spend my life wearing a suit, and for the purposes of this broadcast I am wearing a suit, and nor did I want to sit behind a desk for the rest of my working life, and in fairness I’ve always strived not to do that. So my desk, as you can see I don’t sit behind it. It’s pushed up against the wall there.
DW And I’ve always believed actually that’s just about being open and available through my management career. There’s a barrier that comes across with a desk and I’ve always felt that. So when I graduated I had been living in a flat with 3 other guys for the last 2 years of my university degree, and 2 of those, my colleague friend, Paul Hart, neither of us knew what we wanted to do so we signed up to do what was called CSV, Community Service Volunteers …
DW … in the mid 1980s, and in those days you could volunteer full-time for a whole year and have your brew money and your housing benefit paid for you, and so of course that allowed us that. So Paul went off to work in a special needs school in South Lanarkshire at the time for a year, and I went off to work in social group work in Clydebank doing things like working with young people who were on the edges of getting into real difficulty in The Children’s Panel system. I didn’t know what The Children’s Panel system was at that point of course. A lot of detached street work. So we used to go out of an evening every week into the more challenging parts of Clydebank, as it was then, and work with young people who were just hanging around and try and bring them into - and I was fortunate enough to be based physically within the social work department in Clydebank at that time, and so came across social workers and worked alongside them, talked to them, and I guess I probably felt at home in the company of social work people.
MD Very inspiring I’d imagine as well?
DW Yeah absolutely, and none of them wore suits and none of them sat behind desks and I thought, “I could live with this.”
MD “This is for me.”
DW And so I began to explore the notion of going on to do a postgraduate diploma in social work. I was successful enough to get accepted to the course at Stirling University, as it was at that point. When I graduated I went to work in Easterhouse for a couple of years and then on to Drumchapel. I have to say, my mother - bless her - living in Wales at the time, knew even less about social work than I did, but had grown up in - she was from Caithness of Sutherland and had grown up in Glasgow during the 1930s and 40s, so had always had a level of awareness of what happened in Glasgow and did wonder why I picked Easterhouse to start my social work career. I have to say, and I said to her at the time, “I didn’t really have much choice.” You went for a kind of mass selection interview which lasted about 20 minutes. You were in the door and they allocated you to somewhere.
MD Wow, so right in at the deep end.
DW Right in at the deep end, yeah.
DW I went off to do my child abuse training course, as it was in those days, literally 2 days into the job, partly because the area team at that point was allocated a set number of places on the regional council’s child abuse training course, and at that point when I came in to work in Easterhouse everybody who was a social worker who worked in Easterhouse at that time had already done the course. So the Area Manager didn’t really want to lose that place and put me on the training course 2 days after I started. For the purposes of the microphone, you haven’t seen the face I’ve just pulled in terms of how not to do that now.
MD Fantastic! Okay. You moved onto NCH which is, was that now Action for Children?
DW It’s now Action for Children.
MD Yeah, and then into Quarriers.
MD So quite a mixed range of experiences then you’ve kind of achieved over the years.
DW Absolutely yeah, uh-huh, but all of them great experiences I have to say. I guess one of the things that I’ve always believed as a guiding principle for me is to always strive to be just slightly outside, or substantially outside, your comfort zone in terms of what I do. So moving from the security of local government if you like at a point when with the disaggregation of local authorities anyway, so there was a lot of opportunities and a lot of change happening, and don’t get me wrong, I felt at that point in my career I would have quite liked to have been part of that story. By now I would be achieving long service awards for staying if I had been successful, but actually the particular job in Moray within NCH came up and I just thought it was the right job for me. I had no idea where Moray was at all, because it was the disaggregation of the local authorities. So it was a part of the old Grampian and it’s still a relatively modest-sized local authority area, but I had 7 really, really rewarding years up there. Not all the easy but it was rewarding. All that put me into that place where I was outside of my comfort zone. So a part of the services that we picked up on was - that I picked up on and led on - was the management of children’s homes, and that was a new experience for me because I hadn’t worked in children’s homes at that point in time, but it struck me that actually the point of delivering really good quality residential childcare was just about good quality social work practice as much as anything else.
MD Mmmhmm, and then you returned to Glasgow.
MD And have since had a number of positions then.
DW I got the Assistant Director job at a point when I’d been at Quarriers for 4 years as a Service Director. The opportunity came and it was a relatively speculative application at one level and I was successful, but it was a politically appointed role because of the scale of service provision within the social work department in Glasgow, and so when the Director’s post became available it wouldn’t have been the right message to have sent to have not considered it, even though it was probably not something I anticipated or expected when I joined in 2009 at that stage. Within 3 years my predecessor, David Crawford, former Director of Social Work here, former President of the ADSW, took retirement at a point when I - none of us really expected it, and it would have sent the wrong message if I hadn’t wanted to reflect that continuity that he and I had achieved in social work service over the 3 and a half years before he finished.
MD You’re a very motivated individual.
MD Can you tell me in terms of motivations what gets you out of bed in the morning?
DW What’s always got me out of bed I guess throughout my career has been the notion that I am first and foremost seeing myself as a public servant. I’m here to serve the public. I see myself as a social worker second to that, but first and foremost every penny that I’ve ever earned, whether it’s been in the public sector or in the voluntary sector, has been public money. So there is something about public service in that, and one of the things we worked hard on in the development of the Health and Social Care Partnership in Glasgow and the integration arrangements here 3 to 4 years ago was to develop a vision statement for the IJB, and ours has 3 sentences and none of us can remember what those 3 sentences are, but I’ve always stressed the one word in each of the sentences that I ask people, as the Chief Officer, not to lose sight of. So in the first sentence we have the word flourish, which is essentially surrounded by words that amount to, “We are here to support the people of this city to flourish”, and the second word is the word transform, because actually that’s the whole point of integration is to transform health and social care services, and the third word is community, because in the third sentence there’s something about not losing sight of the importance of community in how we do our business. But coming back to the word flourish, if we’re not here in the city within health and care services to try and ensure that every citizen in the city is able to flourish to the best of their abilities, then I don’t know what else gets us out of bed. It’s as material as that.
MD Yeah, and that’s not an easy process I don’t think, the whole integration of health and social care.
DW No, no.
DW That’s that thing about putting yourself outside of your comfort zone.
DW It’s a continuous challenge but it’s an enjoyable challenge because it is stimulating.
MD Right. You don’t want to be in your comfort zone then?
MD So what does a typical day look like for you?
DW Well I think my guess is that you probably in all of these podcasts I would imagine have pretty much the same response as you’ll get from me, which is that there’s no such thing as a typical day, and that’s the joy. Yes, we strive to ensure that we do a lot less urgent in our work and a lot more planned and important, because if we do more important and planned work then we’d probably have a lot less urgent to do. We’re a very reactive crisis-ridden business in health and social care. So we try and do a lot more that’s planned, but even within that every day is completely different. It’s just because of in Glasgow is the scale and the complexity and the multi-layered multifaceted arrangements that we have in the city, every day is different. There’s no typical day other than it’s busy, it’s intellectually stimulating, it’s enjoyable. Some of it can be really, really difficult. Some of it does leave you questioning, “What am I doing this for?”, but actually then you just come back to basics with - on the journey home - that reflection process, “What did I achieve today?” What gets me out of bed is knowing that actually someone somewhere in the city that I’ve got responsibility for in terms of management on a health or social care side of the business, it’s doing something really important to make a material difference in people’s lives.
MD Yeah and it comes back to the vision around making Glasgow flourish.
MD Have you got a motto for life David?
DW Probably don’t get stuck. Don’t ever rest on your laurels. Don’t be complacent. Always look for that place outside your comfort zone, and I suppose there is something about recognising that actually the people that we support, whether on a health or social care side of the business, are at a particular point in their lives where they’re facing change and they’re out there facing maybe a personal crisis or whatever. So they’re having to be in a place of being able to deal with whatever comes across them, and I think if we’re not able to empathise with the needs to change and the needs to adapt how lives are lived or whatever then I think we’re not able to empathise and that makes it difficult for us to do that job, and I make no bones about the fact that growing up in a sheltered small village in the west coast of Wales where I knew nothing about what social work was all about until I was 23, I can’t claim to have had the life experiences of many people that we support, but I have to be able to empathise. I have to be able to understand. So that requires me it seems to kind of question myself, to put myself into places of challenge so that I’ve got some degree of understanding, and also that reflection of what are the things that we all experience. So we all experience the aging process, we all experience the fact that our parents will move on from this life in some way shape or form, and what is it that we can do to support that? Many of us will have the experience of being parents and bringing up children and trying to do the best that we can do, so how do we reflect on all of those experiences and not bring our values to bear on the lives of people who have different, you know, so there is something about just putting myself in a place of challenge.
MD Sure. Great. Okay, thank you, and do you have a book or blog that you’d recommend to listeners?
DW Absolutely fantastic book that I read not that long ago, about 2 or 3 weeks, called “Small Great Things”, and I guess if folk just google “Small Great Things” they’ll get a book title come up and who the author is, and it’s an inspiring and incredibly challenging book personally, and everybody will find it challenging personally. The story essentially is around a midwife who’s not white working in very dominant white hospital in a city in America, and is asked to support a couple who’ve just had a baby who are white supremacists and explicitly take the view that the nurse should not attend to their baby in any way shape or form.
DW And so the nurse leader agrees to that and puts a wee note in the case file to say, “No Afro-American personnel to attend to this baby”, and of course things go wrong for the baby and so there’s a whole story there that …
MD Alright, interesting.
DW … really challenges the reader’s value base and perceptions, and actually how we take so much in life for granted because of our experiences. So fantastic and completely inspiring story.
MD Brilliant. Sounds like it will really make people think.
DW Thoroughly recommend it.
DW I’m not getting any royalties for that by the way.
MD Great, okay. Do you like music David and do you have music for motivation?
DW Not particularly for motivation. I love music and I listen to all sorts of genres of music. I do sing in a male voice choir.
DW That’s not to say I am able to sing. The benefits of singing in a male voice choir is that you have about 45 other voices around you so you can’t be found out that easily, but 7 years on they haven’t actually told me that I can’t sing yet. So that’s reassuring, but there is a great joy in music. Again I don’t read music. I’ve never sung. I’d never sung before in any kind of way shape or form in a public way prior to joining the choir. We do now gigs twice a year to collectively about 600 people over a couple of nights.
MD Okay. Brilliant.
DW So that’s a big deal. That puts me right out of my comfort zone. And one of the things that, one of the reasons I did that was just about that work life balance thing of being able to do something that actually requires a commitment. So I go to rehearsals every Tuesday evening, as much as I miss probably one or 2 a year, and you need that constancy, that discipline, to be able to do something, and if it’s something that you’re not used to doing, and so I’ve not sung, don’t read music, then that challenges me to completely lose sight of whatever my day has been about.
MD Yeah. It’s quite therapeutic I’d imagine?
DW Oh unbelievably so, and actually one of the things I’m pretty conscious of is the importance of things like that are pretty organic ‘cause we tend to think, we tend to take a fairly paternalistic view of the needs of people within our business, health and social care and the public sector. We must be doing things for people to support them, but the choir actually functions as a bit like the Men’s Shed type of idea.
DW But there’s not a single kind of connection to any public body in any way shape or form with the choir, and you might think that sounds like a really kind of relatively middle-class type thing to do, well to do, all of these kinds of things, except the last guy that joined us was just recently retired as a school Janitor. It’s a complete social mix. When I joined the choir 7 years ago I immediately reduced the average age of the choir by about 20 years. That average age is kind of squeezed a little bit just because I’ve got older obviously and some of the older guys are no longer singing, but 3 of the guys lost their wives over the last year and they were back with the choir about a week later, because there was that circuit that came from being part of something that older guys who’d maybe been through that process and that loss at an earlier point were able to not shy away from the important conversations that help these guys to work through.
MD It’s the same principle as the Men’s Shed as you say as well.
DW Absolutely, and so there’s all sorts of social things happening. I don’t get the time to involve in myself in that but there’s all sorts of social things happen amongst much older guys than me, much older guys than me, that’s really important for them in their day-to-day lives.
MD And is it contemporary music, pop music?
DW We sing anything from the Beach Boys to Beethoven.
MD Yeah, so it’s quite contemporary, isn’t it?
DW Our Musical Director, guy called Brian Marshall, who actually runs his own business and does some community group singing with folk down in West Dunbartonshire who have Alzheimer’s and does work with Alzheimer’s Scotland in that bit of the business. He just loves music. He’s the therapeutic importance of it and he kind of continuously comes across in the message that we will never be world beaters as a competitive choir.
DW We’re pretty good, even though I say so myself as a non-musical person, but we just strive to entertain.
MD Sure, and do you have a go-to music or artist?
DW For me personally?
MD For you personally.
DW For me personally, David Bowie.
MD David Bowie?
MD We lost David Bowie, didn’t we, last year?
DW We did, yeah.
MD It’s a shame.
DW And I still haven’t brought myself to open his last album which was given to me that Christmas - he died the January - to listen to it.
MD Right, okay. So you have to get around to that at some point then as well?
DW At some point. My wife absolutely hates him so there’s not, if I do get a chance to listen to his music …
MD So no David Bowie playing at your house?
DW Only when she’s out.
MD So who or what are your inspirations in your career, whether it’s people or projects?
DW I take inspiration literally every day. I know that sounds passé but I absolutely take inspiration every day from what people do. I guess in terms of my management leadership development over the years, be it there have been a couple of folk who I have taken some kind of inspiration from that have been mentors to me much earlier in my career, continue to be people that I relate to, and am I supposed to name names here?
MD Only if you’re comfortable to do it.
DW I’m not. I’d prefer not to if that’s okay?
MD Yep, yep.
DW And but I know who they are and they know who they are, but genuinely I am inspired every day by what my leadership team here in the Health and Social Care Partnership are prepared to do. They’re in that place where they’re prepared to recognise that we’re here to transform the way that health and social care is planned, delivered, received and experienced. I’m inspired by what my fellow Chief Officers across Scotland are doing on a day-to-day basis in their own respective patches, what we are able to achieve coming together as a collective, despite the fact that 31 voices is, you know, it’s sometimes not easy to get a single view about what we should be about and what we should be striving to do, but nevertheless, some fantastic work is being done on a day-to-day basis. And then I have always made one of the experiences I had working in the voluntary sector is that you are never very far away from frontline provision, as a Director or a Senior Leader in the charities, because you have to go out and do frontline visits. That’s how the voluntary sector, as a Chief Officer, you’re able to market what your organisation does. You can only do that if you understand and can tell the stories of the lives of the people that your organisation is supporting. So you go out, so I do that and I’ve continued to do that in my 10 years back in the council in every school holiday.
MD And given the wealth of your frontline experience what one piece of advice would you give to those working or considering working in social work or social services?
DW I think the one piece of advice I’d probably want to give is to recognise that it’s not a job. It’s not just a job. It genuinely is a vocation. You’ve got to have that compassion, the right value base, the central component of your characteristic being a giving person who’s not judgemental, who’s not prone to putting subjectivity and personal into your interactions with people, and those are not easy qualities and it does require that reflection. I described earlier on I only got to that place as an adult, a young adult albeit, in my early 20s, at the point that I had fortuitously landed as a SCV in a social work team in Clydebank, and I reflected back on my earlier experiences. So if you’re thinking about, if there is somebody out there thinking about a career in social care think about what’s brought you to that place where you think you might want to do it, and don’t see it just as a job. It’s got to be something that is a part of you and you’ve got to have that compassion, those values, and there are huge numbers of people out there who are in that place. Our challenge I think is being able to tap into that and encourage people to think, “This is something I want to do”, and actually when it comes to people like myself, perhaps inspire somebody at the age of 22, 23, coming out of university in May, June, with a degree in science or a degree in history or whatever. Actually that’s not where I thought I would be, could be, there actually in 30 years, ‘cause it does take that long folks sorry, but in 30 years, and it’s not that you start out being ambitious to begin as the Senior Leader in the system, that you don’t get to that place when you’re thinking, I’ve just been really lucky I have to say.
MD Well you grafted as well.
DW Yeah but I have been in the right place at the right time. I’ve no doubt about that, and that element of putting yourself in outside your comfort zone. If you don’t try something, you’ll never get there. So it is about just having a reflection. This isn’t a job. It is, “I am going to make a difference to people’s lives in a good way.”
MD Sure. Good advice.
MD And finally, if you’re a castaway on a desert island David, what’s the one thing that you couldn’t live without?
DW Oxygen. I have no idea. Again I think social work people tend not to be materialistic. They tend not to - I don’t think I am. I suppose a belief in myself, a belief in a faith or whatever. People have these things. I have these things, but oxygen definitely.
MD Oxygen. Okay, I’ll give you oxygen then. You can take that with you. Okay, this podcast as you know David is called ‘Freshly Squeezed’, so I ask each of my interviewees at the end of the interview, how do you like your juice? Do you like it smooth or with juicy bits?
DW Both give me horrific heartburn so probably without bits if I’m being honest.
MD Without bits, so you like it smooth?
MD Smooth it is. Okay. David, thanks for your time today. I really appreciate you taking time out.
DW Absolute pleasure.
MD You’ve been ‘Freshly Squeezed’.
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