Podcast Episode: Freshly Squeezed Jackie Irvine
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
JI - Jackie Irvine
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 Jackie Irvine. Jackie is currently Chief Social Work Officer and Head of Safer and Stronger Communities in the City of Edinburgh Council. Jackie was appointed as the president of Social Work Scotland in May of 2018 and her tenure as President comes to an end in May 2019. However, as past President, Jackie will stay on as a key member of the executive group at Social Work Scotland. As Chief Social Work Officer, Jackie has overall governance responsibility for the quality and provision of social work services both in the council structure, children and families, and criminal justice. She’s an integral member of the Integrated Joint Board in respect of the Health and Social Care Partnership in Edinburgh and has held a position of Chief Social Work Officer for over 7 years in both her current and her previous post. Jackie’s previous positions were predominantly in children’s services but not exclusively, as she has been Lead for Criminal Justice at community based health service and adult hospital based social work teams. Jackie, welcome to ‘Freshly Squeezed’.
JI Pleased to be here.
MD So you have quite a career in social services then. Tell me, did you always want to work in social services?
JI I think, I was thinking about this obviously last night and I think that 17 is a really young age to decide what you want to do. So I can remember being at school, not being particularly clear, having enjoyed art and wanting, well thinking of going to art school, but probably I’m a bit of a control freak so the sort of lack of definite income was something that kind of motivated me to think, “No it’s a bit too airy-fairy.” Don’t get me wrong, love art and encouraged by people that go ahead and do that. So and at the time it was before there was a degree in social work, so there was only the qualification, certificate of qualification of social work, but I really wanted to do a degree, and Robert Gordon’s in Aberdeen did a joint degree and a CQSW. So it’s a degree in social studies if I remember rightly. To be fair - and I spoke about this at last year’s conference in Social Work Scotland - I had no sense of what social work was like. I’d never been involved. None of my family had, even in terms of old people etcetera. So I think it was more just that idea of working with people and I suppose a general approach to equality has always felt - I suppose I always stick up for the underdog and felt there were some real injustices in life, but to be fair it was a bit of a gamble.
MD Right, okay.
JI And it was a 4-year degree and you didn’t actually know if you were getting selected for the social work qualification until the end of the first year. So half the year were streamed to public administration, which I clearly knew was not my forte. So there was a lot hanging on the sort of whole day long process at the end of first year to get into social work, and luckily I got in, and I suppose one of my first placements ironically was in Edinburgh where I’ve now come back to work, and it was in Craigmillar in Edinburgh, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. So that was back in 19 - I’m showing my age - 1987. Yeah, about 87.
JI So I think that was then reassuring for me that I enjoyed that. It was obviously a mixed experience in terms of your placement in a practice team, but I just loved it thereafter and I suppose I’ve never looked back.
MD Right, okay.
JI So it was the right decision. How I came to it was a bit ‘round about the houses.
MD Yeah absolutely.
MD Good, and I suppose a lot of people I guess, like I mean even myself, I went into an arts degree …
MD … initially from school rather than - ‘cause again it was difficult at 17.
JI Yeah 17. I think it’s a huge pressure.
MD Uh-huh. Can you tell me a little bit more about then from after your placement?
JI So after my placement I mean when I qualified in 89 I went down to London partly just for the summer to work in agency work and I signed up with agencies, and then I got a permanent job in the London borough of Merton through that process. I was in as an agency worker and then got a job, and what was meant to be a summer turned into 2 years in London.
MD Right, okay.
JI Which was really fascinating and obviously different legislation. So a bit of an adjustment but not hugely, but then within the 2 years towards the end of that I thought it was so expensive in London at that time - well it still is, but there was a lot of negative equities. No way I was going to be able to settle permanently. So I came back to Scotland, and I’m from Ayr originally but I moved to Glasgow and have lived in Glasgow ever since. So that’s end of 91, beginning of 92.
MD And do you still visit the seaside then?
JI My stepfather is still living in Ayr, as is one of my sisters, so yeah I still go and visit the family but Glasgow’s really basically my roots.
JI So even though I’m working in Edinburgh now I probably will not move through, and in fact my daughter’s about to go to Edinburgh University and I’ve been told quite frankly that we’ve not to move through in case we cramp her style. So I see my roots in Glasgow really, and from there a very varied career. So I’ve done predominantly children and families work. Became a senior social worker - I can’t remember when that was - became a senior social worker about 2 years, 3 years, after being in Glasgow, and then decided madly - well not so madly - to take 2 years off. Well it was meant to be a year to go travelling and it was nearly 2 years. Came back when I was 30 and started again, and I remember actually people saying, ‘cause we just were desperate for, I was desperate for a job, I’d spent all the money that I’d saved up and within about a week I got a job as a basic grade social worker in Paisley, and I remember friends saying, “Gosh, that must be hard. You were a manager before”, and I was thinking, “Well, no. That’s why I came into work in social work.” I enjoy working with people and I think you get, a lot of managers, people who progress up the ranks, what they miss is working directly with people.
MD Sure. Mmmhmm.
JI So I did that for 6 months and then moved on from there and got a project management post in terms of looked after children, and then I was asked to come back as a senior social worker to the area team in Paisley ‘cause they were stuck for staff, and then I moved to Glasgow and I kind of worked predominantly in Glasgow from then until about 2007, but in various jobs. So I went into planning after having my daughter. Planning as in social work planning.
JI Planning and performance, and that was a fantastic experience for me. So it’s not necessarily, it wasn’t necessarily planned in the way that that’s what I wanted to do, but the opportunity came up and it was job share, and that offered me lots of opportunities in terms of balancing family and work. I think that stood me in good stead though ‘cause I then was kind of in planning and integration planning for a good 4 or 5 years, 4 years, but I felt at that point I needed to get back into more operational practice and I was keen on children’s services. So I made a move to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education and I was part of the child protection inspection team for a couple of years, and that really got me back into operational social work, and then the story kind of then I went to North Lanarkshire ‘cause they had an inspection coming up. Following that I became a Head of Children’s Services and Chief Social Work Officer.
MD Mmmhmm. So you have kind of moved around the ladder as such.
MD Which is a natural progression I suppose given your experiences.
JI Yeah and I think the other thing that was helpful, when I was in HMIE you were inspecting various different local authorities. That gave you a really good insight and coverage of Scotland, from Shetland to Fife to East Renfrewshire. So I think when you work in one place for a long time there’s great advantage to that but you miss or you don’t see what else is sitting elsewhere, and also the value of the work that’s been happening in your local authority. So I mean I’ve said this, I said this to staff in Edinburgh when I arrived after a wee while, people always think that somewhere else is doing it better …
MD Yeah, yeah.
JI … if you’ve worked there a long time, but in moving to North Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire, Edinburgh, what you’re able to see and identify for staff is, “Look at all this great work you’re doing. This isn’t happening elsewhere.”
JI Or, “It’s not happening this well elsewhere.” So that perspective was really helpful, from moving around.
MD And as a person Jackie, what really motivates you then to say get out of bed in the morning and to do what you do?
JI I mean I think really I’ve never really had a problem with motivation. I’ve got a very low boredom threshold so it motivates me to go out and do a good job. Improvement really motivates me, and sort of striving. I think I would say I’m generally a very positive person and if I’ve had any difficulties - I can remember a period of working in a certain area where the difficulty I had was I was disillusioned by there was a lot of game-playing among management, and for me I just saw that as fraudulent. You’re there to do a job. You’re there to do a job for the citizens, for the public, and actually anything that gets in the way of that that isn’t productive, I feel quite strongly about.
JI So people will - I know people find me very straight to the point. I’m fairly direct. Hopefully not in a rude or uncomfortable way.
MD Oh I doubt it.
JI But I think what you see is what you get, and I think when I have worked very occasionally with people where there’s a bit of manipulation and game-playing going on, that probably was the thing that frustrates me the most. So getting up and doing a good job and collaborating with other people, working in partnership, that really motivates me.
MD Great stuff. Okay, and do you have a typical day?
JI Oh no is probably the answer to that, and I think that’s the other thing that motivates me. I mean no day is the same, and as Chief Social Work Officer or anyone in a senior post within a council partnership, you don’t know what you’re going in to every day, and I tend to when things go a bit array or there’s something happened that we’ve not planned I tend to go very calm and think quite pragmatically about, “Right, what do I need to do first? Who do I need to tell?” So and I wouldn’t say that’s always been the case. I think with longevity and sort of experience that’s come, but every day is very different. I mean there are some parts of the job that you think, “I don’t remember this being in the job description”, but you do it.
MD You have to.
JI But that also motivates me.
JI I think back to well when I would feel like moving on before, I think particularly when I moved from planning back into operational practice and strategic management, it was probably because it became a bit too routine and it wasn’t challenging me enough. So actually the challenge of different issues and different experiences is what motivates me as well.
MD Mmmhmm. You like to have some change?
JI Yeah, yeah, and I think you’d like to see progression as well. Yeah.
MD And do you have a motto for life?
JI Probably along the lines of for every cloud there’s a silver lining, and it’s about finding that silver lining. So I’m very sort of solution-focussed and I would say even in my personal life very rarely do I get down or anything, and I think if there’s a - in fact I think my daughter’s probably frustrated with this, because if there’s a problem or an issue I always try and find a way of solving it, and my daughter will sometimes say, “Mum, there is no solution. This is just it. This is just what it’s like”, if there’s a discussion we’re having or whatever. So I think my motto in life would be for every cloud there’s a silver lining, but you need to find it or make it.
MD Lovely, thank you. So what book or blog would you recommend to listeners?
JI Well I’m probably not very IT literate in terms of blogs, and my other, my failing is that I’ve got a dreadful memory for authors, films, film stars, books, to the point where I really frustrate my family ‘cause I always say, “You know that thing, that film we were?”, and they’re like, “No”, but so the most recent book I’ve read, which was recommended by my daughter, was ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy.
MD Oh yes. Yep.
JI I used to read avidly when I was younger and I now really only read on holiday. So I don’t even read on the train commuting ‘cause I’m too busy working, and I find if I read at home at night I fall asleep. So holidays is when I consume books, but I loved that book because it was very dark and very end of the world, but the relationship between the father and the son was just fascinating, and so I suppose I really loved that part of it.
MD Did you see the film?
JI No, I haven’t seen the film.
MD So the film, that was again very …
MD … dark, very harrowing, very moving.
MD It’s fantastic.
MD It’s really, really nicely put together.
MD And I don’t know if you like music Jackie but do you have some music for motivation?
JI Well this is again going to show my age probably, but I would say my music for motivation would be things like ‘The Jam’. So Paul Weller has always been my long-term fan, and in fact I got tickets last year for my birthday to go and see Paul Weller with a friend and my husband and her partner, and we were all commenting on how old he looked, and then I thought, “Oh hang on a minute here, this just shows me how old I am.” So and again I’m not good at remembering music but I’m really, my husband is really into music, very varied variety, as is my daughter, and so I kind of get into music but will not remember what they’re called, but yeah, I mean I am really motivated by music, although I don’t listen to music when I’m on the train or traveling.
MD Right, okay. Uh-huh.
JI It’s really just at home. It’s really strange and I think that’s probably just because I struggle with my phone and IT and it’s just far too much.
MD Are you a CD person?
JI Yeah. I can do online shopping and that’s what I do on my phone, and Sudoku. So yeah.
JI But no, I find music really uplifting. We’ve always got music on in the house and I love that.
MD Brilliant. Brilliant, and who or what are your inspirations in your career?
JI You know I was thinking about this question and I think there’s not one person, but the people I’m drawn to, or if I think about who, as a line manager, who have I worked for who’ve taught me lots of things where you at the end of 2 or 3 years you go, “Actually I have progressed but I’ve progressed with the support of this person”? So I’ve been lucky to have a number of managers who fall into that sort of bracket, but I suppose if I think about what inspires, you know, why am I inspired by them, it’s because of their progressive attitude, that it’s always about improving. It’s an improvement focus. It’s not, “This is enough. This is just enough.” It’s always, “What can we do better?” Challenging people’s kind of I suppose expectations and supporting your staff to think out of the box to be innovative, to be creative. So they are the kind of people that I think have inspired me.
JI And there are, I would say there’s a small handful, but it would be wrong to mention them I think in person.
MD Sure, yeah. Yeah.
MD I guess like improvement itself is probably a little bit of a challenge in the current climate, is it, in terms of resource, capacity?
JI It is and I think what we’ve had to deal with, with reducing budgets in the last whatever many years, is just doing things differently, and I think we used to, if you think back 15 years ago, 12 years ago, there was probably a presumption that to do things better you needed more of a resource, and I’m not saying that we’ve got enough resource just now. That’s not what I’m saying at all. There are significant challenges in terms of particularly social work resources I would say, and particularly in relation to social workers, but I think we’ve shifted our thinking from that, “If you give me more I’ll do better”, ‘cause actually that wasn’t always the case, and looking at some areas of practice just now and I’m involved in the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Taskforce, more doesn’t always mean that you get it better. It is about the system that you design and how you make things more accessible to people or easier to access. So and I think that’s right that we should be challenging ourselves in that way.
MD And what one piece of advice would you give to those working or considering working in social services?
JI I’m actually speaking at the Newly Qualified Conference at the end of the month, so I’ve sort of started taking some notes about that and I think my one bit of advice - and this is probably in preparation for speaking to the newly qualified social workers - is make sure you’ve got support and actually professionally demand support. So we were looking at our bit of survey work we’ve done in Edinburgh recently about supervision, and the outcomes were good. The feedback was good but there were areas for improvement, but I kind of strongly feel that you’re a professional no matter what level in the organisation you are, and you’ve got a responsibility to ask for the support you need as well as making some demands for it, because without that support I think it’s a very difficult job to do.
MD Do you think the manager’s job is also difficult to do in that respect as well?
JI Well it is all the way up the top really and I think I suppose the further up you go you should be more self-sustaining, but I still know where I get my support from, and whether that’s through friends who I would use as a bit of mentors - which I do - whether you’re able to access coaching is really helpful, to just give yourself some time out of the rush, rush busy day job to take that time and reflect, and support if it’s done in the right way should allow you to do that.
JI So that would be my main - cause it would be wrong to pretend that it’s an easy job. It’s not but it can be a very fulfilling job. I mean I’ve never regretted, never regretted being a social worker and can’t see myself doing anything else, but it’s really important that you’ve got sort of family support, you’ve got your colleague support, a good team. I think I remember my first permanent job in London and I still think back, I still talk about it. I was talking to our social work practitioners group recently about that. I can remember what I learned from the people that sat opposite me, around me, in my team, and the support that that gave you just in growing and sort of furthering your horizons and understanding you don’t come out of university …
MD Ready to …
JI … ready to practice. You come out ready to practice but you need to - I suppose it sounds a bit awful but you need to use the people around you and choose some colleagues that you know you’ve got a lot you can learn from them.
JI As well as the support and understanding that not every day is going to go well and there are going to be challenges that you have to face, and take the time to reflect on them and seek I suppose some inspiration from what you would do the next time.
MD Yeah it’s interesting there because I think I was thinking more about the traditional manager practitioner relationship as opposed to having a team of colleagues.
JI Yep. I mean the Practitioners Network in Edinburgh is really well attended. I’ve been to 2 sessions now. My predecessor, Michelle Miller, was very, it was one of her driving issues that she felt the strength in the Practitioners Network, and you see it, and I go along usually for the first part. I stayed for some of it the last time ‘cause there was a really interesting sort of questionnaire that we were doing ourselves in relation to stress and how you manage stress, but actually to see workers coming together from a social work background as social workers, not just social workers, their sector, support workers, some HR people who have been in social work, the strength of support that they can get from that setting and just - and again it’s important that’s time out of the very fast full-on demanding day job, time that you can take to actually think a bit about yourself as well and your own health and wellbeing.
MD Yeah ‘cause if you’re not thinking about that you’re not going to be able to support anybody effectively either.
JI No, no. I mean I do believe in fulfilling your task to the best of your extent. I’m very rarely bored and there’s always something else to do, but you do need a wee bit of time, and I find the commuting to Edinburgh and back, I find that a really good time for sort of thinking about my day ahead, preparing, winding down at the end of the day, thinking, “What am I going to do tomorrow?”, and kind of giving work its place before I then go home and give my family their place.
MD Mmmhmm. Yeah. It’s almost like physical exercise being on the train, isn’t it?
JI Yeah, it is.
MD It’s still movement.
MD Okay Jackie, so if you had to choose one thing - now this is a thing rather than person - that you couldn’t live without, what would that be?
JI I have to confess, I was talking to my husband about this last night and he probably came up with it ‘cause I was thinking, “I can’t think of one thing and I can’t think of even my phone, the TV. I can’t think of anything.” He said, “Your hot water bottle.” And he’s absolutely right. I go everywhere with my hot water bottle. Well not everywhere. I nearly took it to work this winter when it was a bit cold, but even if I go to a hotel I’ve always got my hot water bottle.
MD And it is an interesting thing to think of taking with you really ‘cause people don’t take them out.
MD And people talk about it but they don’t actually do it.
JI No. No I take mine with me. Not everywhere but yeah, I’m a hot water bottle girl. Summer, spring, winter. So it usually gets flung out of the bed but it’s just I think it’s a comfort.
JI I think also I was brought up abroad, so in very hot climates, and I remember coming home when I was 11 to the winter and to things being really cold, never having experienced really that cold before, and hating jumpers. Hating itchy jumpers.
JI And so I think it extends from that, that I’m just always concerned that I might be cold. So that’s my thing I couldn’t do without, yeah.
MD You take your hot water bottle everywhere with you.
MD Fantastic, okay. Great, well thank you so much for sharing …
JI Not at all. Pleasure.
MD … your insights with us today. As you know this podcast is called is called ‘Freshly Squeezed’.
MD So I ask all my interviewees at the end of the interview, how do you like your juice? Do you like it smooth or with juicy bits?
JI Oh smooth definitely.
MD A smooth juice.
JI Smooth definitely, yeah.
MD Smooth it is Jackie. Jackie, you’ve been ‘Freshly Squeezed’ today. Thank you for your time.
JI Not at all. Thank you. It was enjoyable.
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