Podcast Episode: Rural social work: staying connected
Category: Social work (general)
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.
Kerry: It’s my great pleasure to introduce our speaker today, Iain Ramsay from the Office of the Chief Social Work Advisor. So, Iain became a professional advisor to government but before that he was Chief Social Work Officer in Aberdeenshire with experience across the Grampian area. He also chaired Social Work Scotland’s Resource Committee which included all 32 local authorities. So, that’s just to impress that he understands how remote and rural practice is different; the challenges, the opportunities and the strengths that it has. So, without any further ado, Iain the floor is yours for the next 15 minutes.
Iain: Many thanks and firstly just thank you for the opportunity to join you today, it really is a pleasure. I just want to start by really telling you a bit about myself and my experience and some of my background. When I qualified as a social worker, I very briefly worked in Aberdeen however I had grown up in a rural area and I always wanted to work there as a social worker.
On reflection I don’t think I really thought about what it was going to be like working and living in a relatively small place where I’d gone to school. I still had family members and was generally connected to lots of people in the community. Although the post that I was in at that time was an older people and physical disability team, there were large elements of generalist work. And I found the work to be incredibly varied and fulfilling. And in retrospect I wouldn’t have got the range of experience from an urban post. I was lucky in many ways that I had some exceptional colleagues with lots of experience in the next village; however I was largely left to my own devices with lots of autonomy to take referrals and to work with people I thought would benefit from some support. And really importantly at that time, I had a delegated budget which made things quite a bit easier. Whilst functional teams were starting to be embedded, there wasn’t a well-defined remit for my role and it was essentially a catch all that the other more specialised teams, as they were known, didn’t pick up.
So, my caseload was varied both in terms of the people I worked with, the area I covered was relatively affluent however this hid significant disadvantage inequality and a range of complex needs which in many instances did not fit neatly into the system that was structured and governed through the use of eligibility criteria. I would suggest that eligibility criteria is largely a mechanism which is based on a number of premises which are predicated on the range and availability of resources and services which do not exist in many rural locations and certainly not in remote ones. This in turn poses a professional dilemma for social workers, however, I’ve always believed that as a profession we’re flexible and acutely aware of the principles in which the profession’s based. Hence to work in communities with people and find ways of bringing about positive change that it’s a need to be determined, pragmatic and a relationship builder.
For me there was a balance to be struck between the pre-set parameters such as eligibility criteria, and then the relationships I had with colleagues such as GPs. These multi-disciplinary relationships in rural settings, the setting that I worked, were based on a strong sense of location and a collective responsibility for the community we served. They were also based on an understanding of the contribution each member of the team made and also a sense of both the personal and wider system influences which sometimes determine a course of action for example, a financial decision or a limitation based on legislation.
Also, it was really helpful to have an honest conversation, an understanding of the stresses and pressures which each of the team members were experiencing on any given day. This brought about a culture of trust and understanding where team members did not jump to conclusions or judge one another. Underpinning all of this was taking the time to build those personal connections and relationships without which there was little hope of a successful team forming within a community where public services were very much under the microscope and where conflict and division was quickly exposed.
Preparing for today allowed me some time to reflect on my own experience of working in a rural area and I’ve concluded that the relationships were fundamentally important and were essential in achieving successful outcomes all be it the system and the environment which social workers or indeed other professions, practice is not always constructed to support this endeavour however the opportunities which exist in remote and rural locations, to have autonomy, to work in a relational way, are substantial and I would argue the satisfaction gained from working with diversity and variety is not to be taken for granted. I would also add that integration of services works no better than it does in many rural and remote locations. In my opinion, it is the blueprint for truly working collaboratively with the interests of the community at the centre opposed to the profession or organisational boundaries which complicate and often act as barriers to collaboration.
I would also like to touch on the dual relationships which you have when both working and living in a small community. I spoke earlier of my circumstances at the start and how closely embedded I was in the community I worked, although I do think in retrospect it benefitted my work more than made things difficult. The networking with colleagues and community groups was much easier, however, personally I did feel the level of scrutiny was quite oppressive at times especially simple things like going shopping or going to the swimming pool and bumping into a service user in the next lane. As you will know you are far more accessible in your personal life as most people will know where you live, or for example who your partner is.
As social workers, I think we are well placed to find a balance in terms of the relationships we have with service users and their families. I found knowing people on different levels made the work more fulfilling and enjoyable and I hope enabled me to form more productive relationships. I suppose I found a comfortable balance between giving enough of my privacy away but retaining enough to make me feel my personal identity wasn’t consumed by being a social worker.
I’d just like to move onto now, digital, and the many changes that have happened over the last 18 months. Of course, rural social work has its challenges in terms of professional and personal, the remoteness that comes with working in these areas and the travel times, the costs associated with travel, the disruption from severe weather, the lack of mainstream services and the access to training and career opportunities. As we all know in the early part of the pandemic there was an enormous push to establish new ways of flexible working with most council offices closing and staff working from home.
For many this has led to some very favourable outcomes with a better balance between work and personal life and I know it’s in this month’s Professional Social Work magazine that three quarters of respondents to a snapshot poll liked working from home, which I was a little surprised to read. The roll out of platforms such as Near Me and Microsoft Teams has brought people and teams together in a way, we could not have foreseen with years of underinvestment in IT systems and hardware however through the opportunistic and necessary move to digital I would argue we must not lose the core of social work which at the heart is a profession based on interacting with people and building relationships. There is no doubt, digital solutions have been essential through the pandemic to both keep people safe and keep services functioning, however, this has been a compromise and, in many circumstances, it is not the most conducive method of building relationships. So, as the risk associated with the virus reduces and we see, as we do at the moment, a relaxation of restrictions, you need to think about how you can work to the benefit of both your own practice and your service users.
You also should think about how technology has a place in your workplace and take the opportunity the pandemic has provided to make it work for you whether that be using Near Me to conduct a review or using Microsoft Teams to hold a case conference. Our world has fundamentally changed and in the right circumstances you can now access a wider range of opportunities such as attending national meetings, like this, being involved in national care service consultation events or attending conferences or even just simply just attending a team meeting. Whilst different authorities will take their own decision regarding models of working for example with some wanting to return everybody back to offices or others wanting the majority of people to work from home. I’m particularly eager to see arrangements which support teams to safely get together so opportunities exist where individual and group supervision, team meetings and debriefs where necessary.
I also view the new way of working with enthusiasm in that it brings career opportunities for people living and working in rural and remote areas with there being less reliance on being at a fixed office base from 9 to 5. In my present role which I started in July; I work from home in the North East of Scotland although my base is in Edinburgh. It’s likely I’ll only be required to travel to Edinburgh for team meetings. I’ve also noticed that more people from outwith Central Scotland are joining national organisations which is a real positive outcome.
For some rural communities and in particular, social work and other professions, have not been adequately reflected in national policy however over the last few years there has been a conscious effort to raise the profile of the different challenges which exist in remote and rural communities. We have seen Social Work Scotland and SASW making efforts to bring people from the islands … highlands and islands together to highlight issues and during my time as Chief Social Work Officer there was the formation of a Social Work Scotland group for remote and rural Chief Social Work Officers. The remote and rural voice has been helped with almost all meetings now being conducted digitally hence people are far more visible and conscious of the different challenges faced across Scotland.
I would encourage you all to take opportunities to get involved and influence policy wherever possible and ensure the difficulties along with the many positive aspects of working across a diverse range of locations are highlighted. Lastly, I would strongly encourage you to take some time to look at the national care service consultation and provide feedback as a social worker. It may be that this is just on a couple of sections, however the important thing is that whatever the national care service will look like, it reflects your views as a remote and rural social worker. Thank you.
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