Podcast Episode: The grand challenge(s) for social work
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.
JD - John Devaney
At the Social Work Scotland AGM 2018, John Devaney, Centenary Chair of Social Work, spoke about social work in Scotland today. He focused on three key themes:
The nature of modern social work and contribution of social workers to civil society
The role of leadership in social work
How to raise or sustain profile of what social work does and its value to wider society.
You’re listening to Iriss.fm, Scotland’s Social Services podcast.
On the 18th of May 2018, Iriss went along to the Social Work Scotland AGM and captured Professor John Devaney, Centenary Chair of Social Work speak about social work in Scotland today. He focused on three key themes: the nature of modern social work and contribution of social workers to civil society, the role of leadership in social work and how to raise or sustain the profile of what social work does and its value to wider society.
JD Good afternoon everyone and thank you for staying after the break, the temptation at this stage is always to sort of slip off especially when you’re not quite sure what the speaker is actually going to be speaking about.
Can I thank the Board of Social Work Scotland for actually providing me with the opportunity to come along to both introduce myself but also to share some ideas with you and I was given the freedom to speak about whatever I thought might be most relevant so, hopefully I don’t spoil the end of your week and reinforce any prejudices that you might have about what we do in our ivory towers in universities?.
My youngest daughter is doing some exams at the moment, when I spoke with her this morning and told her this is what my day held for me, her advices were “Just make sure it’s not boring.” So, that was the pep talk that I needed to sort of prepare myself for coming along here today. Seriously though I thought it would be useful to try and maybe use this opportunity to try and reflect on 3 big ideas that are floating around at the moment, ideas within social work circles not just within the UK but also internationally and they actually chime hopefully quite well with what I think some of the comments that have been made by both Susan and Jackie this morning .. about this idea of leadership and what do we actually mean by leadership but also trying to think about how we go about trying to communicate to the wider public and to other important people with whom we want to work and collaborate about what we think social work is and the contribution that social work can make.
And, I think it’s very important, I thought that these might be interesting things to talk about on a morning like this because Social Work Scotland seems to play such a pivotal role and a unique role compared to the other parts of the UK, in terms of having an organisation that seeks to promote the very best in social work, coordinate activity both within social work but alongside all of our colleagues and friends who work in other areas that border on and overlap what we do and also to drive innovation in practice to do the very best we can for those who are most vulnerable in society .. and, as was mentioned earlier on to try and advance social justice in it’s broadest context.
The comments I’m making aren’t a reflection in any way on what’s happening here in Scotland cos I still do vey much feel like the new kid on the block, so, I am the person who’s arrived, come here because actually it’s a great reputation outside of Scotland for what is happening within Scotland and so when the opportunity arose at the University of Edinburgh it seemed like a wonderful time to come to be part of that but also to sort of get more of the detail and understand better what’s happening in Scotland, why it’s happening, why it’s so successful as well as also recognising that social work everywhere is dealing with challenges and having to think of more creative and innovative ways of dealing with that.
I’ve had the privilege of being appointed as what’s called the Centenary Professor of Social Work, as a good friend said to me, I didn’t look as though I was 100 yet but there is a sense that I may have to sort of stay around for 100 years but social work at the university has been around for 100 years and I’ve been very privileged to be appointed to this role and also been asked to sort of take leadership of the appointment for at least the first 3 years.
My job is to support and coordinate the activity of what a really talented and skilled group of individuals whose main work falls into 2 broad areas. On the one side they’re responsible for the education of those who are entering our profession, they’re becoming part of our family and that’s both a privilege and a responsibility to make sure that not only do we accept them on to our programmes but that we ensure that they’re as ready as we possibly can for moving into practice and going to work with you and your colleagues in your organisations.
We also have some post qualifying programmes for those already in practice and in particularly at Edinburgh, we have the programme for mental health officers and that’s something that we value and see the importance and relevance of. And, we have a group of PhD students as well, some who are here today, many of whom have social work backgrounds but even those who don’t have social work backgrounds are doing research on issues which are about social work and social care and should be of interest to us as well. And, we have about sort of just under 200 students in total who are either on qualifying programmes, post qualifying programmes or sitting PhD’s.
The other bit of what we do is around research and is about trying to look at the challenges, the issues that are facing users of services and then trying to think about, well what can we learn about what are the challenges in their lives and how we might respond but also trying to think about how do we respond in ways which are likely to address those needs and when it comes to actually delivering interventions, what works for whom in what circumstances.
Social work, as you know better than me, is a complex endeavour, and it’s not just that way here in Scotland but also internationally and so our job is to try and ensure that we produce graduates and post graduates who are ready to deal with that complexity but also to produce work that is of international standard in terms of the rigor with which it’s been undertaken .. but also has a local relevance to practitioners, to policy makers and ultimately to users of services here in Scotland. The span of our work goes from the theoretical to the applied, but the unifying feature is the desire to ensure that our work makes a real and lasting difference for individuals, for the communities that they live within and for us as a wider society.
Much of the research we undertake is concerned, we’re trying to better understand significant social issues such as risk, deviancy, aging, independence, disability whilst also taking to evaluate what interventions work for whom and in what circumstances and other ways that we can do things that would be as effective but also cost effective in the midst of all of that and during these difficult economic times actually thinking about the cost and what we get as a result of what we spend on public services is ever more important.
So, what I’d like to do over the next 35 minutes is really to try and focus in on 3 key things. Firstly, the nature of modern social work and the contribution that social workers can make to civil society, the role of leadership and the notion of: in particular, compassion and authenticity and then finally to try and think about how do we raise or at least sustain the profile of what we do and it’s value to wider society.
Now, as you can tell, I’m not from these parts, when I showed this at a conference recently somebody turned round to me, who’d known me an awful long time, and said, I didn’t realise you used to have ginger hair. Whereas I still think that I do have ginger hair which is probably sort of the bit where I’m getting closer to that centenary than I care to admit.
34 years ago this week I was sitting my A level examinations, I’d planned to complete a degree in civil engineering at university, that was my ambition, I was studying maths and physics and sort of wanting to go and build things and given that I came from Belfast and what was happening in Belfast in the 70’s and the 80’s there was certainly plenty of need for people to rebuild things because of what was going on there. But actually, I ended up doing some voluntary youth work in my final couple of years at school and actually realised that I enjoyed working with people and thought, those were the days when you didn’t have to pay university fees, they’d even give you some money in the form of a grant to go to university.
So, it was probably less of a gamble to say, well I’ll put the civil engineering to one side, go off and explore whether this malarkey called social work is something that actually might be interesting to do for a livelihood and see where it goes and if it doesn’t work out, well that’s okay I can go back to sort of not actually talking to anybody, just building things. But actually, I ended up doing a social work degree at Ulster University and found that actually it was probably the thing I was called to.
I started off working in statutory services with adults and children with learning disabilities, trained later on to become an approved social worker under the mental health order in Northern Ireland, so, it’s very equivalent role to the NHO role and then moved into statutory children’s services where we had at that stage generic based patch teams which dealt with everything from intake through to placing children for adoption and seeing those cases the whole way through the system. I then worked as a practitioner team leader area manager and then was seconded into Queens University Belfast, on a full-time basis to do a PhD under a scheme that’s available in the NHS. And we were able to avail of it as social workers because of the integrated nature of health and social care in Northern Ireland. The PhD was around the issue of chronic child abuse and if anybody’s really bored, I can sort of give you a blow by blow account of that later on.
I then left Queens at the end of the PhD and went into what was a policy and commissioning role with one of then, the 4 large organisations that were responsible for health and social services as it was called at that stage in Northern Ireland where I had responsibility for early years services and also child protection services and therefore was very much involved with government with trying to think about, where were we strategically trying to go and what were we going to try and do.
Now, at that stage I felt I knew a lot about child protection and nothing about early years and that these 2 agendas were very disparate, as you’ll all know actually the more I got into it the more I saw that the 2 agendas were actually intertwined and interconnected.
During my time at Queens, I was there for about 12 years, one of the other interesting things I did was that I was asked by the Minister of Health to sit on the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland, which is responsible for coordinating all child protection activity across both statutory agencies and also agencies in the third sector and my specific role for the 4 years I was on the Board, was to chair the case management review panel which is the panel that reviews maltreatment deaths and series injury to children as a result of maltreatment. So, in some ways, that was really good in terms of my teaching and in terms of my research to still have that window into practice on a regular basis and to see the very difficult lives that many children lead, but also the challenges that many practitioners face in trying to do the right thing day in, day out and sometimes the institutional and organisational challenges that they have to overcome in trying to do that.
So, I’ve now been qualified as a social worker for over 30 years and in a university where social work has been taught for over 100 years, we’re no longer a new or a young profession and social worker remains as relevant today as it has since the passing of the Social Work Scotland Act in 1968.
In our address to the conference last year, at this AGM last year, Susan made reference to the agenda facing social work in terms of both it’s complexity but also the potential that was so evident in the work force and in terms of social workers who were working on the ground and what they brought to their roles. There’s no doubt that these are challenging times due to both financial retrenchment and an increasing set of expectations among both policy makers and the general public about what can be delivered, and the quality of same.
Increasingly the professional and academic literature is referring to the idea of leadership as opposed to management as a means of effecting appropriate and sustained change for the benefit of social work service users while also maintaining moral and the confidence of staff.
Now, there are plenty of myths about what makes a good leader and The Apprentice confirms its self-belief in your own ability is not necessarily a recipe for success. My brother in law got short listed to go on to The Apprentice at one stage but he and my sister and their family had already booked a holiday and he was in 2 minds and every time I see him, I just say, thank god that you never got on to the programme because ultimately I may have had to disown you. It probably brings out the worst or the way that it’s edited, brings out the worst possible qualities in terms of what somebody’s trying to lead other people is actually about.
But, I think there’s a whole literature that’s started to emerge in recent years which tries to separate out what we mean by management from leadership and tries to focus in on what are the leadership qualities that we want to inculcate in people to get the very best out of them so that they in turn can get the very best out of other people.
Some of the key questions that are being asked are, how can one lead effectively? What role division energy authority and strategic direction play? And, what personal qualities and attributes can support the leadership role?.
Two ideas that are being written about quite extensively at the moment are this notion of authenticity and compassion and I’d like to spend a few minutes on each of these topics.
Authentic leadership has developed as a critique of the leadership literature, it states that firstly there are no universal leadership characteristics, people can practice and show leadership in very different ways rather than everybody having to conform to the same. Secondly, what works for one individual, will not work for another. So, whilst we might model ourselves in other people, we have to find our own style of actually engaging with people and showing leadership. And, finally leaders don’t know it all, but they do know enough about both people and about the topic that has to be addressed.
It’s an approach to leadership that emphasises building the leaders legitimacy through honest relationship with colleagues which values their input and are built on an ethical foundation is likely to get us much further. Generally authentic leaders are positive people with truthful self-concepts which promotes openness, there’s openness of themselves and openness in other people. By building trust and generating enthusiastic support from those around them, authentic leaders are able to improve individual and team performance. It’s about leadership style that really inspires people to extraordinary levels of achievement cos people believe that they themselves are believed in. It’s antibureaucratic, and charismatic and it’s a relationship between the leader and those who are being led and it’s not just about results, it’s about much more than that. The means are as important at the ends, and most importantly leaders are not necessarily the most senior people in an organisation.
Now, I’m not sure if that will be legible for those who are more than about the second seat back, but consensus seems to be growing that authentic leadership includes these distinct qualities, firstly self-awareness. This is defined as the ongoing process of reflection and re-examination by the leader of his or her own strength, weaknesses and values. Alongside that we need relational transparency, opening, sharing by the leading of his or her own thoughts and beliefs, balanced by a minimisation of an impropriate emotions. Thirdly, balanced processing, solicitation by the leader of opposing and different viewpoints and a firm minded consideration of these view points and finally, an internalised moral perspective, a positive ethical foundation adhered to by the leader in his or her relationships and decisions that is resistant to outside pressures and while we think about these qualities, they chime very well with our value base as a profession in terms of what we aspire to do with the people we work for alongside the people we work with. And actually there’s something about that authenticity that the literature is telling us actually delivers much better results as a result of people feeling as though they can both trust, believe and follow people who are showing leadership within their organisation.
So, how do leaders demonstrate authenticity? For an effective leader, we need to be ourselves, we need to be real people with weaknesses as well as strengths and they’ll be open to acknowledge those things that we’re not good at or that we still see as developmental because that breeds confidence in others that they themselves can acknowledge the things that they struggle with and need support around. We must be ourselves in the context in which we find ourselves, be able to sense the situations and to make judgements to conform enough, therefore to make compromises but not to make compromises about everything just for the sake of it. And, we must act as leaders which requires expectation or expertise in the management of social distance, that ability to be able to work with people, develop networks and relationships with people and to be able to maintain that appropriate distance between being friendly and collegial without necessarily becoming friends in the way that sort of if we disagree with something we then fall out with each other because we think that we’ve been let down personally.
So, I’d like to move on to this issue about compassion and trying to think about how that might fit with this idea of authenticity.
The report looks at the quality of compassion and the link to innovation in particular as a core cultural value of, and in his case, the NHS and how compassionate leadership results in a working environment that encourages people to find new and improved ways of doing things. And I would contest that in terms of sort of the work that West has done trying to look at compassion within the NHS, actually it’s equally as relevant and applicable to us working in social work and social care .. not only because in many areas there’s greater integration between health and social care but actually it’s about a fundamental value that we can bring into the work place that not only is about valuing people and caring for people, but again allows the very best to come out in individuals and for people to be freed up to think about how they can contribute to the over all goals and aims of their organisation.
Caring for Change describes 4 key elements of the culture for innovative high quality and continually improving care and what they mean for users of services, staff and the wider organisation.
The report talks about having an inspiring vision and strategy so that people have an idea about what they’re ultimately trying to achieve and how they’re going to go about trying to do that. It’s also about positive inclusion and participation, so, it’s actually about not leaving any one out, it’s about trying to tap into the talents of everyone and trying to find a role for everyone and for people to feel valued enough that they can make a contribution, no matter what that contribution could be. It’s about having an enthusiastic team and the ability to gauge in cross boundary working, and for us as social workers, we’ve always been engaged in that and increasingly the world is moving in that direction where this is required ever more and it’s about supporting staff to be automatous in order for them to innovate, whether at the level of a single service user or in terms of how we reimagine the service system that we have.
So, compassion within this context is defined in this particular way, firstly it’s about attending to people, it’s paying attention to the other and noticing they’re suffering. Now, we’re not talking about you and your colleagues actually suffering in work, but it is that bit about trying to recognise when people may be distressed or feeling that they’re struggling with aspects of their job and not being quite clear how they resolve that. It’s about understanding what is actually causing that distress and by trying to make a full appraisal of the cause and therefore the remedy. To being empathic in terms of response so that there’s a sense for the person who’s on the receiving end that actually somebody wants to understand what they’re going through and is seeking to understand that with a purpose in order to be able to do something about it. And, finally it’s about helping, about taking intelligent thoughtful and appropriate action to help to relive the other persons suffering.
There’s very good evidence that is laid out in the report that shows that leaders who display compassion, influence the wider culture of the organisation they work in and this results in improved effectiveness of services, increased service user safety, a better service user experience, improvements in the efficiency with which resources are used, improvements in the health, wellbeing and engagement of staff and the extent with which innovation takes place within organisations.
Some of you may have been at the meeting that was held last week around Signs of Safety, where some colleagues from Northern Ireland were across from the Western Trust who have been using Signs of Safety for the past few years and Kieran Downey who’s Deputy Chief Executive of the Western Health and Social Care Trust and also Director of Social Work was talking about introducing a new way of practicing, Signs of Safety, had resulted in a significant drop in absence rates amongst his social work staff and that if he was able to get his absence rate down by 1% a year they were in effect saving 1 million pounds.
So, actually trying to attend to what is it the people want to do in their job, give them the permission and the support to get on with doing the things that they feel they most came into the profession to do. Has it benefit to them, level on a benefit to those that they’re working with.
In the report for the Kings Fund, Western Colleagues explained the following, firstly attending, attention is vital for ensuring that they key challenges that staff face are clearly identified which is a prerequisite for innovation and that there is an awareness of the domains that need innovation and improvement. When leaders pay attention to accounts of difficulties, challenges and problems they can then be explored in depth. This is the most important phase of the innovation process because a good understanding of the issues ensures that innovation attempts are appropriately directed. Leaders who actively listen, pay attention, withhold judgement, clarify, summarise, reflect, and share in turn are much more likely to achieve the positive results that they and their colleagues are looking for. Active listening which we should all be very familiar with but is actually very hard for us to do in the very busy lives that we all lead requires a frame of mind geared towards learning and gaining insight as well as an empathic connection to the other, it establishes the caring and compassionate connection necessary for strong and lasting bonds among leaders and employees. Terms of understanding, compassionate leaders work in conjunction with staff to make sense of and understand the challenges they face, a collective compassionate approach to leadership is not hierarchy gone directive but rather engaging and supportive. The more staff are enabled, supported and empowered to develop a comprehensive understanding of the challenges they face the more likely they are to develop the effective innovations in response because they have the expert perspective so rather than senior managers trying to imagine what that innovative response might be. It’s really about empowering those on the front line.
The enhancement, leaders who engage in coaching behaviours tend to be able to help others to discover situations and solutions for their problems themselves, enhance their self-discovery, and in turn increase their self-efficacy and self-awareness, and the enhancement of self-efficacy and self-worth is particularly important for employees who’ve had the experience and or the perception of being disempowered, disenfranchised, or discriminated against .. as all of these experiences have a strong negative effect on both self-efficacy and self-worth and ultimately innovation and if we think about our colleagues and think about the challenging times some of them find themselves in, especially in processes where they’re integrating with other services and other systems, it’s about how do we empower them to understand the contribution that they can make and that they’re clear about their role, viz a viz the role of others as an opportunity to do something with that rather than feel as though they’re at the behest of everybody else’s good and maybe not so good intentions.
The next element is about empathising, empathetic leadership increases team member motivation, commitment and engagement which are vital for innovation at every level of an organisation. Empathy also creates a more positive emotional environment which is associated with higher levels of creativity and innovation and enables what’s called effective shift, whereby negative emotion is transmitted into positive effect with a by-product of creativity.
So, people are more likely to identify problems, notice opportunities, explore new ideas, and have confidence to overcome the challenges they face by actually being innovative in trying to think of new and different ways to achieve a better outcome. Moreover, the extent that those offering leadership are able to empathise with those they lead, the more motivated the latter will be to take action to help find solutions to the challenges they face.
A compassionate approach to dealing with failure, can also help employees to take safe risks and explore new ideas, particularly when they see failure as a necessary step in learning and innovation. And, that’s one of the things that is most challenging for us because we always see failure as necessary being negative and potentially bringing bad publicity. So, it’s not to say to saying that people should be allowed to fail at any cost but actually being innovative will sometimes work and sometimes not work but because something hasn’t worked doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth trying as long as it was thought about properly beforehand.
And the 4th and final component is this idea about helping, the 4th component of compassion leadership is taking thoughtful and intelligent action to help. Leaders working with those they lead to support them in their work can achieve much more. Of course, most leaders believe that what they do is helpful but that’s not necessarily the experience of those around them. Thoughtful and intelligent action that engages and involves staff is a different form than merely telling others what to do, it includes the innovation processes of ideation, evaluation and implementation. Compassionate leadership involves helping staff to develop those ideas for new and improved ways of doing things, be it about providing direct care, completing administrative tasks, supporting service users and their families or overseeing financial probity within the organisation. Such leadership also helps staff to evaluate options in a non-threatening environment where leaders do not impose or reject solutions because of their hierarchal position but based on the merits of the arguments that are put forward. Therefore, compassionate leadership manifests in leaders finding the time and resources for innovation and removing the obstacles to implementing new and improved ways of working.
So, the ideas behind authentic leadership and compassion are part of trend towards collective leadership, however we also need to step back to look at the broader picture and ask the questions, what is social work for? And what are we hoping as social workers to achieve?.
There’s a real need to legitimise our claim to be a necessary and important profession in an evolving world and whilst in Scotland with the ‘68 act, social work has really been embedded in society for the past 50 years, we can’t assume that because it’s been around for those 50 years, it will still be around within the next 50. Therefore, there’s a need to legitimise our claim to be that important and necessary profession and one in which the appetite to fund public services, even in Scotland, is being challenged.
As such, it is interesting to note what our colleagues are doing in other parts of the world and I’m going to look at North America, there’s lots of reasons for why we look at North America these days, but this is one I think is maybe more constructive than some of the other reasons. In the US, the social work profession, the social work employers and social work academy have come together to ask the question, what are the grand challenges facing society, and how can social work contribute to addressing these? So, rather than starting off from the premise of thinking about what is it that we as social workers can offer to society and will they take it up? It starts from the perspective of saying, what does society need help with and what is the role that we can play? The grand challenges for social work is an initiative spearheaded by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare and is modelled on a similar undertaking led by the National Academy of Engineering. The 12 grand challenges were announced in January 2016 in Washington DC, as a public call the action for all in the profession to work together to create a more just, equitable and vital society. And these are the US 12 challenges, I would doubt .. there’s some up there, people would maybe scratch their head off and say, well actually what is the social work rule on that? Some of it is very North American because it relates to the welfare context in which they find themselves, but I doubt very much if there’s anyone in this room who wouldn’t find that their work fits within at least one of those grand challenges. The 12 grand challenges were identified through a series of events aimed at creating a dialogue about the challenges facing society that social work could address or could assist in. The original list was around about 80 areas where proposed challenges were then debated, and reduced involving a range of key stakeholders, not all within social work and not least the various users of social work services, to b
oil it down to what were the core challenges that social work could contribute around. Social work’s always been concerned with social policy, innovation for some time and the profession has been a leader over the past century in freeing families from poor housing, in protecting children from .. or sort of taking children out of orphanage care and into family based care, in halting child labour, in advocating for woman’s rights and civil rights and in creating a fair social security system, fighting for fair and inclusive housing and protecting the needs and rights of the most vulnerable in society. So, we’ve had a long tradition of not only doing but trying to influence the wider environment around us which is why I though it was important to maybe talk about these sorts of ideas with Social Work Scotland in terms of pivotal role that this organisation has in trying to influence the wider agenda in Scotland not just the social work agenda.
The social justice values, of social work, combined with research and evidence to inform policy and practice have made significant contributions to society and in the US the profession is continuing the social policy mission and leadership with the grand challenges initiative. Each of the grand challenges has a work stream that seeks to inform policy, practice, and research and try and actually drive a much more coordinated linkages between those 3 strands of our profession whilst at the same time recognising that in some instances social work may not be the lead discipline and therefore plays a minor role whereas in other areas social work is at the forefront in rallying others to a common cause.
There isn’t the time here to go into all of the details about the initiative and if you Google grand challenges in social work, you’ll find loads of information online about it. But suffice to say that it provides a mechanism for raising the profile of social work and what social work contributes to wider society that moves beyond us talking about what might appear to others to be about self-interest. It’s about trying to say, what is the contribution we can make to the things that we as a society are trying to do.
The Grand Challenges initiative is helping to define social work in the US as a profession and to help many people outside the field of social work to realise the breadth of issues that social workers are engaged in and where social work can make a real and lasting difference.
In September 2018, in a few months’ time, the annual UK meeting of Social Work Educators and Researchers will take place in Canterbury in England. And we will be discussing whether trying to define and develop our own grand challenges for social work is something that would be a purposeful endeavour and if so who else do we think we should be having conversations with this, about. This isn’t necessarily about trying to do more but rather thinking about the nature of whether what we do and how we package it in a way which allows us to communicate much more clearly to the rest of society about the worth of what we do and the value of what we do, both to defend our position but also to advance it.
So, I’d like to finish on that and just thank Social Work Scotland for the opportunity to come along today to talk to you, hopefully there some sort of connection between all of those things, as I say sort of when I was told that I could come along and speak about whatever I want, I was trying to think about, well actually what is it that Social Work Scotland as an organisation is seeking to do? And what are the sorts of ideas that other people are talking about in other places which aren’t a reflection of what’s happening or not happening here but as part of a wider discussion which is taking place about how we lead our profession for the next 100 years and put it in an even stronger position, moving forward. It’s nice to meet you all, hopefully I’ll get to know more of you as the months turn into years ahead and thank you again and good luck to all of the office bearers who’ve been elected today.
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