The future of social work in times of change

17 April 2023

Kathryn Lindsay is the Director of Children, Families and Justice Services and Chief Social Work Officer at Angus Council. In this blog post, she discusses how social workers can use their voices and experience to drive and adapt to change and support each other.

We are living through probably the most significant coming together of change that I have experienced in my 25-year career. Disruption across the world can make it feel like there are very few things going right. Closer to home, the cost-of-living crisis, political changes, and questions about the future of care in Scotland make it feel like constant change isn’t just happening, it’s speeding up and coming to a head.

For me, it feels like social work is in the middle of this change, yet on the periphery at the same time. There is an increasing amount of asks and stresses on social workers, but also anxiousness as a profession about our ability to influence and shape the future. In amongst this sense of change and potential risk, I believe that social workers have a unique opportunity to carve out our space and ask important questions about our future: What do we need to focus on to better support individuals, children, families, and communities? What does that mean for the shape of services? And what is our role as a profession in this new, messier world?

Real engagement with social workers is key

Despite what we may hear in the news, change in and of itself is not a bad thing. Historically, social work feedback has been a strong driver in some of the most impactful change we have seen in our profession. We can easily forget the difference we make when we are meaningfully involved in discussions.

So often, we hear about new approaches to public services that are co-designed or co-produced. Yet the voices that decision-makers hear the most are not always the voices of the most disenfranchised in society, nor the most experienced when it comes to delivering support. Social work has an opportunity to help bridge the gap between policy, legislation, implementation, and the voices of the people we support.

To do this successfully, we need to listen to people in communities to develop a clear understanding of what a positive future looks like and use our systems knowledge to be clear about what it takes to achieve it. Social workers know that the answers to these questions are not always the same in different areas, with different people, and in different contexts. However, what we also know is that, although we often work with individuals and individual families, social workers do not bring an individualised perspective. Through our work with multiple people in one area, we develop an aggregated understanding, pulling together commonalities of experience. We might work with 200 people on the same journey and can identify time and again where things went well and where there were barriers – there’s always similarity. We know the people we work with and the places that we work in very well, and through our connectedness with them, we have a professionally informed view on what needs to be delivered to offer the most effective support.

By ensuring a coalescing of the professional experiences alongside the personal lived experiences of the communities we support, we have an opportunity to have meaningful, sophisticated conversations about bespoke support, expectations, and how this links into the current landscape of social work and social care. Social workers understand how systems operate and what the barriers to change or to achieving good outcomes are, and these experiences can add valuable insight.

Learning from the voices of experience

It has been well known in social work for some time that we have a disproportionate amount of people leaving the workforce, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors. Public sector budgets haven’t always been there to add investment to get ahead of this and we are now ceding experience, organisational and system knowledge at a point of great change. This can be a risk not only to continuity of care and provision, but also safe organisational transitions.

Ideally, when colleagues leave, even if they’re not actively working anymore, there should be clear connections established to enable them to stay linked in and help share their experiences if they choose to. This is something we already see at times and that engagement should be encouraged. Anyone with experience – not just senior leaders – who is well connected to practice can be hugely beneficial for both newly qualified and currently training social workers to learn from.

Creating these spaces for colleagues, new and experienced, to come together, whether through supported groups in local authorities or professional organisations, is one way to mitigate the risks. For those new to social work, being able to have open, honest, and transparent discussions that help us and the people we support is vital. It also helps to make complex matters more understandable so people can learn and reshape a changing profession.

For so many social workers, the profession isn’t ‘just a job’, it’s a vocation for life and they want to pass down their learning to the next generation, as someone once did for them.

Encouraging learning and challenging through leadership

A good leader will know that, in addition to encouraging learning, it is important to create spaces for questions, feedback and new ideas.

When people are new to a role and indeed a ‘system’, it can be nerve-wracking to ask questions or to challenge the established way, but it doesn’t have to necessarily be that way. Some things are the way they are for good reason, but some things have been developed in a certain way because they were the right thing at a point in time – it doesn’t mean they can’t be reimagined for today’s social work.

We need to find a context in which social workers at all levels can come together to reflect, explore what they’re finding problematic, share experiences, and take ownership for moving things forward. Leaders should be brave, open-minded, and honest in their feedback. They should try to create spaces for reflection, offer mentorship and make sure that colleagues know that it’s OK to ask: ‘well, why is that?’. In social work, the thinking is as important as the doing, and good leaders recognise that.

Social work will always be a profession that it is changing – and it should be. Without changing to better respond to the needs of communities we support; we risk becoming nothing more than a state bureaucracy. But we need to be bolder in sharing our professional knowledge about the systems we operate within and along with the adults and families we work with should be involved in meaningful discussions about such change.

Social workers should be supported to learn from experience, but also encouraged to share feedback and relentlessly ask the important questions. In that way, we can be both the deliverers within the system, and the champions of change that makes a positive difference.


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