Engage: Does social work have a problem with leadership?

‘Social work leadership: the use of professional credibility, competence and connections to positively influence others in response to the interests and aspirations of people and families. Achieved through coproduction with communities, collaboration with other professionals, and constructive conflict of injustice and inequality, it can be demonstrated through formal roles and informal encouragement of colleagues’

Suggesting the first decade of the 21st century was testing for social work (and the wider social care sector) in England would be an understatement. The decade began with several major reviews highlighting fundamental deficits in professional practice and social work education, included embarrassing debacles over professional bodies, and budget restrictions that starved social work (and wider local authorities) of all but the essential resources. It can be argued that leadership, or a lack of it, has contributed to all of these crises. Political leaders decided that social work (and, by extension, the people it serves) were not priorities for funding, organisational leaders did not encourage cultures that fostered positive practice, and professional leaders did not put aside differences to achieve a united defence of social work.It appeared that 2019 started with many grounds for optimism. The Chief Social Workers and their work are beginning to influence a consolidation of social work professional identity and they have produced quality standards for both childrens and adults social work. The launch of Social Work England is a return to a single professional regulator which understands social work’s distinct requirements and contribution, not seen since the abolition of the GSCC. There are some examples of Local Authorities trusting social workers being as independent and creative practitioners rather than re-asserting bureaucratic administrative of rules and criteria. This includes the promotion and embedding of Principal Social Workers, a role which many organisations have used to drive change and improvement in a challenging sector. And finally, the broader emphasis on systems working reflects what social workers have always known – that no-one profession or sector has all the answers to the challenges faced by people, families and communities.

Responding to these opportunities will require leadership, and here social work may have a problem. There is no question that there are outstanding leaders in social work – both ‘formal’ (i.e. those in designated leadership positions – what are often called ‘practice leaders’) and ‘informal’ (i.e. those in practice roles who influence peers). There are also emerging examples of innovative programmes to develop leadership skills and confidence within a social work context (e.g. https://www.cfssw.org). But as a whole, we would argue that the profession has not sufficiently embraced leadership. This is reflected in the lack of a common definition, the patchy inclusion of leadership within academic programmes, and a failure for many practitioners to recognise leadership as an integral aspect of their professional identity. In addition, social work needs leadership to develop its status and practice standards. These challenges can be contrasted with the experiences of other related sectors and professions such as education and health in which leadership is more widely presented as fundamental. That is not to say they always achieve quality leadership – but it is at least a well-outlined and detailed aspiration. It is also important to note that social work is a highly gendered profession, with a significant proportion of women (currently about 85% for the UK) although, important for this topic, men are more likely to hold positions of power.

Learning from other sectors suggests that robust social work leadership will require time, investment and development opportunities throughout professional careers. It will involve an acceptance that being a leader does not mean that one claims to have greater worth than others – rather that one provides a distinct contribution that supports others to achieve their best. In addition, social work must retain its fundamental principle that all that we do must be co-produced with people and communities. This social work value is a unique contribution to leadership debates. Demonstrating leadership based on values will be considerably beneficial to other sectors who can struggle to collaboratively achieve change.

As we settle in to a new decade, we should hope that we will enter the next decade with leadership embedded within social work, in its professionals, practice and organisations. A recent roundtable at the Social Care Institute for Excellence discussing social work leadership suggested that momentum is growing with some emerging examples of leadership in practice, including some innovative approaches. There was a consensus amongst practice, policy and academic communities that the need is pressing and the time is right to achieve significant progress to improve social work by considering leadership. At the University of Birmingham, the Centre for Health and Social Care Leadership will seek to play its part in this movement for change. The definition above is our articulation of what is meant by social work leadership and we look forward to debating this, and how it is achieved in practice, throughout 2019.

By Dr Robin Miller, Dr Jason Schaub and Simon Haworth from the University of Birmingham.

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Jason Schaub tweets at @JasonHSchaub
Robin Miller tweets at @RobinHSMC
Simon Haworth tweets at @SiHaworth