Categories
5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Simon Cardy

The corporate capture of ideas infecting social work

Is the use of ‘command and control’ by senior managers proliferating under Covid19? Is the deployment of micro-management being intensified? How can we encourage ‘excellence’ in social work practice during these ‘difficult times’ and are current structures ‘fit for purpose’?

These are some of the questions being promoted by the Centre for Public Impact who are currently leading a ‘revolutionary’ and ‘radical’ blueprint for a self-management structure in social work – a way of working based on the Buurtzorg model framed and controlled by corporate interests.

A recent blog ‘The impact of Covid 19 in children’s social care practice in England’ published by the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) took the opportunity to use Covid to further their case. They report, anecdotally, that some managers under Covid had reverted to a style of micro-management which increased stress for social workers and had left morale low. There were signs that a ‘shift backward’ was taking place to a stronger version of command and control with yet more primacy attached to child protection. Such reports are echoed elsewhere.  My own soundings across four  local authorities are  more mixed. Managers are placing a lot of emphasis on following the government’s guidelines, offices are closed and everyone is working from home without having to fill in a form to do so. Where there’s a will there’s a way: Covid has shown that social workers can be trusted to work more autonomously without the disruption of a massive re-organisation.

Space prevents me from doing justice to the Blueprint’s proposals but in a nutshell, existing social workers, team managers, IROs and managers – up to and including service managers – all become case holders in ‘enabler’ teams with no direct line managers. They are supported with coaches and consultants (experienced social workers) located in ‘insight’ teams. An arms-length senior management team is situated in the ‘strategy’ team. Crucially, model fidelity dictates that the strategy team have no rights to intervene or become involved in day-to-day decisions.

The Blueprint makes some remarkable claims, primarily that it can increase face-to-face time with children and families by 65% and reduces caseloads by 20%. It makes some all too familiar arguments that: (social) work is too bureaucratic; that layers of management hinder decision making; where one in three qualified social workers are not working directly with children but managing others; and that children’s social care is ‘gripped’ by a command-and-control culture, with rules and performance indicators.

The Blueprint is a serious proposal. Its backers have invested considerable resources and made good use of their political and corporate lobbying skills planting press releases, holding webinars and enlisting high profile names including the Chief Social Worker for Children & Families, Isabelle Trowler.

We have been here before of course with tales of ordinary magic – such as ill-fated quasi-market based ‘Social Work Practice’ pilots or the vaunted ‘Troubled Families’ initiative. Both made misleading and overstated claims about outcomes for children and beating bureaucracy.

Much could be said about the minutia of the Blueprint’s proposals. Chief amongst these are how do you sustain the model in the long term without poaching experienced social workers from neighbouring authorities? Who attends to the key performance indicators and responds to time consuming complaints? And, just how do you get round the trade union and employers national Single Status agreement without breaking it, if newly qualified social workers in their first year of employment and former service managers are working to the same job description?

Such questions need however to be put to one side. Instead we need to look initially at the bigger picture.

First, we have the audacious move by the Johnson government to de-regulate the Children Act with various measures in the emergency legislation, a bonanza of contracts being handed out to the private sector and the shocking spectacle of SI 445 as discussed by Carolyne Willow in the first edition.

Second, who and what is the Centre for Public Impact (CPI)? The CPI is – ostensibly – a not-for-profit ‘foundation’ set up by the multinational management consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in 2015.

BCG is a founding partner of Frontline who are also backing the Blueprint proposal. One of the Blueprint’s authors is Josh McAlister, the CEO of Frontline. Another of the joint authors is Ryan Wise, a former Frontline trainee and now a practice development manager at the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE). BCG’s mantra is ‘doing well by doing good’ (see Kerr, this edition, for more detail on this). It prides itself as a company for social responsibility except that is where it has been linked to various corruption scandals with the Angolan and Saudi governments.

While CPI is an arm of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) it is legally an independent organisation. A closer look at the CPI’s board of trustees shows that BCG executives have a majority vote. The CPI could be viewed rather as  a barely disguised front organisation for BCG, whose purpose is to sell its neo-liberal thinking and scout for new markets.

The CPI is awash with ideas to change the world and peppers its website with articles and discussion papers about its ‘shared power principle’, the ‘re-enablement paradigm’ and ‘Total Societal Impact’. In the battle of ideas the CPI invites us to ‘re-imagine’ public services arguing that, rather than resources to tackle inequality and deprivation, what social workers need  is new type of ‘mindset’.

Third, we need to interrogate the thinking at the heart of the Blueprint, most of which is stems from BCG and the CPI’s alchemy of contemporary Taylorism. The intellectual base behind the Blueprint is not drawn from social work or its academy but inspired from the field of corporate management literature and best-selling management gurus such as Frederic Laloux (Laloux, 2014) a former associate partner with McKinsey & Company and Aaron Dignan  author of ‘Brave New Work’ (Dignan, 2019).

Questioning ‘top down’ power is another of the CPI’s themes with the idea being that companies and governments can benefit from corporate capitalism’s latest elixir for driving efficiency. This argues that the target culture and management enforcement of Key Performance Indicators has become inefficient. A better way of doing this – they claim – is by doing away with managers and trusting staff. Out goes the idea of ‘customer focus’, in comes the notion of ‘citizen empowerment’. ‘Service driven silos’ are replaced with ‘Human Centred Design’ whilst a ‘Delivery mindset’ is replaced by an ‘Enablement Mindset’ ‘achieving more by letting go’. The narrative dovetails neatly with asset/strengths-based approaches.

Fourth, will they pull it off? There are a couple of signals.

One of these is de-regulation. Katie Rose from the CPI has said as much. The introduction of Statutory Instrument 445 has allowed the government to scrap regulation in children’s services as Article 39’s sterling campaign has highlighted. If statutory six – monthly reviews for children in care were discarded, why would we need Independent Reviewing Officers? If deregulation were to become more permanent, it would help the Blueprint’s case. 

The other is the current government has four years left in office. What the government’s handling of the corona crisis has shown is that Michael Gove remains a key figure in this government. Gove is significant for the purposes of this discussion for his early support for Frontline. In a candid interview with ACVEO, Josh MacAlister, CEO of Frontline, confessed that he kick-started Frontline by throwing a sickie from his teaching job on a day trip to see Michael Gove, the then Education Minister. If the CPI needs some political assistance to roll out a pilot for the blueprint, their networks are surely in place?

Finally, I am not saying that that social work should not seek a way out of its long-standing crisis or that command and control should not be questioned. There are, and have been, many debates within the labour and trade union movement about worker’s self management but the Blueprint is not what this is about. If this was a debate emerging out of a struggle between service user groups, trade unions, social work organisations, elected members and government, that would be one thing. But it’s not. No, this is a discussion framed by a private company who recently posted $8.5b in global revenues circling to influence the future of social work, and whose interests are focused on maximising profit margins rather than democratically controlled needs led children’s welfare services.

Simon Cardy is an Independent social worker and practice educator.

Twitter @simoncardy

References

Dignan, A., (2019). Brave New Work: Are You Ready to Reinvent Your Organization?. Penguin UK.

Laloux, F., (2014). Reinventing organizations: A guide to creating organizations inspired by the next stage in human consciousness. Nelson Parker.

MacAlister,J., Rose,R., Ruseler,M, Wise,R., Hiskins,R, Khagram,A., Baghera,E., Aslanidis,J., and Martin,B. (2019) ‘A Blueprint for Children’s Social Care: unlocking the potential for social work’ Frontline, Centre for Public Impact (CPI) UK, and Buurtzorg Britain and Ireland.