I don’t feel nervous in my professional life very often, but I feel nervous about writing this blog.
When I floated the idea of writing a blog, several friends and colleagues gently suggested I might do better to keep my head down. I’m 6 ft in heels, Welsh by background, and I lead a proudly independent charity. Keeping my head down is neither my strong suit nor my comfort zone. I insisted it was possible to write something constructive: I’ll keep it professional, I said, it mustn’t be about me. Except for many of us, the professional and the personal are not distinct identities. The professional (and the political) is part of the personal, and exposing any part of ourselves can make us feel vulnerable. Particularly so in the hotly contested discourse surrounding the Review of Children’s Social Care.
I have spent enough time working alongside skilled social workers and qualitative researchers to know that when you have a feeling, you need to name it and you need to treat that feeling as a starting point for reflection and reflexivity. Why am I feeling nervous? What does that tell me about how others are feeling? What does it tell me about my position as a member of the Evidence Group? And what might it suggest about the Review in general?
I think my nerves are partly because my views could be scrutinised and interpreted without my control. Phrase it too professionally and I could seem clinical and inauthentic. Make it too personal and I could seem overly-emotional, lacking in balance. Worse still, I could be taking up space when others’ voices – those with experience of services and those who provide these services – are much more important to listen to.
Nerves notwithstanding, I fear that if we don’t radically and collectively change the way in which we are discussing the issues, then we will become completely distracted from what matters most – the children and families we serve. Besides, I have urged for greater transparency within the Review process and it would be disingenuous for me to encourage others to be transparent and not step up myself.
I should state clearly at this point that I am not being paid to be on the group nor to do any work in between the meetings, nor have I had any pressure placed on me whatsoever to ‘toe the line’ or ‘endorse the Review’. I have not been silenced in meetings, I am not a lone voice in offering challenge, and I have been treated with respect and fairness in all encounters with members of the Review team.
I am pleased that the Chair of the Review recently published a blog sharing ‘three dilemmas’ that he feels are emerging, and I will continue to encourage more public sharing of this kind (I stand by this opinion despite the state of my Twitter mentions this weekend). I’m not passing any comment on peoples’ wider concerns about independence, timeframe, or even the substance of the dilemmas themselves. I am making a very simple and resolute point: whether you believe there is some space to influence (I personally do), or whether you think the recommendations are entirely pre-determined, it is surely a good thing to have any thinking shared publicly at this point rather than at the end of the process.
I’m also nervous because I know that some of my comments will not be interpreted in good faith. The sense of mistrust is palpable and, with some sadness, I accept that my ‘getting in the tent’ is enough to damage some people’s trust in me. I do not suggest for a second that people’s mistrust is invalid. Recent research shows that the public trust in Government has reached an all-time low, and public services and marginalised communities have good reason to feel that the Government is not their ally. The high stakes nature of the Care Review and the legitimate strength of feeling from all quarters, compels all of us to try and debate in a way that respectfully responds to the sense of mistrust rather than dismissing it as ‘paranoia’ or ‘resistance’. Disrespect invites disrespect.
Equally, we must take care not to assume that anyone who is ‘in the tent’ is acting with a nefarious agenda. I can only speak for myself, but I agreed to be involved because I think significant change is needed and, best case scenario, I hope I might be able to exercise a little bit of influence. Absolute worst case scenario, I might need to help to unpick the issues down the line (I’m quite some way off retirement, and am in this sector for the long-haul). If that sounds demoralising, I apologise – I am just being honest about my intentions.
We are regrettably at a point where both those associated with the Review and those who are critical of it, might feel that there are two irreconcilable ‘sides’, and that therefore anyone commenting is either ‘with us or against us’. There is limited space for ‘both/and’ thinking and this is to the detriment of the discourse. In this context, any criticism of the Review or the Case for Change may sometimes be interpreted as stubborn resistance to change.
My view is that the Review could learn from, and try to model, the best of skilled social work and family support practice here. As research on social work practice suggests, where a parent or child presents as ‘resistant’ or ‘hostile’ it is important for the professional to understand why, and to take responsibility for our own part in contributing to that reluctance. Whether in a family’s kitchen, or in discussion around reforming social care, there are likely some very valid reasons for why a person might not trust us, regardless of our intentions. Engaging with these reasons openly (which may include taking some flak ourselves, whether it is fair or not) is crucial to any meaningful change. It is not enough – nor is it ethical – to simply assert that we are right and they are wrong. This cuts both ways of course: just as those involved in the Review must not dismiss the views of critics and assume they are resistant to change, so too must those expressing critical views try wherever possible to avoid dismissing or projecting interpretation onto the views of anyone involved in the Review.
This brings me to tone. I think most of us would agree that change is needed, but we need to explain why things need to change, and how. I would like to see a clear, compelling and co-produced vision for children’s social care – I think the work done by Social Care Future, setting out a vision for adult social care, is an excellent example. I have never met a child, parent, practitioner, or organisation that was motivated to make positive change by being told they were rubbish. Whilst acknowledging the many things that need to be better, the Review must not present all social care as ‘failing’. And where there are demonstrable failures, it is vital to interrogate the causes of this. I am not naïve; I appreciate there are a variety of reasons why the Review might need to limit how much it focuses on the actions of politicians in creating the current system dysfunctionality. That said, it is essential that the Review considers these system influences, otherwise the recommended solutions will not address the issues in hand. The more I read Cal Webb’s recent work, the more I think that focusing reforms on the variable quality of practice or leadership, without acknowledging the system drivers for variability (funding cuts, inequalities in local demographics, ineffective previous policy reform) is the policy equivalent of sending someone on a parenting course when the real issue is that they can’t afford to pay the rent.
There are a great number of people on the various groups advising the Review – and many others not involved in the Review – who are far more intelligent, more experienced and more respected than me. I would love to see them all sharing their thoughts publicly, and I am grateful that there is no clause that prevents us from sharing our personal views. But I have every sympathy for those who do choose to keep their heads down. The discourse has become so divisive and polarising that it can put people off speaking up. This is not to ask for sympathy: I am personally safe from harm, have relatively high self-efficacy and structural power. I have the hide – and post-lockdown, also the physique – of a rhino, and yet I still feel anxious writing this. What does that tell us about how others who might be marginalised could feel silenced? How can we possibly have a useful discussion if people (on both ‘sides’ perhaps) are worried about expressing their views? How can children and families have their voices heard on the issues that matter most if all the oxygen is taken up by the rest of us?
I believe very strongly that it is possible to issue challenge from a strengths-based perspective; that it is possible to be honest about system failures without making everybody in that system feel they are a failure; and that it is possible to disagree without descending into an unproductive argument. As the nation’s many brilliant practitioners already know, if you get the relationship right then the rest often follows. And getting that relationship right – or at least improving it – is going to ask a lot of all of us, wherever we are positioned in relation to the Review. I sincerely hope we are up to the task.