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«Bourn, Diana and Hafford-Letchfield, Trish (2011) The role of social work professional supervision in conditions of uncertainty. The International ...»

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Bourn, Diana and Hafford-Letchfield, Trish (2011) The role of social

work professional supervision in conditions of uncertainty. The

International Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Change Management,

10 (9). pp. 41-56. ISSN 1447-9524

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The role of social work professional supervision in conditions of uncertainty Authors: D.F. Bourn and P. Hafford-Letchfield Abstract In the UK, a number of serious case reviews within social work and social care highlighted systemic failures within care organisations, resulting in wholesale structural reforms aimed at improving services. These have combined with increased inspection and surveillance of professional practice alongside calls for more staff training and supervision. Less attention has been given to examining the cultural aspects of social care organisations that may have contributed to such failures and the potential roles that front line managers play in promoting or mediating organisational culture within their individual relationships with front line staff.

Professional supervision is cited within the social work literature as one of the most effective tools for facilitating and supporting individuals to contain and work with the anxiety that naturally arises within social work. Through its different functions, supervision provides an opportunity for managers to engage staff with the vision of the organisation andits standards.

This paper explores how some of these opportunities are actually utilised and reports on the findings of a small scale qualitative study which captured data of digital visual recordings of management supervision and the managers’ own reflective accounts about the effectiveness of their supervision skills. Closer analysis of this data gave a glimpse into the different roles that managers perform within the supervision context and this paper discusses some of the strategies the managers used to communicate or mediate aspects of organisational culture to individual staff and support them in their stressful jobs. Some tentative recommendations are made regarding the importance of prioritising particular functions of supervision and for managers in providing space for staff to reflect critically on the context in which they work.

These strategies may allow the tacit or taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs in everyday practice to surface and also to increase the participation and engagement of staff in delivering quality services.

Key words Social work management, professional supervision, organisational culture, critical reflection, social care.

Introduction Reviews of serious cases and critical incidents in social work cite the importance of effective oversight of practice through skilful managerial and professional supervision (Stanley and Manthorpe, 2004; Laming, 2009). It was not until the report of Lord Laming’s Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié (Laming 2003) that there was a focus on a closer scrutiny of those working at more senior levels within organisations with statutory responsibilities for safeguarding children and adults and of accountability at this level. Laming explicitly blamed the lack of awareness, coordination and communication between politicians and senior officers within strategic partnerships for the difficult conditions faced by practitioners when working with challenging situations. These contributory factors were thus recognised in the serious case reviews as well as the criticisms about the decision-making and practice of individuals responsible for failure to safeguard vulnerable children in the front line (Laming, 2009). More recent inquiries into safeguarding failures of specific children and adults in the UK also found that the quality of front-line practice across all agencies was often inconsistent and ineffectively monitored by line managers (Laming, 2009; Cantrill, 2009). Arrangements for scrutinising performance across an authority and its partnerships were similarly criticised for being insufficiently developed and not providing systematic support or appropriate challenge to managers and practitioners (OFSTED, Healthcare Commission and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, 2008). A subsequent national social work taskforce (Department for Children Schools and Families, 2009) highlighted poor working conditions on the frontline of services, in which inadequate support for social workers, poor communication and even antagonistic relations between social workers and managers served to work against the capacity of managers to lead and manage services. Managers also experienced unmanageable workloads and expressed unmet needs for support and continuing professional development (Department of Children Schools and Families, 2009). These reports tell us something about the culture of some care organisations in which an atmosphere of uncertainty and blame can lead to defensive versus empowering practice (Cooper, 2005) so that professional supervision becomes more focused on the avoidance of making risky decisions in the context of professionals’ concerns about being pilloried in the media should ‘things go wrong’. The Government Task Force report into the current state of social work in 2009 (Department of Children Schools and Families 2009) stressed the need for improved management and organisational accountability and for clear and binding standards for employers regarding how frontline social work should be better resourced, managed and supported. The subsequent report of the Social Work Reform Board (Department of





Education, 2010) asserts the need for a national framework for standards which includes:

The combination of effective supervision arrangements, together with a suitable working environment, manageable workloads, supportive management systems and access to continuous learning, will help to ensure that social workers are able to provide good and responsive services for children, adults and families. By creating these conditions, employers will help to provide a setting in which social workers

–  –  –

The above statement indicates that social work supervision should not be treated as an isolated activity by incorporating it into the organisation’s social work accountability framework but also as an important mechanism in the process.

Professional supervision is also seen as a key tool within the UK registration and regulatory framework for social work education and within the national leadership and management strategy (General Social Care Council 2007; Skills for Care, 2008; Hartle et al, 2009). The code of practice for social care in England (General Social care Council, 2002), for example, names supervision as a process by which both employers and employees adhere to the standards of practice and conduct expected in social care and as crucial in regulating the workforce and helping to improve levels of professionalism and public protection. These standards and codes are frequently embedded in organisations’ policies and procedures.

Evidence is relatively scant, however, on how managers actually facilitate and promote effective supervision in their day-to-day work. There is insufficient empirical knowledge in the field about the manager’s pivotal but challenging role in improving relationships within and between the organisation and its members and the part that supervision plays in providing a seamless, responsive and accountable services, suggesting that further work is needed on the identification and acquisition of skills, knowledge, confidence and competence in the concrete tools that managers use to provide effective supervision. There is also a need for the purposive fostering of enabling organisational cultures and environments in which professional supervision is situated, given the increasing complexity of services and challenges of the work. The literature provides numerous critiques of the impact of managerialism and marketisation of care services (Clarke and Newman, 1997; Harris, 2002;

Tsui and Cheung, 2004), which have resulted from tensions in introducing traditional leadership and management theory into environments where uncertainty, turbulence and issues of inequality and power are at the core of most of its business (Lawler and Bilson, 2009). All of these issues point towards the need for continuous assessment and development of management skills and the opportunity for managers to get support themselves in providing good quality supervision. Management supervision is one of the ways that managers can gain insight into the everyday work of social work staff, maximise the potential of different stakeholders, manage the process of delegation and monitor and evaluate performance on behalf of the organisation.

This paper reports the preliminary findings from a small-scale qualitative study that looked at what actually happens in social work supervision and the different roles that managers play in the supervision context. It has a particular focus on exploring and evaluating the knowledge and skills used by managers during the process of supervision. Whilst a small study, the findings contribute to research findings about effective supervisory practice through the insights gained into how managers mediate some of the aforementioned different tensions between professions and organisations within care work. It also offers some insight into the strategies used by managers to enhance relationships at the frontline and provides some pointers to the skills required by managers who often have to trade between the needs of supervisees and the organisation in order to support and develop effective and quality practice.

Professional supervision Professional social work supervision is ‘a process by which one worker is given responsibility by the organisation to work with another worker(s) in order to meet certain organisational, professional and personal objectives, which together promote the best outcomes for service users’ (Morrison 2005 p32). The stakeholders of supervision include service users, professionals, managers, the organisation and its key partners, such as in health, education and housing, as well as central government, the latter having an interest in public welfare agencies achieving policy objectives. As a pivotal activity in delivering social work services, supervision is central to achieving quality assurance but has a particular role in developing a skilled and professional workforce (Hafford-Letchfield et al, 2008).

Professional supervision provides a bridge between first-line managers and practitioners.

Recognising the different roles and needs that supervision may be asked to meet also requires the use of contracts and structures for individual supervision and in establishing the supervisory relationship on a more clear and secure footing.

Good quality supervision incorporates learning and support functions; the giving and receiving of critical constructive feedback can create an atmosphere of learning, selfimprovement and strong sense of security while contributing to organisational objectives (Hafford-Letchfield et al, 2008). According to Rogers (2002), the facilitation of significant learning rests upon certain attitudinal qualities that exist within the relationship. Kadushin (2002) highlights the need for supervising managers to have a good working professional knowledge of the field, skills in coordinating work, setting limits and manageable goals, monitoring progress for front-line workers and creating a climate of belief and trust.

The organisational base of social work supervision is a dominant feature and affects functions, scope, and processes (Bogo and McKnight 2005). Supervision is traditionally seen as having three functions: administrative/ managerial (to achieve competent accountable performance); welfare and personal (to support the professional in work which may be complex and emotionally challenging); and professional development (to ensure staff have the necessary knowledge, skills, values and ethics (Kadushin 2002). The fourth role relates to mediation (between the individual worker and the organisation, and between other professions). Supervision is thus central to effective management, good use of resources and to effective, user-centred professional practice.

Despite these intentions towards good supervisory practice, research describes managers themselves as not only the most stressed workers within social service departments but also the ones who consider themselves to be least well-prepared and supported to do their current job (Balloch et al, 1995; Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2009). There is however limited empirical research into the nature and effectiveness of supervisory practice in social work (Bruce and Austin 2001). Milne (2008) reviewed the empirical research publications and, using the best evidence synthesis method, identified only 24 peer-reviewed articles on the impact of supervision. Yoo (2005) found only 34 research reports between 1950 and 2002, and Bogo and McKnight (2005) found 22 studies, mostly small-scale, between1994 and 2004, half of which were published outside the USA. There has been no large scale systematic study of supervisory practice, particularly in relation to management in social work.



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