The men who took the heart out of social work

After 25 years I have been driven from my career by MBAs whose priority is management systems, not providing a service

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It is almost six months since I gave up, or more accurately, cravenly retreated from working in a local authority social services department. For 25 years, in London and in the country, I could say that despite the long hours, many unpaid, and diminishing resources, I had never failed to want to go into work. Now, however, I've reached the point where I think my daughter Jo Brand's career of telling jokes about the state we're in is of more use to people than my own had come to be.

I have been privileged in my work to be with people in their pain and crisis and to share something of their success in survival as stronger individuals. I worked in a psychiatric hospital when our society still provided asylum and learnt there so much of the essence of human nature; I have specialised in working with families where there has been abuse of the children and have come to understand the price we pay for women's oppression by stronger men; and I have ventured, albeit briefly, into the realms of senior management only to despair at the discarding of honour in favour of expediency.

I finally, and sadly, abandoned social work when Shropshire joined London and the rest of the South-east in discarding genuine personal involvement with people needing help in favour of mechanistic rituals designed to protect the organisation. I am not alone - more than 80 workers in one local authority have taken early retirement this year.

I had never before failed to maintain my optimism and enthusiasm despite the heart-aching task I had often to perform - what could move any woman more than to hear a young mother dying of cervical cancer describe what she wants for her children when she is no longer with them. I have heard the painful revelations of a small child whose body has been abused, and I have seen that pain shared and that child helped by the social worker.

I know retired social workers who are surrogate grandparents to the children of the children they cared for more than 20 years ago. I have seen the foster parents who took into their hearts the two-year-old, developed only to the age of 10 months, and I have seen the special boy that he has become in the warmth of their family's love. I have watched social workers harassed by barristers and who, in the interests of the child, hold their position against the onslaught of those indecently well-paid, heartless men. I have comforted the worker who had returned from discovering the little girl left for hours with tied arms outstretched to the sides of her cot.

It was possible to bear the suffering I witnessed because I was blessed to work in the company of colleagues who were decent and humane and who gave unstintingly to the families with whom they worked. The vilification of social work by the tabloid press caused me no sleepless nights. I wanted no praise from the hang-and-flog-'em brigade who saw poverty as justice for the so-called feckless. And then I trusted that our managers shared our value system.

In these workers is lodged the true decency of a welfare service, but underpinning them has to be an organisation that supports its workers. The first director of social services I knew was a Quaker, a pacifist and a leading childcare professional. That department's value system was rooted in humanity and professionalism; that social services committee's stated aim was to provide a welfare service of excellence to the residents of their county.

What of today? What is it that has driven out those 80 workers and me? I cannot ignore the concerted Tory effort to destroy both local government and those professions that might impede the relentless march of the market, with its heartless disregard for those in poverty, those with disabilities and those elderly people upon whose earlier efforts our society was built.

But it is from within the organisation that the greatest threat comes. We now have MBA managers so preoccupied with systems, recording and checking, that they have stopped valuing their most precious resource, their staff. A refreshing management thinker, Henry Mintzberg, has described MBA courses as attracting neither creative nor generous people and eventually producing the trivial strategist rather than the visionary who empowers workers.

These managers have devised sophisticated and time-consuming assessment procedures which ensure that only a minimum of the truly deserving public will be given a service. They have set up procedures and instructions that are eroding the enthusiasm and generosity of social workers. They are busy enabling social workers to feel no pain, while they translate human distress into recordable statistics rather then having time to be of any real use to families who need help. I find it hard to hear that social work has moved to the point that - like health service workers who don't notice a patient is becoming malnourished because he cannot manage to feed himself, or social security staff who now believe it is acceptable for 16- and 17-year-olds to be left financially unsupported - we are encouraged to ask whether the elderly disabled woman has antiques that could be sold by her family to provide for her care. We are required to respond to a request for support for a young mother suffering post- natal distress with the reply: "This is not one of our priorities."

In trying to make sense of this state of affairs, I am left with an explanation that is relevant not only to social work. The vast majority of field social workers are female. They have no difficulty in working to the British Association of Social Work's definition of social work: that is, the enhancement of human well-being and the relief and prevention of hardship and suffering through working with individuals, families and groups. Most senior managers are male and to them such a philosophy is not nearly as attractive. How much more engaging it is to think about performance indicators, internal markets, and financial management. The statistics are stark: seven out of eight staff in personal social services organisations are women and most people using the service are women, but seven out of eight managers in these organisations are men.

I want to be optimistic about the future of social work. Enthusiastic and decent young people continue to join, wanting to relieve and prevent hardship and suffering. If they are not to become disillusioned and if a social work service of value is to be retained, an assault upon present management practice has to be made.

It may be that women managers will be somewhat put out by my analysis. I would so want to be able to identify their ability to stand out against the male culture. Instead, I am inclined to ask, just as Edith Evans did many years ago: "When a woman behaves like a man why doesn't she behave like a nice man?"

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