And what can we do to help?
— Sarah Phillimore (@SVPhillimore) February 21, 2016
This is a post by Sarah Phillimore
The post arises out of an interesting Twitter discussion between lawyers and social workers on Sunday 20th February 2016.
In essence, we were discussing the forthcoming Child Protection Conference, organised by the Transparency Project on 3rd June 2016 in Birmingham ‘ Where Do We Go From Here?’ following on from last year’s successful event: ‘Is the Child Protection System Fit for Purpose?’
What was sobering and worrying for me, is that one of the social workers who came last year discussed how she had not felt safe to reveal that she was a social worker, given what she perceived as an atmosphere at the conference which was very negative and hostile towards her profession. This was alarming as I had naively thought we had successfully worked hard to create a safe and respectful environment to allow people to speak .
During our Twitter discussions the social worker elaborated further about just how draining it is to feel constantly blamed and discredited for the failings of an entire system and how those attacks quickly become personal. She spoke of being ‘hated’ on line and discussed how she had been attacked and vilified to extent that she had to disengage from debate on many occasions.
She raised a further very troubling point; that policies on use of social media set down by local authority employers are extremely strict and in effect prohibit social workers from engaging in even general discussion. This view was confirmed by a number of other social workers on Twitter who pointed out that they were posting anonymously.
This raises for me some very troubling issues; both general and particular.
The general issue – Why can’t social workers speak out?
I clearly have a rosy tinted view about the freedom of speech for social workers as those I have been exposed to recently have been feisty, engaged and very outspoken; see this post on my attendance at the Promoting Humane Social Work Conference in February.
However, I can understand the position is very different for a social worker employed by a local authority who is subject to a strict policy about engagement on social media. No one wants to risk their job or their reputation for a Twitter conversation.
I have not conducted any detailed research into local authority social media policies but my cursory investigations suggest the following:
Superficially social media and the use of it, is seen as a ‘good thing’: for example, this policy from the Local Government Association says:
The LGA is committed to supporting local government colleagues to help realise the full potential of social media. We believe that, used correctly, social media is a powerful tool helping to drive cultural, political, economic and social engagement. It is also a key communications tool for local authorities and highlights their commitment to openness and transparency.
But it’s not clear that this support is translating into general practice. It is also likely that any existing policies are not a result of long gestation: research in 2013 showed that 43% of local authorities had no policy about use of social media.
And regardless of the policies themselves, certainly the interpretation of those policies by the social workers on Twitter on Sunday night, was to find them either prohibiting outright, or inhibiting significantly engagement on social media for employees of a local authority.
It was a sobering wake up call for me; I have often complained that social workers won’t speak out and I was disappointed at how few engaged with the first Child Protection Conference. I had not appreciated what forces may have marshalled against them to prevent their engagement. The issues of cost, getting time off work AND perceiving that you cannot speak out and keep your job are pretty powerful forces against your engagement.
The specific point – what can we do to encourage social workers to come to the conference?
I think we need to look at the conference ground rules again with care and make sure the message is going out that everyone who comes is entitled to speak freely and to feel safe while doing so.
We ought to be able to disagree with each other and yet still recognise and respect our essential humanity. No one should feel that a disagreement is a personal attack. We need to experience constructive criticism as an opportunity for change and improvement, not as an excuse to sink further into the culture of blame and shame, which already casts a long and toxic shadow over debate in this area.
But probably the most important thing is to engage directly with the professional bodies that represent social workers – what support are social workers getting from their professional bodies? What’s the message they are getting about how and when they can engage?
Because this is vital. We can’t make changes if some of the people crucial to the debate feel scared to talk.
I will see what responses I get and hope to update this post.