Social Work leadership during COVID-19: March – November 2020

Adults Children and Families

Introduction to the reports

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed health and social care to the forefront of our collective awareness in the last year. It’s been a time of fear, isolation and disconnection, and so naturally focus sharpens on the supports and services that keep our family members, friends, loved ones and community connected, safe and protected. Social work has occupied a space in between those important social care services and vital health interventions. Its naturally liminal nature has been flexed and expanded to work alongside people whose normal structures of support have fallen away, and social work leadership has needed to respond quickly, pragmatically and sensitively.

During COVID-19 the social worker’s – and at a strategic level, Chief Social Work Officers’ – focus on human rights, dignity and relationships has been more important than ever. Across a diverse range of issues, from quality assurance of care homes to children’s access to digital technology, social work has tried to ensure that the voices, wishes and interests of individuals are taken into account, the diversity of the population’s needs understood, and support available to those that needed it most.

But while social work’s positive contribution to the pandemic response has been widely acknowledged, there remains a pervasive feeling that the role of the social worker is at best misunderstood, and at worst undervalued.

These commissioned separately, but are being published together as they provide related perspectives on the same picture: the realities of social work leadership through and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

…I manage to do this job but I struggle to reach the important parts around connecting to the workforce, spending time with service users and contributing to the wider Social Work Scotland agenda’” – respondent to CSWO survey

The two reports surface consistent themes about the paucity of resources, the strengths and challenges of the Chief Social Work Officer role, and the profession’s voice in health and social care. They also illustrate the breadth of issues social workers (and in particular CSWOs) are necessarily involved in; and the fact that, in many of those areas, major changes in policy, structures and practice are under discussion.

The themes mirror results seen in the Scottish responses to British Association of Social Workers (BASW)’s 2020 survey of members, highlighting the ethical and moral dilemmas encountered by social workers on a regular basis, and a widespread feeling that social work has been co-opted into the role of ‘gatekeeper’ for social care services, rather than empowered to be a force for change and social justice.

As we look to the future, with change likely in all the public policy domains within which social work is an essential (albeit often unseen) component, it’s timely to consider what social work needs in order to realise its full potential. These reports provide insight into the leadership of social work’s experience of the systems and structures within which they operate, and provides us with some pointers for what reform needs to attend to: a strong profession, from the leadership through to the frontline, working in partnership with individuals, families and communities across Scotland.

Ben Farrugia
Director, Social Work Scotland
24 March 2021