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Social workers are tied up by rules – is it time to start disobeying them?

Posted on 28/04/2016 by

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Rule-compliance is at the heart of modern social work even when the rules are wasteful, wrong and get in the way of good practice, writes Matt Bee

Nothing good ever comes from breaking the rules. We all know that. Except, of course: the end of apartheid in South Africa, the triumph of black civil rights in America, women getting the vote in the UK, and a great many other societal freedoms besides. Even the simple pleasure of tramping through countryside, exercising your right to roam, was in part thanks to mass act of trespass in the 1930s. So, actually, maybe the occasional transgression isn’t all that bad. The world would be a much worse place otherwise.

And social workers are, by their very calling of standing up for marginalised groups, more likely to challenge the rules than most. Just look at how members of our profession have taken to social media, even the streets, to protest against the cuts. A thousand curses rain down on Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne daily.

Disobedience, not defiance

But these petitions and protests aren’t really the same thing as the rule-breaking I mean. What I’m talking about here is an act of disobedience, not defiance – if we can distinguish the two. Waving a banner might not please the government, but it is allowed. Refusing to abide by the government’s rules, however, is something quite different – and a whole lot more serious.

One social worker recently found out quite how serious this was when she was suspended by the Health and Care Professions Council after disregarding the timescales imposed on her work. Instead, she had chosen to focus on quality.

There’s little point in getting into the rights and wrongs of her specific case. You can read the details for yourself. But it does raise the question: when is it okay – indeed, is it everokay – to break the rules?

Duty to follow protocol

In our increasingly regulated workplace, this is what our job boils down to – abiding by the rules. We’re compelled to prioritise one task over the other, fill out a form, make a phone call, send an email, attend a meeting – and all because it falls in line with a pre-ordained and officially sanctioned methodology. Never mind, if we know full well that the methodology is flawed. Never mind, if our own professional judgement, hewn from years of working directly with service users and their families, is pulling us one way. If a protocol is pulling in the opposite direction, we are duty-bound to follow.

And, yet, there’s always the chance that the protocol is wrong.

No value to client 

At the very idea, bureaucrats might well bridle. But the truth is, thanks to all this increased regulation, social workers often find themselves in truly lamentable situations, wasting time on administrative tasks that add little or no value to the client. The hours I’ve lost recording meaningless information onto a database that no-one, and I mean no-one, is ever going to read… and all because it helped the department limp ever closer to meeting a key performance indicator.

Is there sometimes a higher calling, maybe even a responsibility to refuse?

Responsibility to refuse

If we earnestly believe rigid timescales, mountains of paperwork and over-zealous regulation to be wrong, should we work within the system in the hope of changing it, or should we just outright reject the practice – like our colleague?

That may mean a smaller action than you’d think. It may mean doing something as simple as going home on time instead of staying late to fill out all the paperwork. But, because we dutifully buckle down, work extra hours, and provide all the information asked of us, the requests keep coming for yet more. Another form, another process, another procedure, another timescale – when will it end?

Enough is enough

Perhaps when social workers start turning round and saying enough is enough. Perhaps when other social workers feel compelled to break the rules. Perhaps when we put priorities – like our own personal welfare – ahead of filling out forms and marching to timescales.

Again, I’m not suggesting a mass rebellion. This isn’t a call to arms. It’s just an acknowledgement that the only thing supporting this highly regulated, process driven, goal-orientated practice is our willingness to comply with it. Of course, to break the rules would be brave, maybe even reckless and irresponsible. But what if the rules are wrong?

The whole system rests on the unquestioned assumption that the rules are right. But when you look at the convoluted ways in which we’re forced to work, how wasteful it is, and the toll on the workforce all desperately trying to keep in step, I question that.

Maybe the rules are wrong, and maybe breaking them, sometimes, is the right thing to do?

Matt Bee is a social worker and writer based in the North East

Source: Community Care