ELPF: A potted history and future plans

ELPF – A potted history and future plans

In this age of rampant social networking and the related world of tweets, pokes and status updates it would have been remiss not to include a blog spot on this, the new website for all things related to the Edinburgh Local Practitioner Forum (ELPF). It is fair to say that the time lag between concept and delivery of www.elpfonline.org.uk has been longer than we might have liked. However we hope that in prioritising site quality over the speed of its establishment we have created a website that is readily accessible, useful and easy to navigate for tech wizards and novices alike. Anyway, enough spraffing about web pages which can only ever be so interesting. I figured I would use the inaugural blog post as a means of welcoming you to the site and to provide a bit of an overview of what the ELPF is, does and has done since its launch in the summer of 2009.

Changing Lives

For those unfamiliar with the origin of local practitioner fora in Scotland, they essentially came about as a result of the 21st Century Social Work Review known as Changing Lives. The Review outlined the need for “social work practitioner forums where people can learn from each other and have a voice in making policy at local or national levels”. It went on to propose the establishment of, “a local practitioner forum in each local authority that brings together representatives from all fields of practice across public, private and voluntary sectors” and to suggest that these would link in to, “a national practitioner forum [which] would bring together the chairs of each local forum and provide a voice for social workers into national policy making” (2006:78). That was in 2006, what is the picture 6 years later?

Ups and Downs

As with any substantial Government commissioned report in which a multiplicity of proposals and recommendations are made, when it comes to implementation, some never see the light of day; some are realised in full in the blink of an eye; and, others take time to achieve (and are modified, tweaked and tinkered with during the implementation process). It is the latter of these descriptions that probably encapsulates most accurately how local practitioner fora (LPFs) have developed. In the immediate aftermath of Changing Lives there was a surge of activity aimed at getting LPFs off the ground in Scotland. A toolkit was produced by the Scottish Government to support local initiatives and slowly but surely a number of fora began to emerge. From the outset however progress was patchy, steady rather than astounding. It seemed to be the case that a supportive Director of Social Work/Chief Social Work Officer and a small group of motivated practitioners were the minimum essential ingredients to get a forum up and running. Unfortunately there were instances where initial enthusiasm led to the establishment of a vibrant forum but long-term sustainability proved a problem. The success or failure of the various fora seemed to be tied too closely to individual personalities. If these individuals’ interest waned or they moved on to take advantage of other opportunities it was not unusual for the fortunes of the local practitioner forum to dip.

National Chair and support arrangements

Throughout 2006/7 a debate about the most appropriate means through which to provide support to LPFs was ongoing. On the one hand, the trade union UNISON and the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) made a joint proposal offering support and assistance to enable LPFs to become fully embedded across Scotland. On the other hand, the Association of Directors of Social Work (ADSW) made the case that such support and direction ought to be provided by their organisation through the assistance of a Professional Development Manager (PDM). The argument made by BASW/UNISON, rightly or wrongly, was that local practitioner fora had to be independent and that if supported by ADSW, fora would be restricted in their capacity to exercise influence owing to pressure from senior management. Ultimately the position of the Scottish Government was that ADSW was better positioned to provide support to LPFs than BASW/UNISON and from 2008 onwards ADSW assumed this supporting role.

In March 2008, the position of National Chair for the Practitioner Fora was established. Justin McNicholl, a social work practitioner who was Chair of the Clackmannanshire LPF was “elected” to the position which was entirely voluntary in nature and non-remunerated.  In theory it was envisaged that the National Chair would liaise closely with all 32 local practitioner fora spread across Scotland, meeting regularly with local practitioner fora chairs and ensuring that the fora fulfilled their purpose of shaping and influencing policy and practice based on the views of frontline practitioners. The first official National Chairs’ Meeting took place in September 2008. However, a range of constraining factors meant that the goal of establishing 32 active fora was still some way in the distance. By October 2008, it was recognised by Wendy Harrington (ADSW – Personal Development Manager) that progress remained slow in relation to the development of the LPFs when she noted in a position paper for ADSW that:

Despite central government support, many areas across Scotland had been unable to establish, or sustain the LPF development by 2008. A reason cited by local practitioners for this difficulty was a lack of established mechanisms that would allow LPFs to influence local and national agendas”.

Edinburgh LPF gets off the ground

In Edinburgh, it was not until 2009 that momentum began to build behind the idea of establishing a forum. Encouraged by the support of the CSWO, practitioners from across the city met on several occasions during the spring and summer of 2009 and established a small working group that co-ordinated efforts to establish the Edinburgh LPF. Since being placed on a somewhat more formal footing, the ELPF has met on a quarterly basis. The number of practitioners attending has been increasing steadily, with 43 present at the first meeting of 2012 which was held on 26th January 2012 and explored the theme of social media’s impact on social work, with a particular focus on its risks and the opportunities it can provide.

Opportunity lost?

In late 2009 following more than a year “in post”, Justin McNicholl made it clear that he was no longer in a position to act as the National Chair. Trying to act as the National Chair while also attending to the competing demands of casework, professional development and his responsibilities as chair of the Clackmannanshire LPF proved unmanageable. He had come to the view during the course of his time as National Chair that unless the position was full-time and remunerated it would not be possible for the post-holder to fulfil his/her responsibilities, to develop fora across the country and to create more meaningful and effective channels for practitioners to influence policy and practice not least through attending the National Social Work Services Forum (NSWSF). Thus, in the early half of 2010 discussions and negotiations gathered pace between the Changing Lives team within the Scottish Government, ADSW and practitioners from those local authorities in which there was some form of LPF in existence in order to try to move towards the establishment of a funded National Chair post. To say that these negotiations were fraught, complex and took place in a climate of financial uncertainty would be a fair summary. What were the main points of disagreement between the various parties?

  • Funding was not available for a full-time National Chair position, only a part-time position with administrative support. Moreover it was proposed that the post should only be open to statutory sector employees. The successful applicant could then be seconded from their local authority post for one year and return to their substantive post on completing the National Chair role. The part-time nature of the proposed post also raised the issue of appropriate line management arrangements. Realistically the successful applicant would have been required to report to two different individuals, their local authority line manager in relation to casework and an external line manager/mentor overseeing their role as National Chair.
  • Even by 2010, there remained extensive gaps across the country as regards local authorities which had an active forum and those which did not. It was felt that questions of fairness and legitimacy might be raised if there was not an equal opportunity open to all frontline practitioners across Scotland to apply to the post. For those local authorities with active fora, membership varied greatly both in terms of the number of practitioners attending and the profile of members. This diversity was due in part to the absence of explicit instructions from the Scottish Government at the outset of the LPF initiative about what LPFs should look like and who could attend. For example, how should “frontline practitioner” be defined? Does this designation refer to social workers with an active caseload only or does it include frontline managers? Furthermore, while the Changing Lives report made reference originally to “social work practitioner fora” this concept proved rather elastic. Should fora be open only to practitioners with a social work qualification or could they be attended by others working in the field of social services such as occupational therapists, residential care workers and/or students? Moreover, what efforts had been made to expand membership of fora beyond the statutory sector? Were the opportunities for social workers in the voluntary and private sector to participate in fora equal to those of their statutory sector peers?
  • What process should be used to (s)elect a National Chair? Should he/she be elected from within the existing group of active LPF chairs? Should the post be advertised nationally to all interested parties?

Ultimately the end result of the negotiations and discussions was unsatisfactory for all parties. A job description for the position of National Chair was drafted and circulated (where accurate contact details were held) to LPF chairs and all Directors of Social Work/Chief Social Work Officers. No appropriate applicants came forward prior to the first deadline for submissions. After a short extension to the application window, the situation did not change and the entire recruitment process was placed on hold. In the weeks which followed this unfortunate episode the Changing Lives team within the Scottish Government, not surprisingly, reviewed the level of support to be provided to LPFs. Shortly thereafter the agreed funding identified for the part-time National Chair post was revoked and funding for the annual National Practitioner Forum Conference was also halted. All told, it was a disappointing debacle.

Reflections

The failure to identify and to appoint a National Chair was unquestionably a setback. On reflection it might be argued that it was one of those occasions when in allowing “the best to become the enemy of the good”, an opportunity to make some positive changes was lost. It may have been the case that a frontline practitioner could have made a success of the post of part-time National Chair. That said, the proposed post also had something of a “poisoned chalice” feel to it, especially with Holyrood Elections on the horizon which were due to take place in May 2011 against a backdrop of service cuts and financial uncertainty. Alas, we shall never know whether it would have been a success, a failure or something in between and it is that sense of “what might have been” which is perhaps the greatest regret.

The here and now

In some respects the National Chair fiasco served as a motivating factor to those involved in the ELPF to re-double efforts locally. 2011 proved on balance to be a rewarding year with four well-attended forum meetings covering a diverse range of topics as well as a one-off seminar in relation to Positive Psychology and its application and relevance to social work delivered by Angus Skinner, Scotland’s former Chief Social Work Inspector. However 2012 is another year and we hope that each year we can improve on that which went before. In order to do that, the ELPF needs interested practitioners to continue to come along to meetings, to share their views and to participate actively in the work of the forum. Hopefully we can use this website to generate some discussion and debate about the issues that people want to explore at forum meetings, to identify the things that are working and to change some of the things that do not work so well. Ultimately we are all too aware that the ELPF is far from perfect and by no means the finished model. You might think it is pointless being involved in the forum because it is little more than a “talking shop”. You might think that it is irrelevant because it is not a trade union or a professional association. You might believe that it is just the same old faces saying the same old things from one meeting to the next. Such criticisms would not be without foundation but as I see it, there are more good reasons to be involved than not. For me, having the space every few months to get away from the latest crisis (or the computer screen), to meet with like-minded practitioners and to think about doing social work differently and doing social work better is more than mere diversion, it is restorative in its own small way. If you think that sounds up your street, get involved.

Links

http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/91931/0021949.pdf (Changing Lives – Reference to Local Practitioner Fora on pg. 78)

http://www.knowledge.scot.nhs.uk/changinglives/local-practitioner-forums.aspx

http://www.knowledge.scot.nhs.uk/media/CLT/ResourceUploads/9394/ADSWreport.pdf

http://www.socialworkscotland.org.uk/resources/meetingPapers/NSWSF6Feb2007LocalNationalPractitionersForums.pdf

http://www.socialworkscotland.org.uk/resources/minutes/NSWSFMinutes5December2006.pdf

http://www.socialworkscotland.org.uk/resources/pub/NPFReport.pdf

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Next ELPF meeting: Wednesday 23 August, 09:30-12:30, Venue to be confirmedAugust 23rd, 2017
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