Having trained as a children and families social worker, I quickly learned that the key principal of social work is to work towards ‘doing yourself out of a job’. To achieve significant and long-lasting improvement for a struggling family, the social worker must empower them to bring about change themselves. In other words, the aim is not just to reduce or remove the perceived risk to the child, but to equip the family to maintain this new equilibrium, even once the social worker withdraws their support. I also learned that interventions that were too long, heavily bureaucratic or excessively prescriptive actively disempower families. They reduce the families’ ability and confidence to handle future crises and leave them even more dependent on public services. This isn’t what social work is about for me.
In my current role as a project manager, working on how local authorities support residents during the coronavirus pandemic, I often reflect on how the principles of good social work can be applied to the wider community. If councils also saw their role as ‘doing themselves out of a job’, we might be able to build communities with more autonomy and more ownership; communities that feel more empowered.
When social distancing began, it was not primarily public services who acted as first responders, but next-door neighbours. Long before the NHS or local authorities set up central banks of volunteers, people were already calling up next door to see if they are okay, collecting a prescription for that elderly neighbour across the street, or getting in touch with a self-isolating friend to ask if they want to share a supermarket delivery slot. The hidden stars of the coronavirus crisis have been the hundreds of thousands of ordinary neighbours looking out for one another up and down the UK.
We need to recognise the immense value and potential of these community champions to drive social change. Instead of trying to provide services that compete with them, should we not provide infrastructure and financial support to help them thrive? For example, throughout the pandemic our borough has been providing grants and over the phone support to local community projects, and using community group feedback to develop and shape the future of council services.
My greatest fear is that, after the coronavirus pandemic is over, we will simply return to the status quo. That councils will strive to deliver services that build community, forgetting that it already has a community capable of building itself with guidance and support here and there. This could undo all the great work and momentum that has built over recent months.
My hope is that the community support networks that have blossomed across the country continue to be nurtured, and councils draw on their combined knowledge to develop future services. Any group that is currently helping neighbours, delivering food, calling lonely people, and so on, should be encouraged, supported and, where appropriate, part-funded to continue post-pandemic. Some could even be incorporated as part of official council services. The goal being the integration of local authority and the local community; people, neighbours, charities, faith groups, local businesses and the council all striving towards a better future together.
Prior to coronavirus this may have been shrugged off as ‘logistically impossible’, and yet surely the mobilisation of a nation has proven otherwise? The future is bright with opportunity, and I hope that we’re brave enough to take it.
Dave is a transformation project manager for the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead and a Frontline fellow.
Hear more about community cohesion and the power of communities in driving social change over on the Stories of Change podcast.