Why you should give responsibility to frontline practitioners

In: BlogDate: Aug 05, 2021By: Billy Burgess

Isabelle Trowler has been working within children and family services for 25 years, and it hasn’t always been easy. She’s had to consistently rail against the imposed procedures and rules that inhibit children’s social care workers.

In this four minute clip from the 2017 Creating Happy Workplaces in the Public Sector Conference, Isabelle explains what happened when she started to delegate the decision-making as close to the frontline as possible.

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Why you should give responsibility to frontline practitioners

In children’s social care we are absolutely hamstrung by procedure and rules. Due to a number of high profile child deaths, the response has always been, 'Well, we will tell you what to do. If you can’t do it and children keep dying, then we are going to give you an instruction manual and you better follow it.’ Well, that just doesn’t work, but what we’ve built up over that time is this huge national guidance, regulations and legislation which tells us what to do on a day to day basis and is very hard to unpick and one of the things that we did was to delegate our decision-making as close to the front line, to the most junior members of staff that we could in the organisation. The best example of this, which was such a fantastic learning point for me, was about money. We had heard for years that we give social workers responsibility for some of our most at-risk children and yet we won’t let them spend £20. In some of our evaluations that we did in our organisation, it was highlighted that it took one social worker an hour and fifteen minutes to get a bus fare for £1.15 approved and that’s how it is in a lot of places today. We had to argue really hard with the authority to say ‘you’ve got to give us delegated decision-making on money’ and they thought we were insane, giving social workers spending authority, all hell will break loose! After arguing that it already had, we were already massively overspent and we’ve got these big bureaucratic structures to try and manage our money and no-one can actually decide anything, eventually they let us do it and we have a budget called Sector 17 budget which we can use to support families in the community and we spent less with that budget than we had ever done in that service because when you give the responsibility to frontline practitioners, they know the story better than anyone about what needs to be spent and why.

The rub of this is that when you delegate, those people take on more responsibility and this is why this sort of process takes time because people are fearful, with good reason, of responsibility and triggers a sense of blame if you’re not used to it. You have to take time to build people’s confidence and I think that there’s a really important relationship between building trust and building loyalty. Having these two things in the organisation are really important. If you’re a senior, whether you’re a team manager, a director or the chief exec, you have to model taking responsibility and you have to show people that when push comes to shove, you will have their backs.

Isabelle has experience working in local government, the civil service, the voluntary sector, and for her own organisation. In her current position as England’s chief social worker for Children and Families, she started delegating the decision-making as close to the frontline as possible, which included getting the organisation’s most junior members of staff involved.

“The best example of this, which was such a fantastic learning point for me, was about money,” says Isabelle. “We had heard for years that we give social workers responsibility for some of our most at-risk children and yet we won’t let them spend £20.

"In some of our evaluations that we did in our organisation, it was highlighted that it took one social worker an hour and fifteen minutes to get a bus fare for £1.15 approved and that’s how it is in a lot of places today."

She continues: “We had to argue really hard with the authority to say, ‘You’ve got to give us delegated decision-making on money,’ and they thought we were insane. Giving social workers spending authority? All hell will break loose!"

They were eventually given permission to do it, which led to the development of what's called the Sector 17 budget. And the outcome?

"We spent less with that budget than we had ever done in that service because when you give the responsibility to frontline practitioners, they know the story better than anyone about what needs to be spent and why.”

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About Isabelle Trowler

Isabelle took up her post as Chief Social Worker for Children and Families in September 2013. Since qualifying as a social worker in 1996, Isabelle has worked within the voluntary and statutory sectors both in education and social care settings, and in a variety of practice and leadership roles. She co-founded a new model of delivering child and family social work in the UK called ‘Reclaiming Social Work’ and more commonly referred to as the ‘Hackney model’.

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