Becoming agile in local authority children's safeguarding social work services: examining organisational and individual change in public sector work

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: School of Health Sciences


Since 2010, agile approaches have been implemented increasingly enthusiastically by local authorities and the NHS in the UK. 'Agile' means approaches that are designed to enable simpler, more flexible organisational systems and working practices, which respond more directly to the needs of people using services. Changes include moving services online and providing employees with laptop computers or smart phones so they can work more remotely and flexibly. Agile approaches are seen as helping services to be more adaptable and workers to be more resilient in the face of complex, shifting requirements. Another key driver is that they allow services to be delivered more cheaply in the context of continuing public sector austerity.

In children's safeguarding social work, agile approaches have led to new working practices such as hot-desking, home-based working and increased communication between colleagues via digital information systems. Hot-desking, in particular, has received significant attention in the social work press and some academic commentators have suggested agile approaches leave social workers more isolated. The few studies conducted so far have suggested differences between service leaders' expectations of agile approaches and social workers' practices on the ground. These studies found service leaders expected agile approaches to lead to financial savings, enhance social workers' communication, and offer greater flexibility for social workers to balance work and non-work commitments. Most social workers viewed them as offering greater flexibility about where and when they could carry out recording work, and how they could communicate with colleagues and service users. However, these ways of working also raised questions about how to keep users' personal information secure in public and non-work spaces, and changing forms of communication with colleagues and service users.

Further research is needed into agile working practices and their implications for services' effectiveness, and users' and social workers' experiences. This project aims to:

1 Document and analyse service leaders', social workers', supervisors' and service users' accounts of agile approaches, the practices and relationships they entail and their intended outcomes
2 Identify the knowledge and beliefs about children's safeguarding social work on which these accounts rely;
3 document and analyse the range of social workers', supervisors' and service users' practices, relationships and experiences when engaged in agile working, and identify the factors influencing them;
4 examine how these identified practices impact on social workers' and service users' communication and sense-making.

The project will involve research in three different local authorities, including observations of 100-130 instances of social work practice, and interviews with 40-60 participants about their views and experiences of agile approaches. The project will lead to detailed case studies of the three authorities and approximately 20 social workers' practice, and evidence about the implications of agile approaches in children's safeguarding social work and in public sector services more widely. It will produce the following resources:

1 for practitioners: practice guides considering communication, working relationships, supervision, data security and self-care when working in agile contexts; tools which enable practitioners to reflect on their experiences of agile working and identify its implications;
2 for practice leaders and policy makers: evidence about best practice in implementing agile approaches, case studies demonstrating the positive and negative implications of different approaches and practices, and how these can be effectively managed;
3 for social work educators: teaching resources to enable learning about agile approaches, working practices and their implications for service users and social workers.

Planned Impact

The findings will benefit the following research users in particular:
Leaders in local authority children's social care services, in particular Directors of Children's and Adults' Services and Principal Social Workers, who make key decisions about what kinds of agile approaches should be implemented.
Practitioners in children's safeguarding, social care services more broadly and public sector services generally, who are likely to work in the context of agile approaches.
National policy makers focused on social work and public sector services as a whole. These include the Chief Social Workers (Children and Families, Adults), Social Work England as the new professional body, and NHS Digital, which deals with digital engagement in health and social care, including social work.
Professional organisations such as BASW (British Association of Social Workers), which are concerned about the impacts of agile approaches on practitioners' wellbeing and ability to do their work.
Academic researchers interested in social work, the sociology of work, organisation studies, and science and technology studies.
Social work educators and students. Social work students are likely to encounter agile approaches once they qualify; they are also increasingly required to engage in agile practices during their study, which has implications for their learning and supervision.
Social work services, practitioners, policy makers and researchers internationally. Agile approaches and digital technologies are being applied in public sector social work in many different countries.
Service users are expected to benefit, through more reflexive engagements with agile approaches and practices in social work.

How will they benefit?
Currently, limited data exist about the implementation of agile approaches in the public sector, their effects on ground-level practices, practitioners' and service users' experiences, what approaches are more conducive to good practice or how practitioners can maintain resilience.

The project will provide granular data about agile approaches implemented in three different sites, and approximately 40 practitioners and service users in these contexts. Using this data, the project will develop knowledge about the range of approaches and practices, and their different implications for communication, working relationships, sense-making, service users' experiences, practitioners' experiences of their work and its impact on non-work lives. The project will produce practice guidance for practitioners and service leaders, and a broad range of data for local and national policy makers, which will enable better decision making about how to engage with agile approaches in social work and public sector work more generally. Leaders in local authority children's services, and public sector services more generally, will be able to draw on the project's insights to make more informed decisions about how to engage with agile approaches, and defend the wisdom of such decisions in the context of stretched resources. Professional organisations such as BASW will be able to offer practice guidance for practitioners and services. Individual practitioners will be able to use the resources provided to evaluate different agile approaches, consider how to practise in these contexts, and reflect on the impacts of agile approaches on their own practices and experiences. The project's findings will benefits policy makers in diverse ways, for instance by providing insight into the effects of agile approaches on social workers' engagement with informal supervision (a particular concern for Chief Social Workers) and social workers' engagement with digital technology and confidence about sharing information (a particular concern for NHS Digital). Social work educators will benefit from access to educational resources for use on qualifying and CPD programmes, about the potential impacts of agile approaches and how to negotiate these in practice.


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Description Normative practices
Remote working is now the norm in children's social work. Although they were unlikely to be entirely home-based, most practitioners who participated in this study continued regularly working from home after the end of formal social distancing measures, while their interactions with other practitioners and supervisors both at home and in offices were largely remote, occurring online or over the phone. Practitioners used a range of digital communication: synchronous and asynchronous, text-, audio- and video-based, using various devices and formal and less formal online platforms. In-person communication was valued by practitioners but viewed as a more time-intensive option, to be consciously selected when required.

Impacts of digital and remote working practices on communication and sensemaking
Digital technology has influenced practitioners' communication with young people and their families in complex ways. There is evidence of some social workers using digital media and online platforms in imaginative ways but some remote and/or asynchronous communication forms can marginalise families in discussions or leave them unable to make sense of information.
Digitally-enabled, remote working has led to a narrower range of communication forms between practitioners. Professionals-only meetings were almost always online and communication in such contexts can be complex, but their normative status means practitioners did not always appreciate this. Text-based communication was being used for interactions between practitioners and supervisors that once occurred through spoken conversation, narrowing what was communicated. Some less experienced practitioners were reluctant to initiate such communication.
Less experienced practitioners were unlikely to rely on networks of other practitioners for support and guidance, and their working relationships with supervisors were consequently more significant. Experienced social workers and supervisors often found it demanding to support students and newly-qualified practitioners who were working remotely.
Local authorities and individual practitioners were developing innovative strategies for coping with the challenges of remote, digitally-mediated practice. These included new arrangements for mentoring, support, professional development and supervision, and new ways of maintaining team relationships. Many of these were valued and appear beneficial, but they require practitioners to be both confident and reflexive about their practice.

Changes to working environments
During the time of the study, participating local authorities were significantly reducing office spaces and providing more open and informal, collaborative working spaces for social workers. However, such spaces are not conducive to the kinds of individual work and intimate conversations in which social workers must engage in offices. The shift to online working has also led to greater need for separate workspaces in offices, e.g. for participation in online meetings. These needs were often poorly understood by local authority services outside of social care.

Impacts of more remote, home-based working on practitioners' lives
We found evidence that home-based working led to long-term changes in practitioners' use of their homes, coincided with some practitioners working extremely long hours, often intruded on practitioners' family relationships, and negatively impacted some practitioners' mental health. Non-work life could also disrupt practitioners' work when at home. Nevertheless, the opportunity to work at home was valued by many practitioners.
Exploitation Route Local authorities providing social work services will be able to use the study's findings, in the form of forthcoming findings articles, and forthcoming practice guidance (hosted by British Association of Social Workers) to inform policies and practices relating to office spaces, home working, supervision, mentoring, professional development, and digital technologies used by practitioners.

Social work education providers will be able to use the study's findings and forthcoming educational resources (for a 1-day unit on qualifying programmes and a 1-day CPD training unit, hosted by University of Manchester) to prepare qualifying students, and newly qualified and more experienced practitioners to work more reflexively using agile approaches.

The Chief Social Workers for England and Social Work England have engaged with the research and can draw on the study's findings to develop policy and guidance on the above areas for social work practitioners and institutions.

The British Association for Social Workers (BASW) will host practice guidance written by the PI based on the study's findings, which will support local authorities and individual practitioners to work more reflexively using agile approaches. BASW will also be able to draw on the findings to inform its wider guidance on social workers' engagement with digital technology, safeguarding practice and self-care.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description So far, the project has had a demonstrable impact by: Engaging practitioners in discussing the initial findings of the study The PI and Research Assistant were invited to present a conference paper at the British Association of Social Workers conference on the impacts of digital engagement on social work practice. This event was attended by social work practitioners and researchers from across the UK and has enabled discussion between these groups about the study's findings. The PI and research assistant have explored the study's findings with service leaders from each of the three participating local authorities. This has enabled greater clarity within these agencies about the negative impacts of agile approaches as they are currently being implemented and ways these can be mitigated. For example, service leaders have been able to articulate social workers' need to maintain space for individual working in office spaces, within a wider climate where local authority office spaces are being rationalised. Presenting the study's findings and engaging in discussion about their significance The PI has discussed the project's findings with practitioners, and parents and young people using social care services, in the local authorities that participated in the study. The PI has discussed the research findings with social work practitioners and managers across Greater Manchester at a presentation and workshop on agile and hybrid working in children's social work. The PI has presented and discussed the research findings with members of the Principal Social Workers Network (adults) and the Chief Social Worker (Adults) The PI has presented and discussed the research findings with members of JUC SWEC learning and teaching subcommittee, from university social work education providers across the country. This process has enabled practitioners, people using services, social work education providers and policy makers to begin to find out about the project's findings, and for the PI to better understand the significance of the findings for wider practice, education and policy, and the information needs of these different stakeholders.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Knowledge exchange event with members of the JUC SWEC (Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee) Learning and Teaching sub-committee 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact 15 representatives from social work education programmes in universities in the UK attended, to find out about the project's findings and to share their views about the kinds of resources that could be developed to support social work qualifying and post-qualifying programmes in universities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Presentation of research findings and workshop exploring the impacts of agile and hybrid working in children's safeguarding social work 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation of research findings to 40 practitioners and managers in children's social work services across the 10 boroughs in Greater Manchester, followed by workshop exploring practitioners' and managers' experiences of agile and hybrid working in this area.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Presentation of research findings to the Principal Adult Social Workers Network 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation and discussion with approx 70 principal social workers for adult services and the chief social worker (adults) in local authorities across the country, regarding practitioners' experiences of digitally-enabled hybrid working in social work.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022