This article forms part of the LGA think piece series 'Towards a sustainable adult social care and support system'.
Ask any of the 19,000 or so social workers for adults why adult social care matters and you’ll likely get 19,000 or so different answers. That’s as it should be; social workers’ experiences are naturally as unique as the countless thousands of people they work with every day. But I’m confident that one response would be common to every social worker you spoke to, even if its articulation was slightly different:
adult social care matters because it improves people’s lives and, in turn, the communities in which we all live.
Social work is an essential part of the way in which that improvement is achieved. At its core are human relationships, because you can’t help improve someone’s life if you don’t take the time to understand what gives that life meaning. That’s what good social work does – it puts the person first and through conversation and observation helps build a picture of their strengths, gifts and aspirations. In this way, people are supported to live the life they want to live, not a life that adheres to a set menu of ‘services’ and ‘offers’.
It hasn’t always been this way. As a service with its roots in the Poor Laws, adult social care and support has a long evolutionary history and it has changed to meet new demands and expectations as every good public service does.
Where we are today is a place to be proud of. We have moved from a paternalistic system in which the state is the ultimate decision-maker to one which is far more personal and built around the needs and outcomes of the individual. At the same time, we have moved away from ‘repairing’ a situation at a point of crisis and instead focus much more of our attention on acting earlier to prevent or reduce needs. These two shifts have necessitated a much greater emphasis on the joining-up of the whole range of services that support wellbeing across local communities, eschewing isolated and inward looking services that created inevitable gaps into which people fell and were ‘lost to the system’. Happily, the philosophy today is therefore much more about ‘inclusivity’ and working with people and communities to develop shared solutions – the difference between ‘doing with’ and ‘doing to’.
Adult social care therefore matters because it’s fundamentally about the business of protecting people’s rights as individuals. As we look ahead to the green paper on care and support, this must be at the heart of the agenda. Yes, questions about how we, as a society, fund social care are important. As are considerations of the changes in emphasis, structure and culture we need to improve the system. However, the answers will mean very little if they are not rooted in this central ideal of supporting people with care and support needs to live with as much opportunity, independence and control as people without such needs.
But perhaps even that will not be enough to help deliver a care and support system that is fully fit for the next few decades. Therefore, in addition to the right driving force behind reform, I would argue we also need much greater public recognition of the inherent value of social care and support and, within that, social work.
The NHS has its ‘national treasure’ status and doctors, nurses and other members of the health workforce are rightly held in high public regard. But why is there no similar status for social care and its workforce?
The care and support green paper must be used as an opportunity to help raise the profile of this vital service so that in the years to come, everyone could offer a response to ‘why adult social care matters’.