The best social work has always been innovative, trialling new ways of working in advance of policy and legislation catching up. Understanding the damage done to children through neglect and abuse and also their powers of recovery in a therapeutic family or care environment, were innovative in their day. This understanding challenged a ruinous orthodoxy and a conspiracy of silence about how poor the care was for too many vulnerable children at home and often in care. Social work theory and practice also helped to lift the lid on what was happening to vulnerable adults subject to forms of domestic abuse at home or institutional abuse in ‘care’.
In today and tomorrow’s world, where the pace of life and the pace of change is ever faster, innovation needs to be continuous to keep up, identifying and responding to contemporary need. Seeking to encourage innovation in children’s social care is a proposed new ‘power to innovate’ clause under the Children and Social Work Bill. If passed, it would allow councils to request exemptions from legislation and statutory guidance with the intention that they can trial innovative practice models to improve services for children. The proposed power to innovate will help to strip back bureaucracy to a safe minimum level, so that the professional time of social workers and social care staff is spent on delivering services and programmes that make a positive difference to children and families in England today.
The power to innovate is a crucial requirement if the mainstream social work and social care services of the future are to successfully manage demand, improve quality and provide value for money under ever greater public and political scrutiny. Much of social work in England is world class, and the social work that isn’t, and that must improve, will be helped by an expectation to innovate. Workforces who are engaged by their leaders in constructing solution-focused innovations, can also move mountains and this can stop internal spirals of decline within hard-pressed organisations.
Pressures are real and increasing. Innovation is harder in tough times, especially when the job of social work is as over-prescribed as it is now, which makes taking a different approach seem far too risky. The proposed power to innovate clause is not a magic solution and will need safeguards, but it will undoubtedly help to change practice and cultures over time for the better – as innovation always has.