Alex Aiken: Social services in need of facelift

Children's services moved back on to the front line of local government's reputation battle last week.

A sector hit by the impact of recession now faces a renewed challenge to build confidence in children's services.

The report offers the chance to tell a compelling story about the extraordinary dedication of thousands of social workers who help rebuild young lives. Every night across the country social services help keep many thousands of children safe from harm.

The Laming review offers 58 new recommendations to improve the care of vulnerable children but the delivery of improved services will have to be matched by a change in the public perception of social work.

A recent LGA report showed that social workers are now better trained and better paid, yet morale is low. Part of this is due to the poor public image created by the tragic deaths of children, and the shocking handling of the consequences, notably by Haringey.

Government has been too defensive in its promotion of social work. Yet even when faced by tragic cases, sensitive PR can help retain public trust. Kirklees and Newham councils have dealt honestly with difficult cases.

A new approach to social work PR would bring real case studies to light and allow children who benefit from care to speak as advocates for the profession. It would remind people that this work involves dealing with some of the most dysfunctional families, and there occasionally will be failures amid numerous successes. And it would have to work on a daily basis to build public understanding.

Council press officers must reassure their social workers of the benefits of media relations if they are to counter the information gap that exists over their role as well as explaining the pressures and challenges they face to the media and the wider public.

Children's Secretary Ed Balls says the Laming report will lead to care characterised by 'no barriers, no bureaucracy and no buck-passing'. This would also be a good strategy for a fresh approach to social work PR.

- Alex Aiken is director of comms at Westminster City Council.

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