The Social Work Awards, G4S, Capita and the neoliberalisation of social work

This is an abridged, updated version of a much longer piece in which I set out a number of concerns I have about the Social Work Awards. In this (mercifully shorter) piece, I focus on a particularly troubling aspect of the Awards: sponsorship by corporations whose activities run directly counter to the rights and interests of those we hope and aim to support.

The Social Worker of the Year Awards began in 2006 and for a number of years were a fairly humble though well-regarded celebration of social work. Since 2011, however, the Awards have been a far more ostentatious affair involving an “exclusive” gala ceremony proudly bedecked in copious lashings of glitz and glamour. The current iteration of the Awards is due to the endeavours of Genesis PR, appointed in 2011 by the Awards’ chief sponsors, Sanctuary Social Care, one of the largest social work recruitment businesses in the UK, with a brief to achieve charitable status for the Awards and advance the Awards’ overarching mission to raise the positive profile of social work. The main thrust of Genesis PR’s strategy was to reinvent the Awards as sponsorship-based corporate junket. This is not unusual in the context of industry awards. PR companies like Genesis PR understand perfectly how industry awards work because industry awards are all about the things that preoccupy PR people: networking and brand promotion. Many PR firms’ core business is to set up and run industry awards systems or to help organisations win awards. PR companies themselves win awards for doing these things. Awards upon awards. It’s awards all the way down.

In 2012, Genesis PR won a Chartered Institute for Public Relations (CIPR) Gold Award for it’s successful reinvention of the Social Work Awards in 2011. The case study is available on the CIPR website. It’s commendable that, under Genesis PR’s stewardship, the Awards have achieved charitable status. Commendable also that the first objective highlighted in the case study is to ‘[u]se the awards to build the reputation of social work’. Less commendable was Genesis PR’s securing G4S as sponsors of the 2011 Awards, a company mired — then, as it is now — in controversy concerning its practices and activities. The Social Work Action Network (SWAN) subsequently campaigned — successfully — for the Awards to drop G4S as sponsors in 2012, highlighting concerns about the company’s facilities in the occupied territories which detained Palestinian children and also its running (along with Barnardo’s, another regular and current sponsor of the Awards) of The Cedars, a ‘pre-departure’ detention centre in the UK in which immigrant children and families were detained prior to deportation. After the 2011 Awards, G4S went on to win contracts to provide secure facilities for children and young people, including Medway Secure Training Centre in Kent, where staff abuse of ‘trainees’ (resident children and young people) was uncovered by BBC Panorama in 2016. The case study of Genesis PR’s award-winning reboot of the Social Work Awards contains this from Paul Cook, Managing Director, G4S Children’s Services:

“G4S Children’s Services were pleased to sponsor the SWA in 2011 and ensure that staff are properly recognised for the job they do. The event was beneficial in raising our profile as a provider of quality services for looked after children and young people and we have been able to follow up with attendees to support the work we undertake”.

This testimonial raises a disturbing question: is there a direct link between the 2011 Social Work Awards and G4S’s subsequent excursions into outsourced children’s care provision? Whatever the case, the document clearly shows that the Social Work Awards are far from being just about generating positive narratives of social work. The Awards are, at least for sponsors, about business. Specifically, the fast-growing sector of profiteering from what used to be non-profit public services. I plan to write further in future about the privatisation of social work and social care, of the overt and stealthy kinds, but suffice to say for now I strongly believe social work’s willing association with ethically-dubious business players like G4S is damaging to the profession, not least because it seriously compromises social work’s ability to function in accordance with its core missions, principles and values, key among them social justice and equality. Purely on the basis of what G4S and its record in public services represent, it’s both astonishing and dismaying that the firm were even considered suitable to sponsor the Social Work Awards in the first place. This leads me to question the wisdom of handing over control of the Social Work Awards to a for-profit PR firm with a brief that seems not to have required it to consider the ethical dimensions of its decision-making. Dismaying also to think that the G4S’s sponsorship of the 2011 Social Work Awards facilitated contact with influential players in social work and social care which it was, by its own account, later able to follow up on.

Unfortunately, such things are not behind us. This year, the Social Work Awards have delivered something quite astonishingly ill-judged. The ‘Championing Social Work Values’ category at the Social Work Awards 2018 is sponsored by outsourcing giant Capita, by virtue of their partnership with Essex County Council.

Leaving aside the worrying phenomenon of an LA partnering with a private outsourcing firm in this way (another topic I hope to cover in future) or indeed questions about LA sponsorship of the Awards (does it involve public money? If not, what? Nomination quotas maybe? As all attendees have to purchase tickets, including finalists, the more nominations the better, in terms of revenue. . . and where does the money go anyway?), I’ll briefly explain who Capita are and what they’re about so we’re clear on why their sponsorship of the Awards is such a spectacularly bad idea that runs completely counter to the Awards’ stated aim of enhancing the reputation of social work.

Capita are an outsourcing firm with its private money fingers in so many public money pies it’s nigh impossible to unpick the number and extent of the central and local government contracts it currently holds. Capita’s profits have been in decline of late but as it scrambles to assert itself in the wake of the collapse of Carillion, it’s still the sort of firm that gets handed government contracts even when it’s a blatant liability. This is why networking is so important. Pressing the flesh. Not what you know, but who, and all that jazz.

Examples of Capita’s business practices that really hammer home the firm’s complete and utter unsuitability to be anywhere near a celebration of social work include its delivery of brutally discriminatory ‘work capability assessments’ for Personal Independence Payment applicants and its key role in the Windrush scandal in which it was offered bonuses by the Home Office for exceeding its deportation quota. Together, these contracts have earned Capita hundreds, if not thousands, of millions of pounds of public money. This at a time when the key challenges for social work are exacerbated if not directly caused by government-imposed austerity.

Capita also have designs on the potentially lucrative and relatively new market of predictive risk analytics in children’s social services. Again, this is something I hope to write more on in future. Suffice to say, it’s not hard to see why a company like Capita would be keen to be connected to the other parties involved in the Social Work Awards, not least among them the several local authorities sponsoring the Awards. Make no mistake, Capita represent the vanguard of big money interests intent on the privatisation of social care, by stealth if necessary. The firm has already made significant in-roads into the NHS. But that’s another blog.

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) is also a key sponsor of the Awards. As a member, BASW’s association with the Social Work Awards while the likes of Capita are involved pains me a great deal. I believe it reflects badly on the profession and I call on BASW to apply pressure to the Social Work Awards board of trustees to reject Capita’s sponsorship of the Awards immediately. To give a key contributor to the hostile environments for disabled citizens and those caught up in the Windrush scandal a platform at the Social Work Awards, knowing that the main benefit for outsourcing firms in being part of such events is the opportunity to connect and potentially do business with public bodies, is frankly beyond the pale. Capita sponsoring, of all things, the Championing Social Work Values category at the Social Work Awards poignantly illustrates the invidious position of social work in a world in which the tendrils of big business extend, increasingly and with stealth, into the public sector. In such a world, social workers increasingly find themselves caught between the spheres of public-professional-moral accountability and deregulated private money interests. Individual and collective capacities to advocate with authority for a fairer, more just and equal society are undermined. We need to ask: what’s the real deal with the Social Work Awards? At what cost comes this high profile platform for positive narratives of social work? The relevance of these uncomfortable questions and the difficult conversations that should follow is not limited to these Awards. There is a wider, important and far-reaching conversation to be had, one that concerns the very nature, identity and role of social work in late capitalist society. Capita’s sponsorship of the Social Work Awards is a symptom of a pressing and urgent problem facing social work and social workers at every level, the thing that speaks not its own name: neoliberalism.

Concerned citizen/novice by experience. Thru a social work lens. Working class person.