Finding the power you need to thrive

Arguably the essence of good social work practice is to give power away
Arguably the essence of good social work practice is to give power away
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It’s not easily gained, but it makes a difference, says Lesslie Young

What if you were to think of sitting across the table from your bank manager, from your child’s teacher, or your doctor, or imagine you were standing in your house in a puddle of water on the phone to a plumber. Or you are talking with a police officer at your front door or leaning against your car, arms folded, while the person in front of you prints off a parking ticket. Hold any of these images for a moment and imagine the other person in the scenario saying: “You know, the problem is you’ve got too much power.”

I suspect you will rarely, if ever have imagined, much less heard, those words uttered by any one of the above people. I for one don’t have the kind of power that can fix plumbing, and I sit with the vast majority who can’t alter a parking ticket.

There are always people who can “fix it” for their criminal behaviour to go unpunished because of their power of celebrity, or authority, or friends and who are only undone by time and diminished influence, and not always then. But most of us, if we were in any of those situations above, would not feel powerful. Too much power? Just enough would be nice.

So what would it mean if someone had authority over you by appointment, yet thought you had more power than they did? What would that situation be where someone invested with power perceived you to be more powerful?

One situation I can imagine might be a corrupt planning official discovering that the person they were hinting ought to pay them a bung to approve their plans turned out to be a high-ranking police officer, for example. I am exaggerating to the point of fantasy here because it is beyond credibility that any such corruption might exist within any local authority planning department. But if it did, then what we are talking about is one power butting up against a different power of somehow greater magnitude, with the potential to be overwhelmed by it.

The power of investigative journalism would trump most others. However, I don’t think the first phrase uttered by our imaginary corrupt planner to our high-ranking police officer or worthy journalist would be: “Your problem is you have too much power.” But if not in this situation, then which situation?

Arguably the essence of good social work practice, and certainly a stated policy of the Scottish Government, is to give power away – a certain amount, in a controlled fashion, to those who can genuinely cope with it, and failing those conditions then passing power to their representative. Personalisation, self-directed support, individualised budgets, direct payments – these are all shades of power to the people.

At least some of the people with the power to benefit from self-directed support have done so. Whether it has worked well for most, whether it has been applied fairly, comprehensively and efficiently, would require baselines and controls and a level of analysis with more depth and breadth than some persuasive but selective case studies possess. Case studies, and counter-case studies, are easy to come by.

There are examples of good practice but bad practice, of an individual social worker or manager or a department, is there too. It’s far from easy for anyone to give power away, not least if having power is the norm.

And even with the power to challenge there remains the necessity to acquire the tools – the vocabulary; the whens and the hows – with which to exercise it, and without which its use is excluded. The power of omission is very strong.

It applies to elected members of all kinds, to public officials, local authority employees, NHS employees and yes, the voluntary sector as well, but I choose social work as the particular example.

If a social worker ever says to you, “Your problem is you’ve got too much power”, what I think they’re really saying is that you’ve acquired some of theirs. It doesn’t mean you’ve got too much power at all, but it might just mean, thankfully for you, that you’ve got just enough.

Lesslie Young is the chief executive of Epilepsy Scotland