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Supervision - An essential ingredient in sustaining effective practice

Ian Milligan's picture

blog by Ian Milligan, International Advisor, CELCIS, University of Strathclyde, Scotland

In social services, the type of supervision we have is quite distinctive – it is meant to be personal, supportive, developmental - things that are not usually associated with supervision as a traditional middle management-type role.

In recent years there have been numerous pieces of research and policy documents aimed at improving supervision –  carried out in countries where social work is well established. The fact that there is much research into supervision in countries where it is well-established, tells you that it is a difficult thing to get right and sustain. That is certainly true in my experience in Scotland and across the UK.

The Alliance Interest Group on Supervision in the Social Service Workforce 

So I have been very happy to be part of the Alliance’s global consultation process on the subject. I was one of the co-chairs of the interest group, working along with Jane Calder, Senior Child Protection Advisor, Asia and Pacific, and Sayed Adrian Mawismi, Assistant Development Officer, Department of Social Welfare in Malaysia. The consultation took place online, and over 60 people took part in a number of discussion and planning calls, exploring the main issues before we split into three working groups.  

Naturally, we had lots of viewpoints, even just about how we should describe what we all talking about! We began by agreeing to a definition and some basic meanings about the various ‘models’ of supervision. We realised that we had to be clear about what we meant in what we hope will be a widely used and translated toolkit. While this toolkit isn’t meant to be exhaustive or the final say on supervision, it is intended to bridge best practices and knowledge on supervision and to provide a toolkit of resources to support the development of supervision.Some of our starting points: there are many countries where supportive supervision is little understood and rarely practiced. There are other countries where social work is a relatively new profession and few people with the experience or capacity to undertake supervision. In some places the State has begun to recruit social workers but often not established systematic systems of supervision. We hope our guidance provides advocacy and resources to address this gap. We also wanted to see if we could find or develop any guidance to deal with the COVID-19 situation and the need for online supervision. We also wanted our guidance to address whole workforce, while recognising much of the literature and practice has been developed within the social work profession. We wanted to look at existing resources and we drew from recent resources published in Namibia, Myanmar and Cambodia to name but three. We also recognised the value in recent work of the Inter-Agency group who produced the Supervision and Coaching package developed for those working in emergency situations but with great relevance to those in development contexts also.

Cover of the Guidance Manual

Group supervision and peer supervision was a topic which came up more than I expected in the interest discussions. My sub-group felt that peer group supervision might be especially useful in countries where social work is an emerging profession, and where there are few experienced managers who can offer reflective supervision.

Bottom up as well as top down

Making supervision happen across an organisation is both a top-down and a bottom-up matter. The Alliance guidance is focused on government and agencies who are responsible for implementing supervision across departments. Yet I believe that all of us who work in social services have a duty to seek the support of a colleague or colleagues and to be honest about how we are getting on in our work, to find those people who understand the role, who will support us and help us improve.

So I’ll be pleased if what we've developed - Guidance Manual on Strengthening Supervision for the Social Service Workforce - can get more people talking about supervision and doing it. Whatever setting we work in, wherever in the world, social service work is personal, it involves working with oppressed groups and people in trouble and often in distress. It is vital we don’t become hardened to trauma, exclusion and injustice. And we must be accountable – are we doing the work we say we are doing – and how are we doing it? We don’t just want to ‘help’ though, we want to empower – it’s pretty demanding to get all that right! Sitting down with a senior colleague or a peer, or in a group – where the agenda is our practice - can be uncomfortable at times. But if we are open-minded and realise we need this space to do the job better, then sitting down with an experienced and supportive person is a good place to be.

Let’s get it in the diary!