Challenges and opportunities of project management in social work and social care – An interview with Gary Spolander and Linda Martin

Gary Spolander is Principal Lecturer in Social and Health Care Management, and Linda Martin is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social and Community Studies, both at the University of Coventry, UK. They are co-authors of the new book, Successful Project Management in Social Work and Social Care.

In this interview, Gary and Linda discuss the core skills needed to successfully manage a wide range of projects within social work and social care.


How did you both come to work in social work and social care management?

LM: I’ve been in social work all my adult life, going into qualifying training straight from school and working since then. For the first decade I worked in the statutory sector, being involved mostly in children and families work as a social worker, then a training officer, and I dipped a toe into management at that stage. It was in my second decade when I moved to the voluntary sector that I gained most of my management experience before moving in my third decade to university life to teach management amongst other things. My immediate reaction to management in my first encounter with it was that it was antithetical to social work and it is the contradictions between the two that continue to present the greatest challenges.

GS: Since completing my social work degree, I have worked in a variety of settings in social work, health care and in the commercial sector. I started in the UK working for a well-known multinational company before returning to frontline social work. My social work experience included working in a variety of settings, including that of children and families, mental health and out-of-hour’s emergency teams. Following this I moved into community mental health team management, before taking up positions in local authority information management, the National Health Service and the Welsh Assembly.

Change has been a constant feature of my career and, whilst I have often wished that this was not the case, there have been positive features in enabling me to broaden my experience and use my skills in a variety of work settings.

Why is project management important for managers in social work or social care?

LM: Social work is complex so having clear methods and approaches to help manage the complexities is important. Change is constant and project management is particularly effective for helping social work and social care managers respond to evolving needs and requirements.

GS: The role of leaders and managers in health and social care is often isolated, compounded for project managers in the sector by stress, complexity, resource constraints and multiple demands. Feeling that you are not alone and having tools to support you can be helpful in managing this complexity.

What kind of projects do you write about in the book? How is managing projects in a social care context distinct from managing projects in other areas of business?

LM: There are three very different case studies in the book which are adapted from work of the three project managers. One looks at setting up workshops with a social work organisation; one considers changing the way services for young people seeking asylum are provided when faced with budget cuts; the third reports back on work carried out to develop a policy and protocol for safeguarding vulnerable adults in residential settings. There are also contributions from three services users who have been involved in project work including their thoughts on what worked and what didn’t.

What makes project management distinct in the field of social work and social care is the relationship with service users. They are central to the planning of social work services, and as a very diverse group with sometimes only a very quiet voice, project management techniques and approaches need to be adapted to ensure that voice is heard.

GS: Project management is distinct in social work and social care as often projects are being coordinated with limited resources, complex deliverables, sector values and sometimes changing requirements. Meeting service users’ and stakeholders’ requirements within limited resources and demanding timescales is difficult, but the use of tools and techniques can help project managers and provide confidence in being honest, critical and challenging when involved in projects.

What are the most common difficulties that social work and social care managers cite when trying to keep project on track?

LM: The difficulties faced by social work and social care managers in trying to keep a project on track are variable. There are tensions between everyday operational styles of management and project management which have to be worked through; because change is so constant, managers may be involved in a number of projects simultaneously, and at times of uncertainty within the public sector staff move on before projects are completed. I think the greatest challenge though has to be the one of resource management. The reality for social work and social care organisations today is that they are expected to produce more for less, so balancing quality and budget requirements requires good skills, resourcefulness and integrity.

GS: Trying to meet multiple stakeholders’ requirements, ensure effective communication, deal with different work cultures and manage expectations within limited resources are key challenges for project managers. Due to resource constraints, the lack of sufficient operational capacity in the sector and ever-changing sector requirements, project managers need to be resilient, confident in their approach and in the tools used, as well as be self-assured in dealing with stakeholders. Key challenges include (not in any order): unrealistic deadlines; changing project requirements which are insufficiently scoped; communication and resource constraints; insufficient team skills; maintaining stakeholder involvement and unclear vision and project goals.

Who was your most inspiring manager, and how did they inspire you?

LM: I’ve been fortunate in having had a number of good managers as role models. One of my first managers was a strong, charismatic woman who protected and cared for her team enormously and was a constant reminder of the importance of humanity in social work. More recently I worked for a manager who I admired hugely for her ability to manage delicate, painful and sometimes traumatic situations well. Her clarity, transparency and honesty meant that people could trust her to be doing the best she could.

GS: I have had a range of managers who, probably like most people, have ranged from “The Good, the Bad and The Ugly”. My best managers have provided me with the opportunity to grow, challenge, develop my skills, and provided support, compassion and humanity. They will no doubt know who they are, but would probably be too modest to highlight their own skills, honesty and commitment.

What do you hope the reader will take away from your book?

LM: I hope that by reading the book people will realise that they already use project management more than they might think in their everyday work, and that by choosing it as an approach we can add to the quality of work we produce. I also hope it will help them to put social work into project management.

GS: I hope that by reading this book, project managers might not feel that they are alone and feel empowered to use and develop their skills, tools and experience to ensure better outcomes for service users and stakeholders. I would also hope that the book recognises the challenges and the opportunities of project work, and empowers managers to be the “best that they could be”.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

One thought

  1. Your comments are much appreciated. They were insightful, honest and relevant to me in considering a move into further study of project management concepts, as I seek to advance my social work career.

    Thank you for sharing this book with prospective readers.

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