Years at the top of local authority social work has earned Penny Thompson the reputation of a troubleshooter. She was drafted into NHS Haringey post-Baby P, helped to bring Sheffield Council out of special measures and, most recently, set about transforming the General Social Care Council. Kirsty McGregor meets the GSCC chief executive.
Although it was recently announced that the General Social Care Council (GSCC) will be scrapped and its regulatory functions transferred to the Health Professions Council, effectively pulling the rug out from under the feet of new chief executive Penny Thompson, she has vowed to continue improving the regulator’s performance and public image.
Penny Thompson, chief executive, GSCC
The key to improving any social work organisation, Thompson says in her first interview since taking over as chief executive of the GSCC in March, is to set the conditions for success.
“As a senior leader you need to develop a high-performing and honest culture,” she says. “And you have to appoint good managers who will carry forward your way of working.”
In social work in particular, she adds, high-quality supervision and management are crucial, as is listening to staff.
“One of the things I’ve learnt in all the organisations I’ve led, from being a middle manager right up to chief executive, is how important it is to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve and how important it is to engage with staff,” says Thompson.
The GSCC employs about 230 staff in London and Rugby, and trade union Unite has expressed concern about their uncertain futures. But Thompson says the message she has given them is to “keep calm and carry on”.
“The performance of an organisation is down to the people within it,” she says. “I’ve sought to engage with all GSCC staff and have them understand why we’re here and what we’re trying to do.”
However, it is not just engagement within the organisation that matters. Thompson has used her experience at the top of local government to build up relationships with other agencies. “Social work is seldom, if ever, delivered in isolation,” she says, adding that much of her career has focused on introducing better collaboration between organisations and within them.
This in turn benefits the GSCC, which needs employers to be aware of their responsibilities towards staff and to understand the role of the regulator. “[Employers] need to make sure their staff are registered with us and do their post-registration training and learning,” says Thompson. “And they have the responsibility to directly engage with us; to inform us if there are serious issues in relation to their staff that might raise questions about whether the code of practice has been breached and whether the public could be at risk.”
The coalition Government announced in July that it was scrapping the GSCC as part of a review of arm’s-length bodies overseen by the Department of Health. From 2012, regulation of social workers will be carried out by the HPC, which oversees 15 health-related professions including occupational therapists and paramedics.
Asked if she would have taken the job had she known this would happen, Thompson, ever one for a challenge, replies: “It isn’t the mission I thought I’d taken up, but it’s the mission I’ve got and I’ll give it my absolute best shot.”
Personnel Today interviewed Penny Thompson in conjunction with Community Care.