Andrew Cozens, strategic adviser for health, adults and children's services at the Improvement & Development Agency, is well qualified to discuss the issues facing social services. After becoming a social worker in 1981 he spent over 20 years on the 'coal face' and, as his career progressed, found himself dealing with the aftermath of two of the most high-profile child abuse cases in the UK.
In 1996 he was appointed as director of Gloucestershire CC social services, joining just before the publication of the inquiry into the Fred West murders. While social services were generally praised for their work, the report highlighted important lessons, says Mr Cozens. "We discovered in Gloucestershire how collaboratively public services worked together. The leadership shown there strengthened and deepened these relationships," he explains.
Unfortunately these lessons weren't learnt universally, as the death of Victoria Climbié showed five years later. Mr Cozens, this time as president of the Association of Directors of Social Work in 2004-05, was closely involved in shaping and implementing the Children Act (2004) that was the result of the damning inquiry intoVictoria's death.
"There were a number of high-profile child deaths after the West case. One of the key questions to come out of that was 'How could a child disappear and no one pick up on it?' The development of the national database for children has been very positive in addressing that, so that now when children move from one area to another information is passed on."
Despite this, and the development of the lead professional for vulnerable children, Mr Cozens says there is still a question mark over how to identify children at risk earlier.
"We've created a new infrastructure with children's centres and extended schools, but if children are not in contact with these services, how do we reach out to them? The jury is still out on whether we've constructed a system that we can work with families that don't want to engage with the system voluntarily," he says.
Mr Cozens is helping to drive improvements in adult and children's services by launching two major pieces of work by the IDeA at the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services conference inBournemouth. Mr Cozens, who joined the agency in January 2006, explains that the two reports a checklist of functions for adult social services lead councillors and a look at the different approaches taken to organising adult social care within councils represent a shift for the IDeA by showing "how we can make a difference rather than statistical stuff".
Mr Cozens wants the first report to stimulate debate about what best practice for a social services lead councillor should be. "This has been produced at the request of lead councillors and is meant to be a non-political discussion about how difficult that job is. It's a checklist, and a look at what the job is and how well it should be done," he says.
Mr Cozens describes the challenge for lead councillors as "they don't know what they don't know", adding: "there's no equivalent to the Children Act's checklist of what they need to do. There's nothing that says 'this is how you start to get to grips with this role, this is how much time you should spend on visiting services, or this is how you make sense of the performance expectations'."
A Commission for Social Care inspection report earlier this year found a third of councils had raised their eligibility criteria for support to 'critical' for adult social care and Mr Cozens says more have done so since. This is due to the tough funding climate at present, he believes.
"Children's services receive 70% of all social care funding adult services is the budget under pressure. It is particularly difficult for the lead councillor to get the appropriate balance between being an advocate for adult social care and making difficult decisions about resources as a collective member of the cabinet," he adds.
This month's annual ADASS conference is the first since the break-up of social services departments and the subsequent reorganisation of councils.
This has seen children's social care paired with education functions, and adult services merged in with housing and communities departments, and in some cases primary care trusts. Many feel this major structural change just 10 councils have kept adults and children's services together has inevitably made it harder for councillors to have a clear idea of what is expected of council services.
With this in mind, the IDeA has produced what Mr Cozens describes as a "helicopter tour" of the different approaches councils and PCTs are taking to the organisation of adult social care. The report, A new landscape for health and social care, looks at how these new models are working and explores the governance issues.
These structures and the partnerships they have created have prompted what Mr Cozens believes is a growing debate over the role of social care. "We're trying to move social care away from being a service just for those in most need to one that takes a broader interest in engaging an ageing society and responding to long-term conditions.
"Inspections show children's and adult services are getting better, but fewer adults are getting services because of the resources issue. There's been political recognition of social workers' ability to contribute to people's lives, but what is exactly their role?
I think that debate will broaden as the General Social Care Council widens its membership to other professionals."
He says this can also be seen in some of the new responsibilities recently given to councils, such as ensuring there are sufficient child care places for the government's commitment for universal free child care to be delivered.
"There's a shift from [social services] providing welfare support to ensuring there is enough supply for people making private transactions."
Personalised budgets and direct payments are part of this agenda. This provides both a challenge and opportunity, says Cozens. "There's been a subtle shift from rationing and means testing to helping people to exercise an entitlement. This new broker role is a big challenge for social workers."
Speaking before the comprehensive spending review announcement, Mr Cozens predicted some "interesting shifts in funding" that will impact on social care. A deal between the Department for Work & Pensions and the Treasury will see new indicators set to measure people's health, safety and independence. These could be incorporated into local area agreements by local strategic partnerships, he says.
Another deal between the Treasury and the Cabinet Office will see renewed efforts to tackle social exclusion by measuring access to education, training and employment and being in stable accommodation.
Despite the uncertainties about how these new measures could impact on future funding streams, Mr Cozens believes social care is generally in good health. And he says willingness to embrace the improvement agenda by both officers and councillors has been key to that. He also thinks this is reflected in the atmosphere and content of the annual conference.
"It used to have an end-of-term feel: a gathering of the family for a reunion and to reflect," he explains.
"But it has become more businesslike in recent years as we have seen politicians coming to benchmark their services against best practice and taking these lessons back to their departments. There's more of a sense of people wanting to fix some of their problems."