Social worker spend management
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Social worker spend management

15 December 2020 By Jon Milton - Director at Comensura

social worker at door of client

Demand for temporary social workers remains high within local government and keeping spend on contract can be a real challenge for both authorities and managed service providers.

There is no magic bullet solution to make the problem of off contract spend go away completely, but there is a lot that can be achieved through councils, managed service providers and agencies working proactively together, embracing adaptive thinking.

Why does off-contract purchasing happen?

As with all categories of staffing, local authorities generally impose a range of governance measures to ensure that their spend on social workers is controlled, but if these controls are too restrictive, the end user may invariably become frustrated and try and find a way of working outside of the system.

Within our contracts with customers, the starting point for any fulfilment issue is to ask our agency’s what the problem is. This helps us to unpack the problem and start to identify a solution.

We then use our understanding of the recruitment market to discuss a way forward with the customer. The ability to implement the solution is then dependent on the customers willingness to adapt. If they are unable or unwilling to do so, they risk expenditure being made off-contract.

To support this, we have uniquely incorporated several flexible options into our YPO framework offer to address these challenges, including flexible procurement options, flexible agency engagement mechanisms and the use of innovative attraction tools. We’ve highlighted some areas where fulfilment challenges can arise through inflexibility, and provided suggestions for ways of addressing these below:


Consider your offer as a customer; how attractive are you to work for? It’s important that agencies are either able to articulate the benefits that your authority offers or counteract any negative perceptions in the market to their candidates when briefing them on a role. Outside of pay rate, the following factors all contribute to a workers’ decision to accept an assignment:

  • The authority’s reputation
  • Flexibility
  • Location
  • Workload
  • Role

If your authority has a great reputation, offers flexible working options, is based in a location that’s easy to get to by rail and road, has realistic expectations of workload and offers interesting roles and you still struggle to attract workers or find managers buying off contract, take a look at the way that you present these features to agencies and their workers.

Temporary roles are often presented by way of generic job specification and rate alone, and if your supply chain is kept at an arms-length its unlikely that these areas of competitive advantage will be utilised as part of the attraction process. Conversely, an agency will always ask a manager these questions when directly taking in a brief off contract, so they can sell the opportunity to the worker.  

If your authority has any negatives associated with these factors, such as a reputation for high caseloads and a poor image as an employer, rigid working practices, and/or being based in a challenging location, workers will be deterred from working for you. An off-contract conversation between agency and manager will therefore try and find ways of countering these negatives with a likely result being pay rate escalation.

Whatever way you look at it, it’s important to maximise the benefits of working for your authority and counter any of the negatives. To address this, we chair regular forums between hiring managers and agencies with a number of our customers to improve these lines of communication, establish benefits and address negatives, and on a role by role basis talk to both parties at the point of order to ensure the ready flow of suitable candidates.

In order to counter reputational issues for one of our customers, we’ve been looking at creating innovative video content, to demonstrate how they’ve moved on as an authority, with the video directly shared with agencies to help them sell opportunities to their candidates.


Each authority offers a different proposition to a candidate, yet the Regional Memorandums of Co-operation assumes they all compete on a level playing field. If your overall offer is less attractive to a candidate compared to another authority you may therefore struggle to attract and there may be pressure to escalate pay to attract the worker. If you are unwilling to consider this option, managers may choose to engage directly with an agency off contract and up the rate of pay anyway.

There is no simple answer to this; no authority wants to see pay rates escalate across the market, but the rules of supply and demand mean that where demand outstrips supply, upward pressure is placed on price. With some authorities, we have no issues attracting workers, as the councils tolerate rate increases above MOC where required and as an exception.

Elsewhere we have customers whose pay rates are below not only market rates but also the MOC, who are much harder to recruit for. As we have discussed above, highlighting the overall offer can make a difference, but it’s important to have reasonable conversations with your managed service provider on a case by case basis on pay to prevent activity happening off-contract.

One option that you may want to consider is engaging social workers via a statement of work (SOW). This approach has the potential of creating better value for money from the work package as payments can be linked to outcomes, and costs closely aligned to budget rather than carried as an ongoing cost. This option is available via our YPO framework offer.       


Hiring managers can be their own worst enemies when they are asked to follow a systemised process. They rarely articulate their ‘must have’ requirements, don’t provide feedback on submitted candidates and often respond slowly to CV’s. This means agencies are more likely to send a range of candidates as the requirement is not properly defined, become disinterested when their candidates are rejected without reason, and frustrated when their candidates are not looked at quickly and end up finding work elsewhere.

Direct channels of communication offer the agency the opportunity to define the requirement, request feedback on each CV and inject a sense of urgency. Its important then to ensure that these enhanced levels of communication happen on contract via your managed service provider rather than off contract.

In our experience, having regular forums with agencies and hiring managers to discuss market conditions and recruitment plans are critical in establishing a picture of which candidates are available on the market, so that expectations can be managed. Its also important to have proactive conversations at the point of order to discuss any blockages.

Understanding the recruitment market is hugely important, and as such we have prioritised employing account management teams that include ex-recruiters who can be proactive in dealing with issues. We’re also introducing some new features into our technology in the coming months that will empower hiring managers. 


Recruitment is a people-based industry that relies on communication, compromise and partnership. The more you (or your managed service provider) rely on process, systemisation and the rigid adherence to rules in a candidate short market, the greater the likelihood that managers will hire off-contract if the right level of candidate is not presented to them, particularly if you do not have a cast iron mandate in place.

In cases where you do have a cast iron mandate in place and managers are unable to find the right quality staff, the greater the risk of impairing departmental service delivery.

There is no perfect answer, but there are things you can do to improve the situation. Working in partnership with both your managed service provider and their agencies to find solutions, communicating effectively and adapting processes where necessary are where you should start.


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