Upside down studies

If research is to have an impact on social care, then the users
and workers who are studied should carry out the studies -Ênot
expensive consultants, writes Bob Holman.

New Labour is to donate £2 million towards the Social Care
Institute for Excellence, which will disseminate information about
the kind of evidence-based research that shows how social workers
can reach government targets. In all, the government gives out
multi-millions in grants to social research bodies.

By contrast, the project with which I am associated in
Easterhouse, Glasgow, gets not a penny from central or local
government towards the modest salaries of its five staff. How is it
that prestigious bodies can feast on financial abundance while
those at the hard end are lucky to get a few crumbs?

Of course, research can be useful. But what kind of research?
The vogue is for evidenced-based research of the type advocated by
Professor Brian Sheldon of Exeter University. In his stimulating
latest book,1 Bill Jordan mounts a strong attack on this
kind of investigation. He states that it is “methodologically
unsound and yields misleading conclusions” and that it is a “form
of social engineering which aims to accomplish the purposes of
government in the most cost-efficient ways.” Jordan favours a more
relationship-centred approach, which promotes social work rather
than managerial ends. As Bill Jordan is also a professor at Exeter
University, the discussions over coffee in the senior common room
must be pretty heated.

Whatever the outcome of this debate, Jordan makes a point that
can hardly be contested. Researchers have power. The danger of
social work research is that it can reinforce the powerlessness of
the most vulnerable members of society. Decisions about the nature
of research are made by powerful agencies and rarely by the users
of social services. The latter have little control over what is
done with data about them, how it is interpreted and how it is
used. They have no more say about most research than they do over
the setting of government targets. In short, social work
investigations can be a reflection of an unequal society.

So what should researchers do? I suggest that they should give
some priority to seeking out the views of social work participants.
Professor Chris Jones of Liverpool University has interviewed
numbers of experienced statutory social workers. His deductions
from their words are both depressing and worrying. He says: “The
issues which were raised time and time again included anguish over
the growing intensity of bureaucracy and paperwork. I was told
about the speed-up of the work and the prevalence of poor and
sometimes aggressive management. The state workers also complained
that professional support and concern had largely disappeared from
their workplaces and that divisions with management were more
stark”(Duncan Memorial Lecture, 2001). The view of the social
workers was that something is seriously wrong with local authority
social services.

Even more important, users should be financed to undertake their
own studies. They should assess whether social services departments
are treating them in ways that they find useful. Again, the
government has announced that it is to direct large amounts of cash
to researchers to evaluate its neighbourhood renewal

My proposal is that residents of the areas be funded to design
and promote the study. Hilary Armstrong, the regeneration minister,
promised a sustained assault through “grassroots empowerment of
people in their communities”. Accordingly, those at the hard end
might ask neighbours whether they have been deciding targets,
controlling budgets and appointing staff, that is whether they have
been empowered. Or is the reality that power remains with highly
paid professionals in outside partnerships?

Lastly, let the research business be stood on its head so that
the deprived study the privileged. Recently, I attended a House of
Commons select committee in which MPs questioned people on low
incomes who were in receipt of the social fund. With the tables
turned, poor people could interview committee members about their
incomes, savings, debts, holidays, housing. The findings would
reveal something of the nature of an inequality which means that
politicians and officials can live in luxury while others are
forced to apply to the social fund.

Likewise, a research group of social service users could study
directors of social services departments and large voluntary
societies. They could assemble data on where they lived, their
lifestyles, what recent experience they had as frontline social
workers, when they last conversed with delinquent youngsters or had
a meal with stressed-out parents. The researchers would then be in
a position to make judgements about the directors’ values, their
relevant experience, skills, and closeness to people in need. They
could then comment on their suitability to run social services.
Upside-down research would not only contribute to better services,
it would also put more power in the hands of the powerless.

1 Bill Jordan, Social Work and the Third Way,
Sage, 2000.

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