The art of advocacy

Playing advocate is a role social workers
should not shy away from, says Neil Bateman.

Should social workers act as advocates? After
all, the art is not consistent with our other skills and upsets
partner organisations. Yet advocacy has a long and strong tradition
in the tool kit of social work skills.

Examination of the history of the social work
profession shows that acting as advocate has always been part of
the task of protecting and empowering vulnerable people, which
ultimately is what social work is all about.

For this reason there can hardly be a social
worker anywhere who has not acted as an advocate at some time or
other. The work involves anything from advocating for people’s
social security rights, arguing the case for someone to be
rehoused, or challenging a manager when a decision is not in a
service user’s best interests.

It seems inconceivable that social work can be
confined to the narrow confines of quasi-therapy or gatekeeping
public services. The reality of helping people living in poverty
simply prevents this.

There are times when advocacy is appropriate
and when it is not. It is when you are working within a rule-based
system which has denied a service or benefit to a service user that
advocacy should be used.

The advocate should “act in the client’s best
interests”. This means that all legal methods will be applied to
obtain whatever it is that is being sought. It also means social
care workers take the best line of argument, which supports the
case and makes use of remedies such as courts and tribunals. It is
people’s ability to enforce their rights through such means which
makes all our rights meaningful and injects a balance of power
between the individual and the state. This is one of the
cornerstones of our democratic arrangements.

However, this can bring the advocate into
conflict with other welfare bureaucracies which are transmitting
messages of partnership to their employing organisation. It is
therefore essential that social work organisations recognise that
part of their staff’s role is to act as advocate and to be upfront
about this with partners and staff.

It should also be remembered that
organisations in housing, social security and other areas will use
the full force of the law to protect their interests and do so
against vulnerable individuals, whether punitively intentioned or
not. To deny advocacy to the service user is extremely

To be a successful advocate requires a
specific set of skills. These include the ability to gather
relevant factual information, to obtain instructions – or agreement
– with the service user on how to proceed, and to research the
legal options.

It may well be that a social work advocate
also has to bring in external expertise when they reach the limit
of their knowledge and ability. But the skill to at least start the
process of advocacy is a fundamental principle behind
client-centred social work practice, something which has been
repeatedly squeezed by the new managerialism and the service
rationing and social control role of social workers.

Advocacy is a route back to the rediscovery of
social work, as well as a way of building more equal relationships
with our customers. It also gets tangible improvements in their
living standards.

Neil Bateman manages Suffolk Council
and Suffolk Health Authority’s welfare rights service. If you have
a question to be answered in Welfare Rights, please write to him
c/o Community Care.

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