Modernisation? We can do that

Social work already has the resources it needs to take
responsibility for modernising itself, says David Asquith.

At the Labour Local Government and Women’s Conference in
Cardiff a couple of months ago, David Blunkett challenged public sector workers
to take more responsibility for modernising services. Sounds like a good idea
to me.

Modernisation has
become more or less synonymous with the policies of New Labour, but there is
more to it than that. Modernisation is about the way society evolves – the
economic, social and other undercurrents that make the world go round. New
Labour’s policies are a considered response to them, and the undercurrents will
continue irrespective of which political party is in power.

responsibility for modernisation means getting to grips not only with what the
government wants us to do today, but also what will be needed tomorrow.

In studying the
undercurrents, particular attention must be paid to the likely direction of
cultural change (attitudes, values, expectations, behaviour) as well as
structural factors (demography, health, wealth).

This must be matched
by an explicit definition of social work’s unique contribution to society, plus
an analysis of the factors that make this possible and how these can be renewed
as events unfold. The aim is to anticipate future change, and avoid being
ambushed by it.

Modernisation theory
expects service providers to develop a high degree of responsiveness and
adapt-ability to service users. Many public sector bodies claim to be customer-driven,
and businesses often customise their services by offering choices.

In a field as subtle
as social work, this barely scratches the surface: modernisation has more
radical implications for the shape of service delivery organisations.

Considered as a
whole, social work is already equipped with the resources it will need –
experienced practitioners and managers, academic departments, research
institutes, staff associations – to take more direct responsibility for
modernising itself.

The modern answer to
David Blunkett’s challenge is therefore to strengthen and develop existing
networks with a view to drawing all elements of the social work community more
closely together. The networks can then be used to work out shared answers to
questions of fundamental importance – such as what business are we in and how
do we stay in it – and to put the answers into effect.

David Asquith is a former local government corporate policy
officer now working freelance.

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