Let’s talk business

There is a simple but largely unremarked fact about social
services in the UK: they have become more like a business, in terms
of how they operate and what it feels like to work in them. The
assumption has been that social work should, as far as possible,
function as though it were a business, concerned with making
profits. The culture of capitalism has colonised social work.

There are countless illustrations of the extent to which
“strategies”, “visions”, “missions”, “business plans”, “performance
indicators”, “devolved budgets”, “customer care” and so on ooze
from every nook and cranny of social work (see box).

This trend is presented as neutral, as something to which all
right-thinking social workers must be committed – namely the
modernisation of social work. Yet, in terms of how it operates and
what it feels like to work as a social worker, it is far from

These business-like characteristics have been used to change power
relationships in social work – a power struggle underpinned by the
drive to cut the cost of social services. The overarching claim is
that business thinking has the solution to any problem and that, in
pursuing those solutions, managerial power has to take precedence
over professional and other sources of power in social work .

This takeover of social work by business thinking began in the
1970s when both motive and opportunity were present. The motive of
the Thatcher and Major Conservative governments between 1979 and
1997 was their commitment to welfare state reform, influenced by
New Right ideas. The opportunity was provided by an economic
crisis, the high degree of centralisation of the British state and
the lack of a written constitution stipulating the limits of
central government powers. These factors provided the opportunity
for Conservative governments to be highly interventionist in
pushing business thinking and practices into social services. Since
then, New Labour has continued to stress business imperatives;
making a virtue of seeking business-oriented approaches to the
operation of social work.

Indicators of social work being dominated by business practices

  • Competition: The belief that competition among providers
    results in more economical, efficient and effective services.
  • Contracts: The use of contracts ensures that control resides
    with the purchaser, who has the power to make decisions and see
    them carried through. The provider has to implement the purchaser’s
  • Performance indicators: Business-oriented measurable standards
    and pre-set output measures are found increasingly in the
    monitoring of the performance of social work.
  • More work: The underlying message, rarely explicitly
    articulated but contained within business thinking and pursued
    through capitalist models of managing social services, is that
    social workers should work harder.
  • Increased scrutiny: Information technology systems allow
    detailed specification of social work tasks and checks on their
    completion. Much of this control is expressed in computerised
    manuals, directions and guidelines that limit discretion and set up
    standardised and repetitive systems with tightly defined criteria
    for eligibility for services; standardised assessment tools;
    interventions, which are often determined in advance from a limited
    list; minimisation of contact time and pressure for
  • Gate-keeping and rationing: Business thinking requires social
    workers to see themselves as micro-managers of resources who
    carefully control access to and ration the distribution of

The impact of these indicators suggests that business thinking
is hegemonic; it provides a view of social work and how it should
operate that is increasingly accepted as “the truth”. Yet talking
to social workers about living within this “truth” reveals a sense
of demoralisation similar to that which characterised services
under state socialism in central and eastern Europe. Demoralisation
is almost inevitable when social workers feel unable to challenge
the official dogma and believe that the expression of other
perspectives is not tolerated. The typical responses to
demoralisation under state socialism are also evident in social
work. Overt compliance, which masks covert resistance or
withdrawal, seem rife among workers, with managers adjusting their
vocabulary to conform to the latest shift in emphasis or tone
within business thinking, much as managers under state socialism
became adept at parroting the party line.

This demoralisation suggests that the changes which have taken
place in social work are not confined to purely technical
business-like developments. Such developments also have personal
implications for those who work in the service. These changes have
reshaped what it means to be a social worker: being expected to be
concerned with calculation – using “what works” in the most
efficient way. At the same time, social workers are seen as “human
resources” to be managed in the pursuit of political agendas. They
are compelled to think and talk about themselves in new ways that
reflect and declare their affiliation to the corporate culture.
Business thinking is embedded in social workers’ day-to-day
relationships with service users and with each other. It is not
that business thinking and practices get in the way of “real”
social work. They have changed what social work is and what social
workers do; they have implications for what social workers think,
feel and are.

Business thinking does not, however, hold uncontested sway. Social
work is one of the areas where struggles take place over the
connections between the state and citizens, and over the
distribution of rights and responsibilities. Social workers show
signs of not having succumbed to complete compliance with business
thinking because such thinking is at odds with many of their
perspectives. This results in problems with the fit between the
values and ideals of many social workers and their organisations’
business thinking ethos.

As a result, when managers exercise the power accorded them by
business thinking, they may face challenges. Social workers may try
to use their knowledge and skills to push the implementation of
business-like objectives in particular directions. There is also
the question of the voices of the users of social services.
Business thinking places great stress on “customers” and service
users could potentially use this business rhetoric to insist on
more meaningful participation in service provision. In other words,
there is some space for professionals and service users to
influence the way business thinking and practices develop.

It seems likely that social work will continue to be affected by
business-like demands for categories, outputs and indicators.
Social workers will need to continue to find ways to emphasise the
variability and unpredictability of service users’ needs, and to
highlight the individual and social outcomes that arise from the
circumstances of their lives. That, it could be argued, is the
business of social work.

Test yourself

Here are two statements showing how business thinking affects
social work practice. Can you work out what is being discussed?
(Answers at end of article)

A “Mapping supply will involve an analysis of the market within
which the service is operating. This analysis will include: an
analysis of the existing stock, an analysis of the various elements
of service, an analysis of services from other providers and an
analysis of alternatives that can be spot-contracted.”

B “Our interest is in best practice in terms of what works, why and
how at the business level when customer-facing technologies are
introduced. We have a services transformation practice and want to
learn more about the art of the possible in order to help our
clients solve their problems.”

Answers to test

A Senior manager writing about expanding the number of foster
parents available to social workers to be used for placements of
children and young people.

B Management consulting company explaining its interest in
introducing telephone call centres into social services.

John Harris is professor, School of Health and Social
Studies, University of Warwick. His book, The Social Work Business,
was published by Routledge in September 2002. E-mail:


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