Social work can restore itself by taking control of its own definition

Empowering change is what social work is about. Applying social work values to the profession itself could resolve its identity crisis, says Simon Duffy

'Real social work' is about sticking up for people and being on the same side.

By Dr Simon Duffy, director of The Centre for Welfare Reform

I am not a social worker, but I love social work, and in my own work I try to stand up for social work as a profession and as a set of values. We are lucky to have several social workers as fellows of the Centre for Welfare Reform – people like Kelly Hicks, who was Adult Social Worker of the year in 2011, and who truly lives the values of social work. In May 2013, we invited our fellows and other leading social workers to meet to explore the state of social work.

‘A powerful and positive profession’

In summary, we felt:

  • Social work is a powerful and positive profession that can have a powerful impact on society – it is life and death stuff.
  • The systems within which social work functions blunt its impact to an extreme degree – they must be challenged and redesigned.
  • The forces that drive change in the sector are often in sharp conflict with the profession’s core values.
  • Social workers need to have faith in social work – to apply social work principles to the profession itself and take back control of its destiny.

Standing up for human rights

Human rights must be at the heart of social work. Social workers help make human rights real for individuals, families and groups who face disadvantage. The group felt strongly that social workers must:

  • Not be compromised by the system – stick up for people
  • Advocate on people’s behalf – be on the same side
  • Develop real relationships – be human
  • Support citizenship and independence – believe in people
  • Be part of the local community – get stuck in
  • Enable peer support – hook people up
  • Use their skills, with the whole community – do it properly

An identity crisis?

It can seem like there is a crisis of identity for social workers with a severe split between those doing social work inside local government and those outside of it.

If you work “in the system”, you may feel that your role as a social worker has been taken over by “system roles”: care manager, commissioner, local authority officer, and so on. If you work outside the system you may feel that you are no longer a genuine social worker because social work somehow means working for local government.The profession has been divided against itself.

A whole series of factors have conspired to weaken social work’s sense of its own identity. Alongside increasing managerialism and the unremitting focus on care management for adults and safeguarding for children sucking the life out of practice, plus the introduction of the “market” stripping away trust, it is very difficult to identify where leadership for the profession lies – it lacks influence, and its reputation is not well defended.

These problems will not go away easily. And perhaps an even deeper problem lurks behind them. When government wants to cut social care spending by 33% and to stigmatise disabled people then it needs a weak profession. The meritocratic thinking at the heart of the modern welfare state is toxic. It is hard for social work to survive in a world where the powerful think they have the right to ‘manage’ the rest of us into compliance.

The way back…

Social work can restore itself by taking back control of its own definition and seeking to include others in social work. Instead of worrying about who people work for, we must focus on what real social work is about. There are many different ways to do this – for example working with people in their communities to prevent crisis and meet needs early; family group conferences to help people work together to solve problems, finding ways to keep women and families in the greatest need safe and help them get back on their feet or supporting people to use personal budgets creatively and flexibly.

The right form of leadership for social work is probably one that takes its cue from real social work and recognises that its leadership is about getting behind, not standing in front of, self-advocates and families. Good social work practice focuses on empowering change to tackle disadvantage and acknowledges that positive change comes from within and cannot be imposed from the outside.The position social work finds itself is an opportunity. If social workers behave like social workers for themselves, then they can restore themselves to themselves.

You can join our Stand up for Social Work campaign by:

Taking one action and telling us what it is
Sharing this article
Sharing what you’ve done to make a difference today
Writing a letter to your MP
Changing your profile picture


More from Community Care

Comments are closed.