Every day in this country social workers perform countless acts that make a real difference to the lives of thousands of people. What these social workers do involves kindness, compassion, courage, resilience, cleverness, and extraordinary levels of skill and wisdom. Social workers routinely meet the extraordinarily difficult challenge of having to balance empathy and compassion with exercising power and authority to protect the hurt and the vulnerable. They sit with the troubled in their pain, the sick and the dying and help those who are consumed by the grief of losing loved ones. Social workers are the conscience of the good society. They speak for the poor and dispossessed. They heal. Without social workers it would be impossible to claim that this is what we can call a civilized society.
But despite all this, you would be hard pushed to know that social workers are doing anything worthwhile at all. This is because few have a good word to say in public about social work. Social work is criticized from all sides: in the media for various so called ‘failures’ to protect children and vulnerable adults from serious harm and death. Government ministers disgracefully bow to media pressure and blame and sack social work staff. The State increasingly regulates what social workers should do through guidance and by setting performance targets, adding to a sense that what it does now is never good enough. In social work agencies the culture often is one where good work is not acknowledged. As a Social Work Team Manager put it to me: ‘If someone came into a team meeting and said “I did a great piece of work last week”, we’d all fall off our chairs!’
Meanwhile the portrayal of social work by academics is too often negative and censorious. Many argue that social work has changed from having been a therapeutic casework practice where meaningful work was done with individuals and families and communities over the long-term, to one where social workers practice is governed by procedures and (too much) time spent at the computer, which dictate that they engage in case management, ‘only’ do assessments and help navigate service users to other services rather than providing them themselves. Social work is said to have lost its identity and soul. According to Stephen Webb in his great book Social Work in Risk Society (Palgrave, 2006), ‘meaningful aspects of direct casework have given way to low-level functional tasks’. Doesn’t that sound just awful.
Now, sadly, there is some truth in this. But what is deeply regrettable is that the cumulative effect of all the negativity that comes from all quarters is that social work is dominated by what I call a ‘deficit culture’. A deeply pernicious effect of deficit culture is that there becomes only one way – or at least a dominant way - to talk about social work, a narrative that runs: whatever it does is not only never good enough, but stupid, shameful, oppressive, too liberal and touchy-feely, naïve, lacking in evidence, faulty … fill in the gaps in the list of insults yourselves. While the literature on social work is vast it is as if so much of it relates back to the professional equivalent of Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur’s highly successful populist book Is It Just Me or is Everything Shit?: The Encyclopedia of Modern Life.
Well actually it isn’t. And on careful examination there is so much more going on in social work; so much to celebrate and be proud of. I want to begin to get at what we can and must celebrate about social work through a story which illustrates perhaps the greatest tragedy of all in its deficit culture: the way that it denies practitioners the capacity to recognise their true value and the positive impact of what they do, day in, day out.
In the research I am doing into front-line social work practice I shadowed a social worker on a visit to a single-parent mother of two children. The family had been referred to social work three months earlier due to concerns about ‘Julie’s’ drug use and the children’s welfare. Julie had given up drugs soon after the social worker first visited and had now been off them for 12 weeks, having been using them for two decades. Her children, aged 13 and 5, were missing a lot of school and were often late and there was concern about possible neglect. During the home visit, I watched as the social worker gave Julie assistance with sorting out some housing and benefit issues and they discussed how she was coping. Julie presented the social worker with a drawing that her five-year-old daughter (who was at school) had done specially for the social worker, who was delighted by this. The social worker, Julie and I then travelled together to the school attended by her 13-year-old son, ‘James’, for a meeting that included a year teacher, year mentor and a drugs worker who links to the school. James joined the meeting after about 30 minutes. It was an excellent discussion. Plans were agreed between Julie, James and the school about homework, and setting boundaries regarding his sometimes disruptive behaviour in class. The school will ring Julie weekly with a report, which can include positive feedback too. The social worker agreed to keep seeing James on his own again (as she had done in the past), which he was happy to agree to. There had been a huge improvement in James’s attendance, which was now 100% for the term. James was suspected of having been a young carer for his mother and sister. The spirit of the meeting was very positive and highly respectful to the young person and his mother, who had never set foot in this school or ever spoken to a teacher there.
On the way back to the office in the car, the social worker commented to me in a self-critical tone: ‘I haven’t been able to do much in this case except be a case manager.’ She meant by this the important role she had played in communicating with and coordinating other services – school, addiction and housing. The social worker’s judgement contrasted significantly with my own view, in that she clearly had a good relationship with Julie, who I could see liked and respected her, as did the children (note the five-year-old’s gift of the drawing). She had developed and skilfully used the relationship with this mother to ‘hold’ and contain her emotionally and build up her internal resources as she struggled to come off drugs. She was child focused, seeing the children on their own and doing similar kinds of containing work with them. She was clear about her role and the requirement to be authoritative, and during the initial assessment did the hard emotional graft of child welfare by insisting that she needed to see around the house, including the children’s bedrooms.
The worker was fully aware of the poverty of the family and the economic limitations this single-parent mother faced, while recognising the need to check for signs that the mother’s drug misuse had not adversely impacted on the level of care she provided. The social worker also dealt skilfully with the relationship of Julie and the children to their external world by enabling Julie to relate to the school (for the first time ever) and other services. The multi-agency work I observed at the meeting in the school was superb, and the social worker, educational support person, teachers and an addiction worker did a skilled piece of work. The improvement in the children’s wellbeing clearly coincided with them becoming involved and working together in a coordinated way.
This case example typifies how workers themselves are often unaware of the nature and significance of the skilled service they provide. Deficit culture permits them to at best speak of playing a procedurally driven case manager role. And tragically they do not even feel entitled to feel good about this important aspect of their work and so speak of it as this social worker did apologetically. They find themselves without a language to express the highly skilled and meaningful relationship based practice they do perform. The point is that the positive, generous work they do that deserves to be celebrated goes unrecognised by all, themselves included.
Finding a language through which the quality of care social work provides can be better understood, valued and developed is vital. In his book the Renewal of Generosity: Illness, Medicine and How to Live (University of Chicago Press, 2004), the sociologist Arthur Frank argues that best practice in health and social care requires that the most basic of human practices are infused with generosity, which is achieved by the kind and considered use of touch and always looking the service user in the face. Frank suggests that one way that workers can overcome the demoralization that is inherent to the bureaucratic dictates of so many health and social care organisations is to aim for ‘moral perfectionism’. While knowing that they can never achieve perfection for every patient/service user, conscious striving for it enables the worker to keep the face of the suffering person in view. Connecting with their gaze helps to keep open a dialogue about their vulnerability and needs and helps workers to do their most generous best for this person in this moment. It was precisely this quality of generosity that the social worker I witnessed helping Julie displayed and which was at the heart of her skilled effectives. Strikingly however, she could not recognise how generous she had been. The social worker could not be generous to herself. Achieving this is not solely the moral responsibility of individual practitioners. If practitioners are to be generous they need to be treated generously, by their managers, peers, by themselves, and by wider society. Organisations need to foster generosity by recognising, in Frank’s words, that “Most of us require training in how to be generous to ourselves and to others, right now, as well as training to recognize how we thwart our own attempts.”
For social workers and their agencies to celebrate their best work should not be confused with boasting. In the ‘best practice’ sessions I run with students and experienced practitioners I ask them to identify a piece of practice they feel proud of and to tell the group what it is about it they feel so good about. Many struggle to do this due to their humilty and a fear of being seen to be brash. Some are so used to the deficit narrative that they cannot talk about anything else and will drone on an on about how everything really is shit. The power of the group dynamic can usually break them down and their essential humanity, generosity and the difference they do make to service users’ lives begins to emerge.
But celebrating social work is not simply about producing an uncritical celebration of ‘good works’ – of it being self-evident how good you are just because you say so. The claims for best practice need to be critically analysed, justified, evidenced. So what do we know about what best practice looks like? Two academic colleagues, Karen Jones and Barry Cooper and I explored this question in a project where we brought together practitioners who identified examples of their best practice and academics who helped them to analyse it by applying theory and analytical frameworks. The results were published in our book Best Practice in Social Work: Critical Perspectives (Palgrave, 2008), which is made up of 15 stories/chapters, covering many areas of social work with children, families and adults. Looking across all of the stories, we found they had a number of common features. The practice was based around the skilful development and use of relationships, even when the interventions were short term, ‘assessments’ or whatever. It contained that crucial kind of spiritual dimension and generosity of touch, care, gesture, expression Arthur Frank refers to.
The (best) practice was therapeutic in its methods and impact, using skilled, theoretically informed approaches to help to relieve suffering, stop abusers being violent and so on. It was knowledgeable in how it drew on research evidence and critical and reflective on how power was exercised and in the deep respect that was shown for vulnerable people’s rights and humanity. And yet it was unerringly authoritative. The practice was invariably good in the stories we gathered because of how it embraced ethical complexity. There were no simple ways of using power to unambiguously ‘empower’ all those involved, no way of providing ‘happy endings’ for everyone. A mother said she hated social workers because they ruined her life by taking her children into care, while her 12 year old daughter was grateful that social workers kept her in care saying that they saved her life. In short, the practitioners understood that to help some people you had to upset or even hurt them or their families. Thus at the heart of best practice is emotional resilience, wisdom and courage.
Best practice is much more likely to go on in organisations that are well managed and generous and supportive to their staff. But crucially, good practice goes on even where the systems and organisations they go on in are disorganised, under-resourced and poorly managed. A huge amount of social work goes into situations where outcomes are messy, unclear, even poor, yet the practice was skilfully done. For instance, some service users who were not cooperating with the service and wanted social workers out of their lives were persuaded through skilful practice to accept the service and work on their problems, even though positive indicators that they or their lives had improved were hard to find. But were it not for the good work done, their lives could have got a whole lot worse, much sooner.
It is crucial that we identify the best work that is going on, so that what is done well will be acknowledged, celebrated, learned from and done more often. The cumulative effect of more and more best practice being performed could then be the transformation of the system in its own image.
One final thought. I am not saying that every social work office in the country is characterised by a toxic deficit culture, but making an argument about a significant and worrying cultural trend. Some teams and indivduals manage to overcome it and we need to learn from them about how they created a culture where generous practice is recognised and celebrated. It struck me while writing this how the very process of communication we are involved in here on Twitter itself shows what is possible by embodying an ethic and culture of generous practice in social work. Of course we know that Twitter and all forms of social networking provide opportunities for unscrupulous people to perpetrate cruelty and abuse. But having been on Twitter for just 3 months, I soon realised how social work is using it to promote a culture of mutual respect, affirmation, reciprocity and generosity. The creation of this culture is a tribute to the kindness and talent of every single social work tweeter and also to the way we are being led by individuals like the remarkable Claudia Megele and the Social Work and Social Care Network (@SWSCmedia) and its amazing and tireless Twitter Ambassadors and Mentors. You know who you are (which for those of you who selflessly choose anonymity is more than can be said by us!) and you are deeply respected and appreciated.
So tell us about the practice you are proud of that needs to be celebrated?
How are you generous in your practice?
What do you observe others doing that is best practice and deserving of celebration?
If your workplace is a supportive, generous one, share how it is with us.
How have have you learned from others, service users especially, what is best practice and appreciated?
Join us for a Special Evening with Prof. Harry Ferguson on Tuesday (24-April-2012) at 8:00 PM GMT / 3:00 PM EDT. Prof. Ferguson will share his views and will inspire us with his great wisdom about social work and social work practice in a rich and lively Twitter debate @SWSCmedia.
Prof. Harry Ferguson (@Harr_Ferguson) is a Professor of Social Work and Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham. Prof. Ferguson is one of the best known Child Protection experts in the U.K. His extensive research, work and publications in areas of Child Protection and Social Work Practice offer an in-depth view of social work praxis. Prof. Ferguson draws on sociological concepts of risk society, reflexivity, intimacy, individualization, life politics, and mobilities to offer an innovative and profound understanding of the lived experience and complexities of social work in its everyday practice. Dr. Ferguson is also a member of @SWSCmedia Expert Panel.
Join @SWSCmedia debates, discussions, case studies, focus groups and more… every Tuesday at 8:00 PM BST / 3:00 PM EDT and every Sunday 6:00 PM BST / 1:00 PM ET.