Becoming a critical social work practitioner
Becoming a critical social work practitioner

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Becoming a critical social work practitioner

3.8 Perspectives on practice: building relationships

Activity 11

1 hour 0 minutes

Listen to the following audio clips, ‘Panel discussion on critical practice’, Part 2: Professional power

In these clips, the panel critically discusses the importance of service user views and the nature of professional social workers' power.

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Transcript: Panel discussion 2a

Winifred
Well we focused mainly on the professional's point of view, and I'd like to move this on now, if we could, to the people who use social services. Maggie Mellon, what about this idea of negotiation? Because I imagine that sometimes, in your work, you have to take decisions which some of the people who come to you may not like.
Maggie
Well yes. Here I’d like to use the example of family group conferencing, which Children First pioneered, or championed, in Scotland and is now providing in partnership with a range of local Authorities here. And that, sort of, turns the question around. Rather than saying, you know, we make decisions about people, it's a family led decision making process. And we found that it can be used very helpfully in taking decisions, not away from social workers ... because sometimes you do have to make life-changing decisions about children and sometimes you need to use statutory powers and the authority of the social worker ... but mainly, if you bring together the family around the interests or the issues which are concerning you about the child, you get a different quality of decision, and one that isn't made about people but that is made with people, and taking into account their whole perspective and the range of perspectives that any family would bring to a situation.
Winifred
But sometimes you must make decisions about people?
Maggie
Well I think the question was, you know, why are service users' views important in decision making? And of course sometimes you do have to make decisions about how you’ll approach something. Having a family conference or making ... or some other way of working with people is making a decision. Involving people in decisions about their lives is not a gift that you give them, it's actually a right that they have. And it's also common sense. Every decision that's important and life changing, if you haven't essentially put that person and made them feel in charge of it, you are making them an object of your decision making, and generally it won't work. Actually that's where a number of tragedies and poor outcomes come from.
Winifred
But I'm sorry to press you but what happens when people really won't co-operate with you? You're saying that you have to make people feel, or you have to empower them, or you have to let them lead the decision making. But what if you are making decisions in the interests of children, and the adults in those processes oppose you and are unhappy with your decision making, as must often happen?
Maggie
Well of course the welfare of the child in that case is paramount. But I think it's interesting you say what if people won't co-operate with you. I think that's where critical thinking comes in, and you do actually have to think why is co-operation not happening? Now it can be that somebody is generally malevolent and wishes to do harm to children. But that's not most of the situations that social workers find themselves in. So, if you get a situation of lack of co-operation, I think that is very much a point of critical reflection about what that's about and how you can move from non co-operation to co-operation in the best interests of the children that we work with.
Winifred
Andy Pithouse, where conflicts can arise between service users and professionals, we've heard there about the family case conference as one way of trying to balance those different interests ... if you look across the different service user groups, the elderly, mental health, learning difficulties, asylum seekers, perhaps offenders, can you give me some other examples of how those conflicts can be resolved, balanced, acknowledged?
Andy
Yes I think that, within the literature, it suggests that we should be in partnership with the people we seek to help, and that the people we seek to help are also in a sense experts of their own particular situation. I’m something of a heretic here in some ways. I'm never entirely sure people are experts of their own circumstances. I don't think I am an expert in my circumstances. People who know me may well agree with that. But ...
Winifred
But aren't you more expert than anyone else?
Andy
No, well what I was saying is none of us work in conditions of perfect knowledge. No one knows all the answers. And much of both critical practice and aspects of a user led service are that we have to be just a little bit modest about all the facts that we do know. And we do have to work with people to, if you like, co-produce a solution to a shared problem. And in that sense I don't think any of us should be ... we should all be rather wary about claiming expert status. And so, you know, I think it is that question of thinking creatively with others to find solutions and us as being as fellow travellers with the people we are working with.
But again, we come back to the other point that colleagues have made that what is particular to social work is that critical judgement to know whether we can be fellow travellers and work in a constructive partnership approach, or whether we do in fact have to say, “I’m sorry but we have to make a definitive judgement here, which you may not like, but which we think is essential". And there’s plenty of evidence of social workers who have gone dangerously down the road of openness and partnership, and have taken the word and the faith of the people they’ve been working with and have come a cropper in a serious way.
And I think critical practice is also about being critical about the literature we read and views within that literature. Partnership is a good idea, but it doesn't work with someone who is trying to deceive you. And there's lots of examples of social workers who have been gullible and have accepted the partnership idea, much to the damage of themselves and the profession, I think. But that's ... that may be a minority view, but it's one that I tend to share. And I think there are recent court ... may I just read you something?
Winifred
Yes. I was going to say give us an example.
Andy
Well here is an example. These largely occur, I think you will find, in child protection matters sadly. But here is a social worker, and this is the judgement of the court. 'We do not accuse social worker X of wilful neglect. We do not accuse him of culpable disorganisation: meaning to do something but never getting round to it, for example. But he seems to have drifted along, secure in his own first impression that all would be well. He was happy to rely on the mother to be his main source of information about the child. It was even more concerning that he accepted, without challenge, what she said about herself, because he was not critical. He did not respond to the increasing level of risk in the child's environment. He simply didn't listen.
Winifred
Susanna Watson, can you provide us with an example of this that isn't about children because obviously it arises in other areas?
Susanna
Yes. I think it's a slightly different situation, working with adults. Because, broadly speaking, outside the Mental Health Act there isn't a lot of sort of firm legislation that can allow you to take decisions against somebody's will. I mean, largely speaking, adults are considered, you know, able to make decisions about their lives; able to make mistakes about their lives. And there isn't legally a lot that we can do about that a lot of the time. So I think it's a different situation from child protection work.
I think what we find ourselves involved in, a lot more of the time, is perhaps trying to persuade people ... trying to help people see another point of view that their situation could be different, as it were.
Winifred
Maggie, you wanted to come in.
Maggie
Yes I think that perhaps, if we listen to people more and went with their suggestions and solutions, we might build different services that were what people wanted. And a lot of the time it's been not listening to what people want. I mean, we’ve built a ‘Looked After’ system, which ... where the outcome ... for children when they are removed from their parent's care, where the outcomes are not very good, where most of those who come out of it don’t do very well in life and where, if we'd actually listened to the children and their families in the first place, we might build different services. We might have far more community resources. We might actually still have home helps going in and cleaning out, and helping people to live in their own houses, rather than a whole infrastructure of assessment and then people being packaged off into care homes. So I mean, if you listen to people and you work with them and they come up with solutions, and you think, “What would it need to resource that?”, then we might build different social services in the country.
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Winifred
Behind a great deal of what we have been discussing has been the whole idea of power, and the nature of the power that the social worker holds. Steve Trevillion, I'd like to turn to that now more directly. What is the nature of the power then that the social worker holds? It must be, I suppose, multifaceted. It's to do with knowledge. It's to do with being a gatekeeper to resources. Tell me about it.
Steve
Well, like everything else we’ve been talking about, I think it's pretty complicated really. I think there’s a power which is related to the specific job that the social worker is doing. In other words, they’re not just an individual, they're representing an organisation. We’ve already had the example of gate keeping and rationing of scarce resources. And inevitably anyone who has a role in making decisions about who will, or will not, get resources has power. So there’s an imbalance built into that kind of role. Now, of course, not all social workers work in those kinds of roles. But, even if they don't, there are other types of power to be considered, I think. I mean one is the issue of expertise and professionalism, and the role of professionals in our society. There is a sense in which social workers are often uncomfortable with their professionalism. It's got a long history in social work of being actively contested as an idea. But, nevertheless, coming into a situation as somebody who is perceived as an authoritative person, somebody whose views count, who has respect, status, etc, etc, all can have a bearing on a situation.
Now of course, in some senses, we all of us want to be taken seriously and want to be treated with respect, and so on. But I think it can also be dangerous because undue respect can get into the situation, and people can feel that their views don't matter so much, or that the person in front of them obviously is very knowledgeable, very powerful, very important and so on. Status issues can come into play, which are to do, not with actually being a social worker, but with your general status in society. Issues of race are very important. Issues of class always in this country are terribly important. And accent, and gender, age, disability. I think you can't get away from the fact that there are power imbalances built into almost every aspect of social work practice and, of course, it's one of the key lessons of critical practice to try always to be mindful of power relations, and always to be thinking about the impact of those power relations on what is going on between you and the other person.
Winifred
Can you give us a practical example?
Steve
Well I think, if you for example go into a situation ... let's take an adult situation of something under the terms of the NHS and Community Care Act, where there is an assessment going on. And you're going to meet somebody who is in a vulnerable situation. They may well have ideas about how their situation could be improved. But, when you come into that situation, you may be uncomfortably aware of how scarce various resources are, or how limited resources are that you have to offer.
I think it's very important to be open minded; not to start off with a checklist in your own mind of things that you've got to offer, and just be interested in ticking those off and completing the assessment in that way. It's very important to put all of that away, to some extent, and really listen to the person. This issue of listening we keep coming back to don't we?
Listen to the person. What are they saying? What are their needs? And I think one of the most interesting developments in recent years has been the focus on desired outcomes. Not just needs, in the sense of what you as a professional might think somebody needs, but what changes does this person want in their life? What is it that you could potentially contribute, as a professional, to change and an improvement in the quality of their life? And, if you can find something that can meet one of those desired outcomes, then of course the whole process can be justified. And it's very important therefore to get away from the idea that you are simply representing a powerful organisation, and trying to fit somebody into it. It's important to listen and to see your role as trying to find a way of enabling that person to feel a bit more powerful in their own lives, feel a bit more effective and feel a bit more as if life has something to offer them than perhaps it did before.
Winifred
Maggie Mellon?
Maggie
Yes. I mean it is a very interesting question, and I thought about the relationship between the statutory agencies which have legislative power and voluntary organisations, such as the one I’m working with now, where we actually need to negotiate everything. Formally the 'Children First' was the ‘Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’, and did have inspectors, and did have powers to remove children from their homes and take them away. And that all changed with the Social Work in Scotland Act and the development of the social work departments in Scotland.
So it's quite interesting how much you’re assumed to have lost all knowledge when you join the voluntary sector. And I practised as a social worker for, and a manager in social work, for twenty years before I went to the voluntary sector. But, from one day to the next, one day I was an expert on child protection who could make decisions and remove children and decide they should be adopted, and all sorts of things, and the next day I was a fool who would be phoning up a newly qualified social worker, and she would or he would say, “Oh no, we don't consider that child protection”.
So I think it's an interesting thing about power and how you can lose it when you don't work in a statutory agency. And I think that tells us something about the relationship between us and the people we work with, because it was actually very freeing not to have that power and to reflect on what the personal skills were that you needed to work with people and engage with them, and to see at a distance what has become of the relationship between the statutory departments. Quite often I think all the mistakes and the tragedies that have been in child protection have been about power and the misuse of power, whether it's been by not using it when you should, or by trying to transfer it around all the different people passing the buck. But there is something about this having the power and either using it inappropriately and wrongly.
I think we need to ... social workers need to stop holding power to themselves, because the more that you actually empower and share out the power to change lives with the people we're working with, the more power you actually get. And I'm not an advocate ... I’m a very strong advocate of protecting children in the best way possible, but I don't think necessarily that there's a very straight relationship between the use of statutory powers to just decide and move things around the board is the right way to do that.
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Transcript: Panel discussion 2c

Winifred
Andy Pithouse, this may not be what you wanted to talk about, but I want to ask you how does this idea of power and the power held by social workers play itself out when professionals have to share decision making, as they're encouraged to do now? And the social worker may be ... and we’ve just heard there the social worker in the voluntary sector less powerful than the social worker working with the local authority. Is the social worker less powerful, I don't know, than the doctor or the teacher? How does that play itself out in practice?
Andy
Well power's a very complicated notion, and we can only touch on it here really. But power in social work is clear and objective in some senses, and also very abstract and tacit, and almost ambivalent in other senses. And a lot of social work is negotiation. And so, if you looked at it you as a scheme, you could say, “Well okay we’ve got power at the level of an organisation within the law ... we have particularly ... within our therapeutic skills, our knowledge base, there’s power to define there”.
And you can say that power in social work really resides at the level of assessment, where we as social workers define what the problems are, what we think the solutions might be, ideally with others in partnership, but often a power resides in an interpersonal sense as well insofar as social workers may withhold knowledge. They may withhold information as a means of power. They may engage necessarily in all kinds of effective strategies to win the result that they want for their particular case.
And of course power also resides with service users. They too may not say everything, tell everything, or explain everything. They have a view of the social worker, and they have a view of their own lives, and they’re not fools, and they will disclose what they wish to disclose. So power operates in all kinds of strange liquid ways in social work, if you like, and it's never quite clear at any one point in time how it's operating.
And I think the skilled social worker is one who can operate at a number of levels. And so, when they are with GP's and teachers, over whom they have no authority, when they’re with multi agencies working to find a solution over whom they have no line management, the social worker has got to be a really skilled organisational operator there, crossing all these boundaries, dealing with all these other particular identities and people and egos and interests. And I think the skilled social worker is one who can actually hear and manage all these different discourses and find solutions within them. And that's quite a modern identity, quite a modern task and it's not much well described by national occupational standards, not well described by social work ethical frameworks. These are real everyday skills, which you pick up by experience. And its experience bumping into theory where new ideas come from, and I think that's where power is as well.
Winifred
Susanna, can you give us some ideas of your experience then of the negotiating that you have had to do, I suppose between individuals, organisations, systems?
Susanna
Yeah, a couple of thoughts really. I mean I would entirely agree with Steve that this... that the power that the social worker has is quite a kind of a double-edged sword, and it can be used well and it can be abused as well. I personally think that we still have quite a lot of discretionary power, even with the sort of regulatory framework within which we work, and all the rest of it. I think we can make quite a difference, and our own views of the situation can influence the outcome of an assessment and what social services is prepared to provide.
Winifred
Give us an example?
Susanna
I was thinking of a woman, an older woman I worked with, who lived at home and she had really ... she’d had enough. She’d had enough of being at home. She was in a lot of pain from arthritis. She was just very tired, really. And she very much wanted to move into a local Methodist Group home, care home, where she knew some other people, and she herself was a lifelong Methodist. And she felt that this was where she wanted to be. But sort of, strictly speaking, if you look down the list of the kind of criteria of what help somebody needed in order to qualify for social services funding to go into a care home, she was pretty border line. She managed fairly well at home really without a huge amount of help. She had a very strong character. And I really felt that, if she didn't get this, if she wasn't able to move, she would actually just give up and things would just go completely to pieces, and she would be very disappointed and eventually probably, in a few months time, she would need a care home place because she would have given up at home.
But, in a way then, I had to argue her case. Knowing what the eligibility criteria were, I had to sort of argue her case along those lines, sort of acknowledging that her physical impairments weren't on the surface apparently sufficient to justify this move, but there were other reasons why the move should be funded. And it was accepted, and I think that's the kind of, a use of our discretionary power. When you listen to the story that someone’s telling you, and you actually kind of try and almost translate it into the bureaucratic language that you know the agency will understand and will accept.
Winifred
But still telling the truth?
Susanna
But still telling the truth, and still actually ... I mean firmly believing that this was ... I mean, I genuinely believed that this was the right ... the right solution for this person. I didn't feel I was making anything up.
Andy
Yes, I just wanted to add to that, because I very much agree with your analysis there about the skills and negotiating skills of an affective social work practitioner in complex organisations. But I also think there's another area of power which we shouldn't overlook, and that's the power of the social work as a profession, in a sense, to argue its case with some effect. And I’m not entirely sure that we do that particularly well these days.
But I certainly would go back to Wales where I come from, in the early 1980's, where it was social workers engaging, lobbying, civil servants in what was then the Welsh Office, to really engage forcefully with the de-institutionalisation idea for learning disabilities. And social workers working with civil servants, working with local politicians, emptied out the hospitals and got people into community based settings, because they had a sense of critical practice and theory from normalisation theory. And that was a really good example of the social work profession getting together to support people coming out of the hospitals, living effectively in settings which were relatively well supported, at that particular time. And it was a success. It really was a landmark success in Wales, twenty five years ago or more. And was seen ... people came from Japan, Canada, and the States to have a look at what we were doing. It was good. It was a really good example of the profession leading the way, in a sense, and arguing the case effectively. And I'm not sure we'd have enough power these days within policy networks that we once had, and I do think we need to speak again with a more assured voice, I think.
Steve
I just wanted to add something else to what Andy said, because I thought it was such an important example really, of the role of social work as a profession. And there is a constant debate that I feel I have with social students about what is real social work. And, very often, social work students, maybe even qualified social workers, come to regard real social work as the time that you spend with an individual who needs a service. Now, of course, that's absolutely vital and absolutely the core of social work practice. But I think we’ve had a number of examples of areas of work which involves social workers working with other professionals, with other organisations, operating from time to time politically. And all of this is real social work. And social work in some ways is defined by its ability to move between different levels. It's a very good example of different types of power.
It's also a very good example of the relevance of critical practice as an idea, because that idea of critical practice binds together those different levels of intervention. It justifies why you’re intervening in the lives of individuals. It underpins your work with other organisations, and acts as the basis for your more political activities.
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Discussion

The questions arising from arguments about ‘service user participation’ are important and complex. In principle, few people, if any, argue against involving people in decisions that affect their lives. In practice, however, implementation of this principle is often difficult. There are many reasons why this may be so and the panel discussion touches upon some of the implications for professional knowledge, values and the structure of service provision. A key summary point can be highlighted from the discussion about the complexities of social work power in practice:

So power operates in all kinds of strange liquid ways in social work, if you like, and it's never quite clear at any one point in time how it's operating. And I think the skilled social worker is one who can operate at a number of levels. And so when they are with GPs and teachers, over whom they have no authority, when they are with multi-agencies working to find a solution over whom they have no line management, and the social worker has got to be a really skilled organisational operator there, crossing all these boundaries, dealing with all these other particular identities and people and egos and interests. And I think the skilled social worker is one who can actually hear and manage all these different discourses and find solutions within them. And that's quite a modern identity, quite a modern task …

At a number of points in this discussion, the speakers talk about the importance of negotiating with people and the extent to which social workers retain considerable discretionary power.

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