Called to account

By Keith Fletcher. (A version of this article first appeared in “Community Care” on 30 July 1998 and is reproduced here with the agreement of the editor.)

“Who is my client?” Was once a much debated social work question. Now social exclusion and best value are high on the public policy agenda it’s time to re-examine the issues

Our employers provide our pay and rations and are publicly accountable.. They have the right to demand work of high standard and an open account of what we do. Our clients too have the same rights, though not the same power to enforce them. And social work is a profession with explicit values. To say there is sometimes conflict among these three demands is something of an understatement!

Social work exists largely to seek accommodation between the demands of mainstream society and the needs of those who are at its fringes. There is bound to be conflict. But the strident over-simplifications of “market economics” drove the debate underground for a dozen years and caused many of those in the firing line to fudge and obfuscate what they did.

Remember, just for example,. the “continental holidays for young thugs, shock horror”? The response that this may have been an effective use of resources to achieve an objective was simply a non-starter. No wonder people hid behind jargon and gobbledegook. The result has been an accruing accountability mess which we need to sort out urgently.

The conflict itself is not politically acknowledged. In an old Schulz, “Peanuts” cartoon Linus says, “I want to be a kind, caring and gentle country doctor - and I want to be rich and famous.” The Government is rather like that. It wants a major assault on social exclusion - and a tight control on public (i.e. redistributive) expenditure. It wants a society which provides a place in the sun for all - and a stern “crack-down” on those who don’t see the world in quite the same way as the rest of us. The ambivalence reflects the conflicts at large in society and in our personal aspirations. It is at least more healthy than the simplistic populism it replaced.

But social work is at the fault-line: social police force and healing therapist; controlling parent to the wayward and partner and “empowerer” at the same time; always at risk of carrying the blame whenever the fault is too clearly exposed.

The social exclusion and best value debates provide an opportunity to bring this into the open. And clients and practitioners, every bit as much as managers and politicians, need to participate in the discussion. But there are also immediate practice issues which social work needs to address urgently and unilaterally.

1. Social workers must learn to speak English. Jargon and acronyms are vital shorthand among co-professionals but they have no place anywhere else. And words and phrases which sound erudite but mean little have no place at all.

2. Actions and decisions must be accounted for against research evidence if it exists, or cogent logic if it doesn’t. Social work managers need to become more brutal with the “it seemed like a good idea at the time” brigade and more courageous in supporting and justifying evidence based risk.

3. Systematic performance evaluation needs to become part of social services culture. Clients have a right to expect that the social worker they are dealing with is competent. Social workers have a right to know how their agency thinks they are performing.

4. Social services must find ways of speaking openly to the media and the public about what they are doing without breaching confidentiality. It’s difficult. The press want “human interest”; and controversy and the misuse of authority make a good story. But apparent secrecy almost guarantees hostile treatment..