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World Social Work Day: Against neoliberal social work?

By John Harris


Social workers around the world are being invited to celebrate World Social Work Day on 19 March under the banner “Promoting Social and Economic Equalities”, taken from the Global Agenda (2010). Such a call to arms is sorely needed in the face of the growing influence of neoliberalism on global social work, an influence manifested in marketisation, consumerisation, and managerialisation. These dynamic processes and trends represent neoliberalism on the move as it colonises the world. This is not to suggest that the same detailed and identical neoliberal template for social work is emerging in many disparate countries. Rather, these three developments represent an overall direction of travel. In individual countries the extent to which the developments have progressed and in what combinations they have developed is path-dependent; it depends on political institutions, constitutional arrangements, the extent of opposition to them, and so on. Nevertheless, as a direction of travel neoliberalism is increasingly prominent in many countries as a bounded rationality, governing the limits and forms of what is know-able, say-able, and do-able in social work as a result of the impact of the three developments.

Marketisation


Neo-liberalism tells us that markets are needed in social work and that the role of the state is to create the institutional framework within which the social services market operates. In neoliberal rhetoric the installation of markets is supposed to produce competition on quality and price, with the former going up and the latter going down. All too quickly, markets introduce a race to the bottom on price alone and undermine the sense in which social services previously countered market values by stressing citizenship rights, entitlements, and needs; the market is not an arena of social justice. Conveniently this means that governments are able to hold the consequences of punitive policies and cuts in funding at arms-length because market outcomes are, allegedly, neither fair nor unfair but simply flow from “impersonal” market forces.

Consumerisation


Markets require customers. Neoliberalism promises that markets will liberate the users of social work from their alleged role as passive recipients of social workers’ attentions and turn them into active, rational, self-interested, choice-making customers. Neoliberalism argues that customers have high expectations, forged in consumer culture and carried over into their encounters with social work. However, the neoliberal rhetoric slips all too easily into managerial definitions of what being treated well as a customer means, usually through simplistic and narrow definitions of customer satisfaction such as the use of proxy measures. For example, when I returned to a period of practice as a social worker, the proxy measure of the quality of an assessment was the social worker giving the service user a copy of the written document that resulted. I could have undertaken the worst possible assessment — not listened to a service user, behaved in an oppressive manner, and so on — but as long as I gave her or him a copy of the written document my assessment would be judged to have met the standard laid down to measure customer satisfaction.

Such narrow approaches sidestep questions of justice, inequality and oppression, and ignore the extent to which we have to learn to behave as consumers; proficient consumerism is not a ready-made experience that all possess innately. Our consumer learning is located within a class position that intersects with a range of other social divisions in our biographies (age, disability, gender, “race”, sexuality). In addition, consumerism hides the reality of how most, maybe all, people come into contact with social work. They aren’t making a “customer choice”. They come from stressful conditions, they have lives that seem unbearable, their contact with social work may have been initiated by someone else and may be unwelcome. They are, therefore, likely to be trying to get their circumstances or improved rather than seeing themselves as customers accessing a particular “commodity”.

Managerialisation


In order to move in the direction of marketisation and consumerisation, social work becomes increasingly managerialised. The search for “better” management focuses on the world of private business in the belief in a generic model of management, which minimises the differences between private businesses and social work. This has three main consequences. First, the commodification of services through managerial identification of discrete problem categories and a menu of service options, quantifying and costing service outputs. This results in social workers being deprived of meaningful working relationships with and commitments to service users and reduces social work to a series of one-off transactions. Secondly, cuts in funding and expectation of efficiency gains exert a general downward pressure on costs. Thirdly, greater managerial control is exerted over professional space. An example of this is performance management: organisational objectives are identified, performance indicators are developed to reflect the objectives, targets are set in terms of the performance indicators, and progress is monitored using the PIs. Even its supporters identify a range of dysfunctional consequences, such as tunnel vision (an emphasis on phenomena that are quantified in the performance management system at the expense of unquantified aspects of performance) and gaming (minimising the apparent scope for performance improvement to avoid increased expectations and higher targets in the future). Another example of the extension of managerial control over professional space is the introduction of call centres into social work. This is the epitome of treating users of social work as customers. It introduces a process for dealing with them taken from the business sector that ignores the potential complexity of their “transactions” and jettisons social work’s emphasis on seeking to establish trust with and appreciate the unique circumstances of the service user.

Call centres are much-vaunted by their proponents because they overcome barriers of place and time. However, a sense of place and locality has other connotations in terms of service users’ identities and where and how they want services to be provided. These kinds of concerns were traditionally seen as integral to the nature of social work. In many progressive aspirations for social work, the notion of responsiveness to the ‘local patch’ has had pride of place. With the advent of call centres, the ability of social workers to be aware of and utilise local networks and resources is rendered unimportant.

Think global, act local


Some readings of these three developments suggest that neoliberalism is now indelibly inscribed in the consciousness of service users, social workers and managers so that neoliberal social work is the only form of social work with which it is possible to identify. An alternative is to see service users, social workers and managers as interpellated (being “called”) by neoliberalism. From this perspective, social workers (and others) may be called but may not respond to the call or may respond to it in ways that were not anticipated. This potential gap between neoliberalism’s intentions and accomplishments needs to be exploited not only by individual social workers struggling to work in the interests of service users in their day-to-day practice but also through collective struggles that support World Social Work Day’s Global Agenda at the national and local level (see Social Work Action Network).

John Harris is Emeritus Professor at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor at Royal Holloway, University of London. He was a social worker, training officer, and manager prior to moving into social work education. He is the co-author of The Oxford Dictionary of Social Work and Social Care with Vicky White.

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