I have to admit that the idea for this blog entry has been around for some time. For various reasons I have avoided writing it but after a brief Twitter discussion on Sunday I though it best to put some thoughts down.
The idea of professional space has interested me for some time. Andrew Cooper’s paper, The State of Mind We Are In was the first that I read that made me think about the idea. This blog entry will in no way offer what Cooper’s paper offered but will give some insight into my thinking abut this issue.
So what am I defining “professional space” as? Well for me it is a mixture of the professional identities, the social policies that are around and the prevailing economic or social conditions that people are exposed to. For the purposes of this entry I will use my own experiences of working in Social Work in Scotland for the last twenty years.
In Scotland one of the major changes has been regional re-organisation and the move to smaller unitary authorities. I started my career in Strathclyde Regional Council which was a large organisation that covered much of Scotland. It was Labour controlled and when I joined it (around 1990) had not enjoyed a good relationship with the Conservative government. To say the least there were a number of areas of conflict. Not least a strange electoral arrangement that meant the Conservative government did not need significant support in Scotland in order to be re-elected.
So there was a large governmental organisation here that seemed opposed to central government. SRC had a strong social and moral conscience (at least it felt it did to me) There was a commitment to challenging discrimination and inequality and there was a strong focus on community development. While Social Work has always played a role in “control” it felt that “care” was more to the forefront and was underpinned by recognition of the relationship between poverty, discrimination and disadvantage was closely linked to family’s ability to provide adequate care.
Social Work was seen as pioneering in this regard. Social Work Departments had Community Development sections. Welfare Rights Officers were regarded by the Director of Social Work as his “urban guerrilla’s” and managers were often prepared to give significant resources toward developing strategic approaches to reducing poverty, inequality and disadvantage.
At that time there was little in the way of regulation, professional standards or indeed activities that focussed on counting services or other forms of inspection. Perhaps there was some sense of intellectual superiority about this, some idea that because of the altruistic nature of services and their high mindedness those activities such as these were demeaning. Certainly there was a sense of trust and of belonging. Almost all of the time you felt supported and you felt that you were working toward a higher, more strategic set of goals.
I liked it, that approach had a profound effect on me. I was young and newly qualified at the time and there was a sense of direction, a sense of unity, of organising around a higher set of goals, a sense of leadership as opposed to management. Perhaps I was too young, too idealistic and the goals were too grand but it was a good place to be. An exciting space to be in.
Twenty years on and much has changed. And why should it not? I do not want this post to be some pean to a lost time. Uncritical of the past and acerbic about the present. Of course there were many issues “back then” High mindedness is one thing but when does this become indulgent? Public money should not be spent aiming high when people who use services were not getting the highest quality that they deserve. The approaches of the regional council happened because there was an environment there that allowed them to happen as that environment changes so does the space people operate within, that is the way of the world.
To say our space is different now would be an understatement. The Regional Council is long gone, replaced by smaller unitary authorities each with it’s own financial, moral and personal economy of scale. The voices of service users are much more prominent as are those of carers. Professional registration and regulation is much greater as is ongoing personal and professional development. Social Work has a developing professional identity and social workers are viewed much more readily as professionals.
The golden thread of New Labour’s personalization and individualization of services moved relentlessly onward (although approaches such as this were developing under the previous government) and the current financial climate drives an agenda of “best value.” Services are subject to more thorough inspection and regulation and the concept of the 24/7 social worker has taken hold.
Social Work has, in my opinion, a greater recognition and a stronger professional identity. It has been elevated to a degree level qualification and the newer authorities offer greater opportunity for career development. Social Work seems now to have a more stable societal position; there is perhaps a greater recognition and understanding of the role of the social worker. As a profession it seems much better defined.
My concern is that a trade off has occurred, and I am not convinced of its benefit. Personalization and individualization offers a clearer definition of the role of the social worker, often described as some form of “broker.” Inherent in this are notions of professional assessments, and of advocacy. The emergence of the “carer” provides a third party that can provide comment on the professional role, a third party that has greater neutrality and a third party that has a sympathy from other members of society, many of whom do not have (or want) a caring role.
The regulation of services and of service providers presents a paradigm for value, the public can, if they want, see for themselves the quality of performance, they can decide for themselves if the service is good or bad. Increases in technology make the services more accessible, easier to reach. We have the growth of the expert (professional?) service user and an increased transparency around the activity of social workers.
All good? Well yes, but not an unreserved yes. Has those high minded, altruistic grand goals been sacrificed for this? Have we lost sight of the importance of service delivery being matched with a willingness to challenge the societal conditions that exacerbate it? Has the responsibility for this slid into the third sector, and in doing so became fragmented? I believe that the answer to this is yes, we do seem to have lost a vital perspective. People aren’t poor because of bad luck, or through their own fault. There are complex and indivualised reasons for this which I believe fall to Social Workers to understand and to attempt to challenge and / or resolve. I do not believe that social workers have a choice in this. I do not think it is good enough for social workers to focus on the individual and their needs at the expense of a wider perspective about how and why they got to where they are at in the first place.
The space changes but for me the challenges remain the same. Poverty, discrimination, and inequalities exist and grown in a climate where there is a lack of response to the reasons for their existence. A wise old social worker once said that the drama of public service deserved centre stage and should never be played out in the wings.