Policy swings and roundabouts: Social work in shifting social and economic contexts
The uncertainty that the social work profession faces in the early twentyfirst century is entirely typical of its development. The profession has a long lineage but its modern reincarnation came with the creation of local authority social services departments. The new departments were recommended by the Seebohm Report (1968) and the enactment of the Social Services Act (1970) brought training and a recognized national qualification for social workers. This final piece of legislation associated with the reforms of the 1960s saw social work emerge as a profession, in a way consistent with the social concerns of the time. More than any other profession, social work sets out to address what Mills (1970: 14-15) refers to as ‘personal troubles and public issues’. Social work is an expression of the belief that some personal troubles can only be addressed adequately when seen in the widest social context as public issues. Changes in policy may appear to be the source of uncertainty but policy and practice, although often apparently developing separately, are subject to the same influences. Some of the economic, political and social challenges that face social workers and social care agencies in the twenty-first century first became evident in the newly enhanced profession’s formative years. Post-Seebohm euphoria was barely over when Britain entered an economic recession brought on by the ‘oil crisis’ of 1973-4 and ambitions for personal social services were curtailed by severe cuts in public expenditure. Policy critiques of the post-war welfare settlement emerged before the new profession had found its feet. These came from across the ideological spectrum drawing on the rediscovery of poverty and the subsequent realization of its intractability
and the climate of economic uncertainty (Klein 1993). Moreover, before social work could tackle the impact of Cathy Come Home (an influential television documentary that drew the plight of homeless families to public attention) and the reaction to the troubled, complex, vulnerable lives that it showed, it was confronted by another source of contention, the emergence of child abuse and child death (manslaughter and murder) into the public arena (Howitt 1992). The publication of the report on Maria Caldwell’s death in 1973, while she was under the care and supervision of a social services department, came to have a sustained and growing impact on public policy and social work practice. The death of Maria Caldwell was among the first of a series of ‘crises’, not all related to childcare (Butler and Drakeford 2003), that raised questions about policy and progressively brought social work practice under the continuous public scrutiny, which led to professional self-doubt. The familiarity of recession, political scrutiny, public concern and selfquestioning to present-day social workers is misleading. Enduring issues do not signify an unchanged or unchanging world. The spirit of the age (Zeitgeist) in the twenty-first century differs from that of the 1970s. It is that of an ever-changing world, understood in very different ways; in relation to globalization, consumerism, individuation and rights. The ambiguities that are engendered in this ‘runaway world’ (Giddens 2002) complicate both the making of policy and social intervention, including social work. One reaction to this challenge is the pursuit of radical alternatives to ‘reclaim’ social work (Ferguson 2008b). While the radical tradition has been influential in relation to ideas, it has been less so in relation to practice and professional development (Powell 2001). Policy and practice are both bedevilled by prevailing uncertainty. Social workers are faced with intractable public expectations in relation to complex, value-laden issues and pressure to respond. This is not an entirely rational process and the outcomes are often contested and judged. Accordingly, this chapter attempts to shape a critical focus on policy as it develops alongside societal change and its implications for present and future professional development and practice. Runaway change and the uncertainty that it engenders is associated with the ‘risk society’ and as an important factor in the reconfiguration of the post-war welfare state it has been of significance in social work (Beck 1992; Giddens 2002). Rapid change and the uncertainty and complexity that it produces expose risk, making risk a preoccupation of individuals. The impossibility of dealing adequately with such risk has called expertise into question by fragmenting and democratizing sources of action. People demand action from government but no longer rely on it, which legitimizes the distrust of government and its agencies, including social care agencies and the social work profession. Faced with irreconcilable demands, government has resorted to the expansion of accountability systems in order to be seen to act. Kemshall* (2002), therefore, refers to the shift of social work practice away from welfare towards risk. The change has been produced by
the proliferation of managerialist rule systems, a defensive action with the primary aim of protecting government welfare agencies and their agents, including social workers. Recourse to bureaucratic systems associated with Weberian modernist sociology is an interesting and apparently contradictory response by welfare systems to a global world that is characterized by rapid change and flexible structures (Webb* 2006). The contradiction stems from government’s need to be accountable and be seen to act and take or fix responsibility. In an uncertain and rapidly changing world, reducing risk implies implementing prevention strategies and what has been termed ‘responsibilization’ (Rose 1996). Enabling practice is, to some extent, a product of this shift in welfare agencies from solving to managing problems with consent or in partnership.