Criticality and reflexivity: Best practice in uncertain environments
Social work operates across those boundaries where public services impact upon private lives. It is a risky business, in changing and uncertain environments, and social workers meet the very different demands of institutions and the needs of individuals who depend upon the services they provide. These two perspectives, institutional and individual, are often conflicting and in recent years efforts to improve confidence in the effectiveness of institutional ‘systems’ have taken priority over regard to the personal, relationship-based services that traditionally characterized a social work service. Much energy still focuses on the organizational and systemic structures that support social work and foundational legislative changes continue to modernize, raise standards and increase the quality of social work (Department of Health 1998, 2000b; DCSF 2009b) while raising the profile of service user involvement. The underlying rationale of regulation is to modernize and standardize social work procedures through the increased use of schedules and ICT recording systems, to try and provide a greater consistency of service through threshold criteria and benchmarking and, overall, to increase a service user perspective that aims to rebalance the inherent risks of professional interventions into private lives. On the surface it seems counterproductive, if not positively Canute-like, to argue against attempts to ‘modernize’ and deliver riskfree certitude and assurance. However, I argue that such an approach cannot be the sole road to success without the necessarily challenging and risky professional social work practices of criticality and reflexivity. It is the central paradox of social work that an acceptance of creative
ambiguity offers the only sustainable basis for best professional social work practice in times of uncertainty.