An innovative approach to the study and practice of social work values
This chapter does not discuss the nature of social work values per se, rather it suggests a different way to study and practise social work values using new technology. It features an examination of one web-interactive system that aims to allow detailed reflection and iterative inspection of values when they arise in interdisciplinary practice situations. The context for social work practice is changing and web-based Information Communication Technology (ICT) is likely to become a part of the study and practice of the social work process itself and will always throw up challenges. The use of new technologies in the study and practice of social work practice can give rise to Orwellian or Frankensteinian fears, and equally to misplaced enthusiasm for gadgets and electronic trickery. The latter may reflect a desire to avoid or escape from the necessity generating valid relationships with service users – often the difficult heart of the social work role (Gorman 2003). For example, a criticism that has been levelled at the ‘electronic Common Assessment Framework’ provided for childcare social workers in England, is that it takes social workers away from direct client contact (Pithouse et al. 2009; White et al. 2009). Both in the Laming Report (Cm 5730 2003: 32-5) and also in the Report of the Social Work Task Force (DCSF 2009b: 3) there has been substantial criticism of ICT systems which provide a basis for consistent record keeping and multidisciplinary communication. Yet the prospect of using new technologies in social work is not necessarily an aspect of Orwellian ‘Newspeak’, nor is it monstrous. It is perhaps a question of balance and judging how to make the best use of what ICT offers in the context of social work practice. We therefore need to adopt a view which sees the use of ICT in professional practice as part of ‘real’ social work (Chapter 21) while at the same
time we need to evaluate the utility of each software application, as there is certainly no technological ‘magic bullet’ that can substitute for building relationships with service users. That said, we may also need to avoid antagonistic dualism between ‘real’ social work and ICT in the (social work) workplace. Failing to do so could perhaps adversely prejudice attitudes to new developments where new technology offers the prospect of collaborative learning for practice. This chapter introduces and discusses an example of how ICT can be used to identify, analyse and discuss the values that underpin practice to support rather than avoid building relationships. Values are fundamentally a collection of ideas, beliefs and suppositions that people have about themselves and the social world they live in. Yet values can be slippery:
the concept ‘values’ is one of those portmanteau concepts which chases after mean ing, like ‘community’. It derives its popularity and legitimacy from the fact that it is an apparently simple, universally accessible concept which has a simple unexcep tional primary meaning (a value is something people value) which conceals a large number of secondary meanings and understandings … The notions of value can easily slip, chameleon-like, between users and utterances, delighting all and offending none because most people do not take the trouble to think about what they actually mean in their own lives and those of others.