The challenges facing social work managers

By Sharon Lambley

Whatever country a manager works in, and however social work is organised in that country, the policy changes sweeping through welfare systems across Europe are proving immensely challenging for managers to implement. International Social work Day provides a welcome opportunity to reflect upon these challenges.

The social work managers I teach are looking for answers to some very complex management problems.  They want to know how, for example, they can balance resource allocations, legal, policy and risk considerations, service user expectations and social work values, within complex (and often hostile) systems that are over-stretched and driven by imposed performance targets.  They know that the decision they make with others will have life changing consequences for citizens. Whilst the negative impact of neo-liberal policies and managerialist practices are well documented, what is less understood is what might be working and why, which makes teaching in this area challenging.

Some recent research by Dustin (2007), Evans (2010) and Munro (2011) in England has provided insight into what is shaping social work and its management practices (in very different ways) which helps to de-construct the lived experiences of practitioners and managers. Consumerist approaches that engage citizens through complaints processes (even in child protection work – see Slettebo, 2011 research in Norway) contrast with co-production strategies that provide opportunities for shared power, and in some situations, citizen led services (Needham, 2009).  These provide a useful context for understanding the different business models that are emerging to support social work.  In addition, these perspectives help to make sense of why social work roles are being transformed or indeed replaced by new workers, who have been described in Denmark as ‘professionals without a profession’ by Van Beerkel et all, (2011).  However, the management solutions that are being adopted from general management theories and approaches are problematic, and this knowledge needs to be challenged as it’s often inappropriately adapted for social work (Lawler and Bilson, 2010). Some academics are trying to bring together the world of management and social work.  Simmonds, (2010) work on relating in supervision, Wilsons work on leading practice improvement in front line child protection, and Ruch’s (2011) work on feelings in relationship based management are very interesting papers that try to bridge the gap between management and social work practice.  My own research is revealing how supervision practices are changing to accommodate new business models and citizen expectations, and my co-researcher colleagues and I are seeking evidence of what might be working well, and why.  There is much more to do.

This blog has enabled me to share my thoughts with you and I am now interested in knowing what you might be working on (or thinking about).  Lets share our thoughts on international social work day!


March 18, 2012. World Social Work Day.

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