Compliant & Complicit: Scottish Social Work is Failing

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Social Work has been envisioned by practitioners as a moral crusade, helping to repair some of the social damage created by economic competition and social alienation. But Lauren Henderson warns that the Scottish profession has been warped by capitalism, to the extent that many social workers have been turned into agents of social control.

There is no evidence of a ‘moral reset’ brought about by the global pandemic. The present crisis may in fact present a new and unique opportunity to thrust a form of ‘ultra-austerity’ on an emotionally and politically fatigued populace. The deepening economic gulf and further suppression of the rights of people to participate in society – the working class, minority ethnic and other groups, homeless people, asylum seekers, refugees, migrants and older people – should be of extreme concern to social workers in Scotland. This article will outline the problems facing social work in Scotland, even before these new challenges descend. Can we re-invigorate social work as a humane response to social crisis?

The introduction of Community Care legislation in the 1990’s has arguably been the most significant assault on the identity of the social work profession in Scotland since its foundation. The shift from social work departments as the direct providers of services to that of ‘‘purchasers’’, alongside the managerialism driven by legislation and social policy, has further pushed social workers from the position of agents of change to agents of social control.

Newly-qualified social workers in statutory services, and fulfilling the roles of ‘Care Managers’ may understandably have difficulties identifying as ‘radical’ – their reality is a resource-lean, arbitrary eligibility-led system of responding to, rather than preventing, problems in citizens’ lives. A deeper and overt concern for tackling the genesis of inequality and oppression is therefore perhaps not in their daily remit, and attempts to redefine social work remain at best limited, at worst facile. The pervasive managerialism which the profession is increasingly subject to has done much to maintain the status-quo and the accusation that social work is yet another means to police the vulnerable carries some legitimacy.

In a double-whammy, social workers have been forced to swallow the bitter pill of a top-down neoliberalisation of their profession, combined with media and political accusations of social work education ‘peddling Marxist rubbish’. These twin pressures mean the profession remains in the hold of the broader neoliberal philosophy that pervades society. In practice, we see this evidenced by the increasing privatisation of services. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that the vulnerable in society should be able to rely on social workers as allies, however we know that often adults who have “been through” the system themselves are deemed as unfit parents before they even become parents. The myth of the deserving poor and the pathologisation and individualisation of poverty has become widespread. Badly written records which can’t be redacted or the practice of ‘copy and paste’ in formal reporting doesn’t align with the oft-asserted position that ‘we treat people as individuals’ and ‘operate rigorous monitoring and review systems’.

At the same time, poor practises in the profession need to be understood as arising from a demoralised workforce. There is a culture of risk aversion which has led to much of social work practice being described as a ‘tick box exercise’. We also hear of the blame culture within the profession, leading to feelings of overwhelming isolation and reluctance of individual workers to admit they are struggling. In a stinging irony, we see that the care sector cares little for those who work in it. Social workers claim to understand the importance of validation in their work with service users – such as in recognising that a person affected by dementia is not best supported by being ‘orientated with reality’, but instead needs respectful and empathetic acknowledgement of their experience at the time. Workers should surely be able to expect the same as it relates to the struggles they experience, as opposed to being met with anger or dismissiveness from their managers. Calls to ‘toughen up’, or what might justifiably be seen as a highly personal attack that they are ‘just not cut out for it’, place incredible pressure on individual workers, and—in another irony—places the blame and responsibility firmly in the arena of the individual rather than the system.

The elite’s position that the working class, as non-viable economic units, are entirely to blame for experiences of poverty, hunger, unemployment, increasing homelessness, lack of access to health, social care and education, sustains the discourse around individual responsibility and the continued need for the reduction in the role of the state. The current problem facing social work is the tension between professional values and the market-driven agenda which increases the risks of workers becoming products of the ideological superstructure of dominant neoliberal capitalism. An example of this hegemony can be evidenced in the politicisation of the concept of ‘resilience’ itself. If Client A can employ the necessary resilience to escape poverty, beat addiction, gain a sound education, access better housing and healthcare; to become upwardly socially mobile then why can’t Clients B to Z? The focus then moves away from the part played by structural inequality, placing it in the realm of individual responsibility and a ‘survival of the fittest’ mindset, which legitimises the need for social work to focus more on social control (of those who don’t employ resilience) as opposed to change. The promotion of self-care to cultivate resilience is increasingly viewed as the responsibility of individual social workers, whilst the role and responsibilities of employers, regulatory bodies and the government are little explored. It might be argued then that resilience is simply another state-imposed value.

If the Scottish Government is the human rights-orientated body which it resolutely professes to be, this needs to be reflected in its approach to supporting the social work discipline in Scotland and its practitioners. The ‘Personalisation Agenda’ was fundamental to the government’s ‘21st Century Review of Social Work’, apparently underpinned by the human rights principles of fairness, respect, equality, dignity and autonomy. In reality, the increase of managerialism within the profession, against a backdrop of austerity, has merely created more barriers to facilitate social change. The lack of focus on relationship and community based social work in both education and practice has long been lamented by some and the rhetoric around the creation of integrated health and social care partnerships, in the form of 31 localities across Scotland, has thus far failed to provide ‘local solutions for local problems by local people’. Local governments and services have become more centralised, consistent with the shaping of global, regional and industry agendas by the elite. Social Work as one such industry is at odds with the market-driven agenda, with the public management models which came to the fore in the 1990s giving the profession senior managers, often with little clinical or operational experience.

We need look no further than the Conservative Party aligned think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), as an example of how to frame the ‘evidence-base’ to legitimise and drive the policy agenda in fields like social work. An example of this is demonstrated by the CSJ’s ‘evidence’, that to support the ageing workforce the pension age must be raised to 75 – clearly grounded in reducing the fiscal impact of an ageing population. Real evidence of the state’s subordination to capital is realised daily in its response to the global pandemic as it continues to pursue profit before people. This reinforces the need for action to secure a more socially just future and to realise social work’s part within this. The International Federation of Social Workers lays down the principles which create the ethical tensions experienced by practitioners; with demands to challenge ‘institutional oppression’ whilst ensuring clients have ‘access to equitable resources’, clearly in contradiction with the real conditions of social work. The pressures and conflicts within the profession are tangible, as maintenance of the status-quo via continued exertion of neoliberal principles, further removes it from its supposed inherently political foundation.

Whilst political will for radical social work in Scotland to provide the critical alternative to the current status-quo approach is wanting, the emergence of the so called ‘new radicalism’ movement within the profession, should be welcomed. Practitioners, students and academics who identify as ‘radical’, do so to set themselves apart from the ‘status-quo’ ideology and approach to the discipline. The inextricable link between politics and social work is recognised as central, and as such so too is political and professional affiliation. The domination of neoliberal ideas bestowed new forms of regulation and governance on social work education, creating a shift from a more intellectually-orientated dissemination of ideas and knowledge; to greater prioritisation of ‘statutory social work’ and ‘organisational contexts’. Whereas once students were introduced to professional values and ethics through the lens of social philosophy, this no longer exists within current curricula and in fact any teaching on philosophical underpinnings has been greatly diluted.

It is not unusual, in this climate, for social work students to express a lack of interest in politics and social policy, prompting frustration among some educators attempting to provide insight into the link between these fields and the profession. Theories of social work have changed a great deal over the decades from the American Jesuit Felix Beistek’s traditional case work principles of the 1960s, which mixed well with Scotland’s paternalistic attitude to social welfare and change and the false generosity inherent in charity, to contemporary debates around Scottish social work’s potential to be yet another oppressive institution. Explorations of the traditional moral values which have underpinned social work; as well as the need to decolonise education and practice, is clearly welcome if it is to extend beyond lip-service paid to the need to ‘promote diversity’ and ‘acknowledge our privilege’.

Cognisance of the value systems in which we are embedded is therefore essential if we are to heighten awareness of how broader social, political and economic narratives position our roles in society. Being aware and receptive to seeing the wider structures that surround our professions and determine our actions allows us to see that jargonistic calls to ‘resilience’ and ‘self-care’ may involve misdirection. The promotion of self-care to cultivate resilience is increasingly viewed as the responsibility of individual social workers, whilst the roles and responsibilities of employers, regulatory bodies and the government are little explored. Calls to build resilience can simply deflect attention away from wider social forces and onto the individual whose needs become stigmatised.

As educators, we too occupy a position of privilege and power and if social workers are guilty of being ‘products’ of the ideological superstructure of neoliberal capitalism then the picture for educators is surely no different – classed by many as the middle elite, accused of passive intellectualism and forced to choose between objective neutrality and activism. Researchers involved in community-engaged research may experience this conflict alongside fears of falling into the category of the ‘professional managerial class’ or worse still, of ‘academic activist’ having a ‘fetish for anarchist procedures’. The intensifying debate on the role of academics in a democracy highlights the need for professional and researcher integrity in any and all pursuits to address inequality.

The recent publication of the Independent Review of Adult Social Care in Scotland commissioned by the Scottish Government, represents many contradictions in modern social work. Consultation for the review was apparently ‘far and wide’, including people-led policy panels in the context of wider discussions about a National Care Service. There is much talk of ‘radical transformative solutions’ and recognition that the mechanisms for ensuring local improvement in our current social care system are not sufficiently robust. There is also recognition that the current system of commissioning – the ‘mixed economy of care’ introduced by the aforementioned Community Care legislation of the 1990s- will remain. Domination by market forces and competitive tendering for the purchasing of services is viewed as acceptable and necessary in how social care – and therefore social work – will continue to function in Scotland. Given the pursuit of profit is central to the neoliberal agenda, the proposed ‘radical transformative solutions’ seem some way off.

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