I listened with interest to Lyndal Greenslade’s podcast and read the related paper with a mix of excitement and concern (Greenslade, McAuliffe, & Chenoweth, 2014; Podsocs, 2014). Both of these items were kindly posted on this website by Liz Beddoe. The podcast and paper described radical ways in which social workers in Australia work covertly to the advantage of their clients. For example, turning a blind eye to behaviour that was contrary to care plans, in order to avoid a more arbitrary use of power by other professionals. This covert activism must be considered in the context of the social workers’ ‘deep critical reflection’ on their practice, and an organisational climate experienced as being increasingly hostile to the professional values held by social workers.
The ethical considerations associated with ‘bending the rules’ and even ‘breaking the law’ seem, on first reading, to be, at the very least, concerning. While Greenslade positions the actions of some of the social workers she interviewed as being primarily about helping the client, I wondered – while wearing my somewhat faded manager’s hat – how this position would pan out in a disciplinary hearing? However, I found myself cheering at the creative ways in which the social workers interviewed bucked the system to the positive benefit of the people with whom they were working.
The podcast discussion explored the ways in which a robust ethical stance was maintained through the use of supervision and/or reflective discussions between small groups of radical social workers. I was reminded that when governments act to disadvantage people through socially and economically regressive, neo-liberal policies, social workers are often amongst the first to protest vehemently. Resistance though, as Greenslade points out, is never easy, it requires courage and collectivism. Social work has a long history of supporting and encouraging activism to empower people and resist injustice.
In the current climate of a neo-liberally led welfare system focussed on outcomes, efficiency, privatisation, ‘modernisation’ and the ‘investment approach’, the negative impacts on people in need of support is tangible. The passion and despair of social work colleagues was evident at a recent meeting I attended with Andrew Little, Leader of the Labour Party. Social workers, while describing the effects of current housing policy on their community, were often moved to tears in desperation as they told their stories. They wanted action.
Since the RSW Collective was formed and began to foster conversations about the CYF review and the so-called ‘expert panel’, I have received a number of e-mails and personal approaches to thank the RSW Collective for the work we have done. Many colleagues also felt the need to apologise for not being able to be more vociferous. Colleagues have referred to their employment obligation of ‘political neutrality’, thus preventing them from feeling able to openly comment on many issues of concern. This position of reprisal by employers, following open activism, was alluded to in Greenslade’s article. While I understand that some employers expect ‘political neutrality’ (indeed some contracts state this), I wonder whether this language may have become misconstrued. When social work values include advocacy, empowerment and the pursuit of social justice how can social workers stay silent? Why can we, in this profession, not be seen to have a voice that matters? It strikes me that neo-liberal policy is managing to prevent some of us from being able to have an opinion or a voice, causing us to feel unreasonably restricted. It also strikes me that not having that voice is counter-productive for our profession, and more importantly, counter-productive for the people we, as social workers, support. This position does not sit comfortably with me. I am regularly receiving messages that my colleagues are afraid to speak out against the injustices they experience every day. Fear is gagging our profession.
So what to do? Habermas described professional social workers as being unique because they need to be expert ‘boundary-spanners’(Murphy & Fleming, 2010) in that they have to be expert in managing to practice across a complex array of inter-relating and sometimes conflicting institutional structures and individual lives. So how can we wrench our way back to having a voice?
The answers, to me at least, seem quite simple. We need to stand together and make a noise. We can do this in many ways, together and anonymously, if that feels safer. Naturally my first position would be to use our professional organisation, Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW). If you are not already a member, I would strongly urge you to join. As an elected member to the ANZASW Board, of course I am going to encourage this. As social workers, I believe that we are stronger together. ANZASW has an online discussion forum regarding the CYF review, to which you could contribute in a safe environment. ANZASW will try to be responsive to your requests, they will shout collectively on your behalf through press releases, commentary etcetera. As an added benefit membership comes with professional indemnity cover, which is always reassuring! If this is not for you then consider The Tangata Whenua Social Work Association (TWSWA). Take a look at their website. ANZASW and TWSWA are connected and working together.
If professional associations are not for you then next (or if you like, as well as), I would look to other collective organisations such as your union, most likely to be PSA. PSA have a social work specific branch (Social Workers Action Network (SWAN) and a Maori specific branch (Te Rūnanga o Ngā Toa Āwhina). All of the above organisations have made connections, especially with regards to the CYF Review. There is strength in numbers.
In addition to a collective response through organisations, there is always the positive use of social media. Twitter and Facebook are being used avidly at the moment in response to the CYF Review. Many connections are being made. We advise using social media with care, many professionals set up separate professional and personal identities to maintain boundaries.
Finally, there are a range of websites and blogs that can be accessed including this site, which is a good example of how people can use social media to have a voice on issues affecting social work. Please read and while reading a blog post or a comment, have a think about what comes to mind for you, are there any pictures, words or phrases that pop into your head? Is there something that resonates with you? Does the blog post affirm any of your practice? If so, please try not to be afraid to comment, comment encourages more thought and it can be made anonymously.
Nowhere is the presence of neo-liberal governance more apparent than in the public service sector (Liebenberg, Ungar, & Ikeda, 2013).
In the face of a clear challenge to our profession and while recognising that most practitioners are busier than ever, quite often exhausted, what do you feel able to do? I wonder if, at the very least, you should raise the issue as an item in supervision. Have a robust discussion, in confidence, about issues such as the CYF Review, how it might affect you and your practice and what, if anything, you feel comfortable doing in response?
Perhaps though the harder question might be, when does not doing anything become so uncomfortable that doing something is the better option?
Simon Lowe: Simon is a Registered Social Worker and an elected member to the ANZASW Board. He is the Fieldwork Placement Coordinator on the Social Work programme at the University of Waikato and a PhD candidate at the University of Canterbury.
Greenslade, L., McAuliffe, D., & Chenoweth, L. (2014). Social workers’ experiences of covert workplace activism. Australian Social Work, 1-16. doi: 10.1080/0312407X.2014.940360
Liebenberg, L., Ungar, M., & Ikeda, J. (2013). Neo-liberalism and responsibilisation in the discourse of social service workers. British Journal of Social Work. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bct172
Murphy, M., & Fleming, T. (2010). Habermas, critical theory and education: Routledge.
Podsoc (2014). Closet activists and covert workplace activities: In conversation with Lyndal Greenslade [Episode 71 ]