Modernisation, deprofessionalisation and the role of the private sector

This guest blog post is by Peter Matthewson. Peter is a lecturer in the Department of Social Practice at Unitec. He has previously worked as a social worker in the former Department of Social Welfare, in the Probation Service, and in mental health.

The ‘Expert Panel’ tasked, in obscure corporate-speak, with producing ‘a programme level business case’ for modernising Child Youth and Family is clearly driven by a political agenda, and a predetermined message is likely to be delivered to Anne Tolley.  Further, the terms of reference presented to the ‘Expert Panel’ suggest a thinly disguised attack on our profession.

This evokes, for me, a strong sense of déjà vu regarding the fate of the New Zealand Probation Service in the late 1990s.  It is worth telling this story in some detail.  The Probation Service in New Zealand derives from the British tradition of probation which had a strong social work ethos.  When I started as a social worker with the then Department of Social Welfare, in the early 1980s, probation officers (employed by the then Department of Justice) were also part of the social worker public service occupational class.  When I joined the Probation Service in 1990, a social work qualification was a prerequisite.  Although the service was renamed as Community Corrections in the early 1990s the changes remained largely cosmetic, and probation officers had successfully resisted being renamed as community corrections officers. However, in 1995 the Department of Justice was restructured with Community Corrections and the prison service forming the new Department of Corrections.

A neoliberal and managerialist agenda came to dominate this new Department. Although the rehabilitation of offenders remained a primary focus, this was defined in narrow psychological terms, with a strong emphasis on individual responsibility for behaviour and interventions derived from cognitive behavioural therapy aimed at analysing offenders’ faulty thinking and teaching alternatives.  In this context probation officers were reduced from being professionals in their own right (with a recognised qualification, a professional association and a Code of Ethics) to being technicians tasked with implementing risk assessments and programmes devised by psychologists.  The social work qualification requirement for the probation officer position was abandoned, and a broader range of people were recruited, notably former Police and prison officers.  Could this be the fate awaiting CYF social workers?  Of course, unlike Corrections where the Department could change the qualification requirements for the job title of probation officer at will, the job title ‘social worker’ is written into the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, and other legislation. Could this be one of the reasons that paragraph 37 of the Minister’s Cabinet Paper states ‘it is possible proposals arising from the Modernising CYF business case will require legislative changes’.

Also included in the scope of the review is that ‘the core role and purpose of Child, Youth and Family; and opportunities for a stronger focus on this, including through outsourcing some services’. Of course ‘outsourcing’ social services for children, families and whanau to NGOs is nothing new, this predates the 1925 Child Welfare Act and is most recently seen in the Differential Response programme.  What, then, does the Minister intend? One possibility is suggested in a report that the UK Government is planning to outsource services for vulnerable children, including foster care, to profit making enterprises. The multinational corporation Serco is named as a potential bidder. Serco already has its massive foot in the door of the should-be-public services ‘market’ in this country, managing the Mt Eden and Wiri prisons. Serco’s other claims to fame, or rather infamy, include managing Australia’s immigration detention centres (which have been repeatedly condemned by the UN for flagrant human rights violations) and managing the UK’s nuclear weapons systems. The worst case scenario of CYF social workers being supplanted by child protection officers or similar, implementing a punitive model of practice, and actually employed by Serco or its ilk, is a horrifying prospect. See, for example, this recent report on the Serco run immigration detention centre in the UK.

Colleagues might be interested in Serco Watch, a FaceBook page dedicated to monitoring and disseminating information about the activities of Serco.

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