A guest post by John Darroch
As many readers of this blog will be aware the government is currently considering the Social Workers Registration Bill. This bill was introduced to parliament in 2017 and contained a range of changes including mandatory registration and title protection for social workers. This bill has been through the select committee process, allowing for public submissions, and is currently awaiting its third reading in parliament.
Recently however, a new Supplementary Order Paper (SOP) introduced by Carmel Sepuloni has dramatically changed the purpose of the bill, and has the potential to significantly disrupt the social work profession in Aotearoa. The proposed SOP would change the registration process so that registered social workers will no longer have the ability to practice in whatever area they wish to. Instead, registration would involve applying to practice within a certain Scope of Practice. In order to gain endorsement to practice within a particular scope the applicant would have to meet conditions set by the SWRB. It seems likely that this will involve minimum levels of training, or demonstration of specific knowledge and/or experience relating to a particular type of social work.
This is a fundamental change to the purpose of the bill, and to the structure of the social work profession in Aotearoa. Without further information, and debate, we have no real idea what the implications of this SOP may be.
For example, social workers who wish to change their area of focus may be required to undertake costly postgraduate training. Organisations, which face having to recruit from a small pool of social workers endorsed in a specific scope of practice, may choose to define roles as non-social work. A social worker in a small community, faced with complex multi-layered problems, may risk disciplinary proceedings if they choose to work across a range of different scopes of practice.
These risks are amplified by the lack of democratic control over the Social Work Registration Board by the profession. The board is not accountable to social workers, and we cannot choose who is on it. The fact that control lies in the hands of government means that such scopes of practice could be used to further direct social work towards a neo-liberal conceptualisation of social work.
This is a view of social work in which social workers are functionaries applying a narrow range of specialised skills – rather than social change agents who are working across communities and issues.
It is my opinion that this SOP should be withdrawn, and that the bill should proceed to a vote in its current form. Should Carmel Sepuloni wish to proceed with the proposals contained in the SOP a future bill should be submitted. This would allow for the select committee process to fully consider the impacts of such a change.
Here are some of the potential problems I see with the SOP. I apologise in advance for a lack of references to the writers who have informed my thinking in the following sections. This post has been written at short notice due to the fact that parliament is voting on the SOP in the near future.
Worsening problems with organisations skirting around hiring registered social workers
One of the key issues with the proposed bill (prior to the introduction of the SOP) was that it only covered people who chose to call themselves social workers, and jobs which employers chose to define as social work. Many submitters to the bill highlighted this issue and the risk that organisations could re-define roles to not specifically require social workers.
Dr Carole Adamson’s (2018) submission to the select committee highlights this risk clearly:
The risks inherent in this Bill’s wording is that it hands the responsibility to define the role over to an employer, who may choose to call the tasks (that require a professionally qualified social worker to competently fulfill them) something other than ‘social work’, in which case there is the potential to employ someone without social work qualifications (because they don’t have to pay the costs of registration, continuing professional development and supervision)
The proposed SOP does not resolve this problem, instead I believe it exacerbates it. Instead of simply being able to recruit a registered social worker, certain positions would require that organisations hire a social worker who held (or was eligible for) appropriate endorsements.
In principle requiring social workers to have appropriate knowledge for a specific role is clearly a good thing. However, faced with recruiting from a narrower range of eligible social workers, it seems likely that some organisations will simply choose not to define roles with reference to social work.
This is not a hypothetical risk. Anecdotally I have heard several stories of social workers who currently have had to fight with their employers in order to get them to pay costs associated with registration. I have even heard cases where individual social workers have had to personally cover the costs associated with being registered, such as supervision.
We also have an existing issue with organisations failing to recognise that certain positions should be filled by registered social workers. This is not only confined to non-governmental organisations, many of which are not funded adequately, but (in my anecdotal experience) extends to governmental organisations such as Probation.
The SOP seems to respond to submitters concerns, not by putting any meaningful protections in place to ensure that organisations actually hire qualified social workers, but rather by increasing the incentive for organisations to fail to do so.
I note that in the select committee report (Social Services and Community Committee, 2018) there is an explicit recognition that government needs to work on ensuring that organisations receive adequate funding to cover costs associated with mandatory registration. This is sensible, and I hope that the current Labour government follows through on this suggestion. As a profession however, we need to face the reality that future governments are likely to continuing implement policies of neoliberal austerity. A regulatory regime which works while there is ample funding available may be deeply problematic if organisations are struggling to remain in operation.
Risk that scopes of practice do not recognise the reality of practice
Once again I must start this section by stating that we do not know what the scopes of practice for social work will look like.
It is fairly easy to imagine however that there will be a range of scopes which cover areas which are seen as core domains of social work practice. For example, there could be a scope of practice relating to child protection, requiring specific knowledge and training in this area.
One of the potential issues with this approach is that it could cause significant problems for social workers whose practice covers a range of different domains. For example, it is easy to imagine a social worker in a small community whose practice transcends boundaries. They may work with clients who have issues with substance abuse, families where violence is occurring, and with young people who are in need. Indeed, they may work with families where all issues are present concurrently. This is the reality of practice for many social workers, practice is dynamic and often involves complex issues. Theoretically, such a social worker could be registered to work across several scopes of practice, and this could provide a simple solution to the problem.
I would anticipate that at first this is the path that the SWRB will take, recognising prior experience in order to allow for social workers to continue practicing. Over time it seems likely however that the SWRB may require formal post-graduate training in order for a social worker to be recognised as having the knowledge to practice in a certain domain. If this were to occur, the (imaginary) social worker may face a very real risk of choosing not to work on certain issues in their community, or risking disciplinary action by going beyond their scope of practice.
Future costs likely to be shouldered by students
It seems almost certain that over time scopes of practice will come with a requirement for relevant post-qualifying education. This is something which I, in principle, like the idea of. I was well aware upon my qualification from a BSW (hons) degree that I had a basic set of skills which would need further professional development.
One of the risks I see with the possibility of a future requirement for training is that the cost of such training is likely to be shouldered by students. As a tutor, and post-graduate student, I have first hand experience of how the current system causes harm. We currently have no post-graduate student allowance in Aotearoa, and the undergraduate allowance is insufficient to live on.
If practicing in a certain area (like child protection) were to require post-qualifying training, and this cost was carried by students, then it would risk creating a tiered system in which privileged students were more able to enter certain areas of practice. Any changes to social work registration must grapple with the systemic racism and oppression play in society, in tertiary education, and in practice (Keddell & Hyslop, 2019).
I also can’t help but think that new scopes of practice will continue to privilege academic knowledge generated with western constructs – ignoring the wealth of knowledge and expertise that Māori hold. In order to address these concerns, we need clarity on what scopes of practice will involve, and what the requirements for meeting them will include. We need to know what the road-map is for social work – and an understanding of the systemic consequences of the proposed changes. Taken to its extreme we risk qualified social workers finding that they are in effect “locked-in” to certain fields of practice – unable to afford the cost or disruption required to meet a new scope of practice.
Risk that scopes of practice do not reflect the social change mandate of the profession
At present the Core Competence Standard which the SWRB requires social workers to meet contain explicit requirements that all social workers are actively shaping social policy and acting to bring about structural change within society. These competencies reflect the fact that the defining feature of social work isn’t the narrow application of skills, it is an active commitment to change society.
I am not confident that future scopes of practice will reflect this commitment. Instead I believe that they are likely to narrowly focus on casework skills. Even if this is not immediately the case, the fact that the board is politically appointed and is not accountable to the profession, means we should be cautious about giving away power to define significant aspect of social work practice.
This blog post has focused on the negative aspects of scopes of practice, this is deliberate, and not meant to obscure the fact that there are genuine reasons to support having scopes of practice for social work. Instead I am hoping that this post conveys the significance of the proposed changes contained in the SOP, and illustrate why robust debate within the profession should be taking place.
I believe that until such debate has occurred, and we have more clarity about the proposed changes, the SOP should not go forward. If parliament does vote to accept this SOP then I believe it will be circumventing the select committee process and the legitimate concerns that many social workers will have about the proposed restructuring of the profession.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Eileen Joy and Liz Beddoe for the discussion on Twitter which sparked this blog post, and their suggestions for the post.
Image credit: Paul Carmona
Adamson, C. (2018). Social workers registration legislation bill – Carole Adamson .Retrieved from https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/sc/submissions-and-advice/document/52SCSS_EVI_74844_368/carole-adamson-dr
Keddell, E., & Hyslop, I. (2019). Ethnic inequalities in child welfare: The role of practitioner risk perceptions. Child & Family Social Work, 0(0) doi:10.1111/cfs.1262
Social Services and Community Committee. (2018). Social workers registration legislation bill – New Zealand Parliament: Final report of the social services and community committee. Retrieved from https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/sc/reports/document/SCR_78026/social-workers-registration-legislation-bill