AASW election 2017: reflections on our voting system and the challenges ahead

Another AASW election has come and gone. Most of the membership barely noticed.

8,917 members were eligible to vote, but only 1,608 did so; a bare 18%, and only a small improvement on last year. Of the remaining 7,309 members, most would have tossed their ballot papers into the bin. Well-intentioned but overly restrictive election by laws have contributed to keeping AASW elections a low participation sport.

The AASW however, has a very simple means at its disposal to significantly increase participation. It can ensure that every year there is an online forum/debate available for any member to log in live, or view later. This would give every candidate an opportunity to present their policies and answer questions. The mechanism to establish the format with an independent chair can easily be set up with appropriate by laws.

Candidates might also be more civil to each other if they conversed live – face to face. Indeed, I have on occasion felt that some candidates seem appalled that I have the temerity to be standing against them at all. They forget that a contest enhances legitimacy for the winners. We honour democracy and our opponents by showing up.

For a handful of members (around 500) the election was much livelier, due to their membership of social work Facebook groups that encouraged election discussion. (Kudos to the administrators of those groups). I do wonder what the non member social workers in those groups thought about some of the exchanges.

The results were as follows

National President

Christine Craik was elected National President.

Christine Craik (Craik ticket) 689 votes 43%

Vittorio Cintio (members first ticket) 626 votes 39%

Marie-Claire Cheron-Sauer 293 votes 18%

 

National Vice President

Lynne Harrold is elected National Vice President.

Lynne Harrold (members first ticket) 864 votes 57%

Barbara Moerd (Craik ticket) 639 votes 43%

 

National Directors

Peter Munn and Jenny Rose are elected National Directors.

Peter Munn(Craik ticket recommendation)  626 votes 21.4%

Jenny Rose (Craik ticket) 568 votes 19.5%

Julianne Whyte (members first ticket) 532 18.2%

Christine Fejo-King 479 votes 16.4%

David Gould 477 votes 16.3%

Jill Garratt 237 votes 8.1%

Congratulations to the winners. I am particularly pleased that my friend and members first running mate, Lynne Harrold, won a Vice President position. She will be a breathe of fresh air on the Board.

The result of the election was a serious wake up call for the ruling majority on the Board. Support for the ruling majority ticket declined again this year. In the election for President, Vice President and 2 Board members, the ticket of the current ruling majority yielded very similar percentages; for President 43%; for Vice President 43%; and for Board members 41%.  It is clear that 57% of voters are now unconvinced by the scare tactics of the ruling majority, or their narrative of trusting an experienced, safe pair of hands.

Despite their low 40’s percentage, the Craik ticket won three of the four positions up for grabs. This is simply due to the vagaries of ‘first past the post’ voting, particularly in circumstances where there are more than two candidates. If Christine Craik had only faced one challenger, either myself or Marie Claire, she might well have been defeated. And equally in an optional preferential system, facing two opponents swapping preferences, she might also have lost. Similarly, in an optional preferential system, challengers swopping preferences where two Board positions are available, would have in all likelihood, ensured that the Craik ticket and challengers got one position each, in the voting patterns apparent in 2017.

Let me be very clear that I am not questioning the legitimacy of the result. The rules are the rules. British government elections have been run in ‘first past the post’ fashion for many years. If I had been successful in a first past the post system, I would have taken the result- thank you very much! To quote an old Persian proverb- the dogs bark but the caravan moves on.

What I am questioning is the ‘first past the post’ system itself. Three years ago, on the recommendation of the independent Returning Officer it hires to run elections, The AASW adopted the optional preferential system. It is a system Australians are very familiar with, being used in most government elections. In 2016 however, the AASW returned to first past the post voting, without explanation, despite the Returning Officer’s advice to the contrary. To make matters worse, the AASW refused to release the Returning Officer’s report from last year’s election; something that most organisations release as a matter of course.

The optional preferential system is widely acknowledged as both fairer and more likely to honour diversity. Second and third preferences are meaningful, and matter when there are more than two candidates for a position.  Two years of ‘first past the post’ voting have ensured that the ruling majority have six out of the eight contested positions (75%), whilst having less than 50% of voting member support. Monocultures might be convenient in the short term, but cultures need diversity to thrive. An optional preferential system would have delivered a far more diverse and representative Board. The first past the post system is blind to any sense of representative fairness-  it will deliver lopsided, winner take all results, for whoever gets their nose in front.

As I have stated repeatedly, it is a disgrace for an organisation with a commitment to fairness and social justice to continue using a ‘first past the post’ system.

 Policy Challenges

Turning to the policy issues, six years of treading water has led to an urgent build-up of issues that need to be addressed.

  • The revised ASWEAS is imploding before the ink is dry on the new rules.
  • There is a shortage of quality student placements. We have no analysis of the root causes, and as yet no clear plan to address the issue.
  • We are far too reliant on member fees for income. For other associations CPD is a significant part of their revenue stream.
  • Members are crying out for specialisation and credentialing.
  • 14,500 social work students need to be signed up en masse.
  • We need to work with trade unions to protect social workers being asked to provide services in unethical circumstances.
  • We need innovation in providing networks for our members to connect with each other. This can’t be left to Facebook.
  • We need better and more responsive service to private practitioners.
  • We have 1,500 members on the introductory new graduate fee. Without a nationwide mentoring program, we can expect a significant number of these new graduates will not transfer to full fee membership.

The new Board has much work to do. I am sure we all wish it well, and hope it gets cracking.

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A personal reflection on the 2017 election and beyond

I am exhausted, and glad the election is just about over. All that is left is to ask people to take the time to go to the post office.

As is my habit of past years, I have taken down all my election posts. They are flotsam and jetsam against the hard shores of reality. But this post will stay.

Maybe because I am an optimist, I think that this will be the last election that looks backwards, and is overshadowed by the events of 2010/11.

I have regrets about that period. As a senior person in the AASW I could and should have done more to de-escalate the passions and tensions of that time. I suspect that there are other more eminent social workers than me, who now also feel the same.

Over the years it has become more and more apparent to me that the best way to live is to recognise the indivisible dignity of every human being. Easy to say and very hard to do.

We are wired for fight or flight. Decisions are arrived at through adversarial debate rather than a spirit of enquiry.  Social media quite consciously corals us into our separate camps: convenient echo chambers that reinforce our self-righteousness and sense of entitlement. Feuds that could be settled go on and on. I don’t claim any high moral ground in that regard.

But if we are to proceed in the best interests of social work we need to be respectful, inclusive and magnanimous. We need to focus on areas of agreement and strive for consensus. (Just about the opposite of the way elections are conducted!) The last thing the new Board will need is a forensic raking of the coals of this election. I put my hand up for having made that mistake before. Never again! Our members are entitled to a harmonious Board that does not nurse grudges and looks to the future.

Anybody who makes a voluntary contribution to the AASW, whether we agree with their politics or not, ought to be appreciated and honoured. Members who serve in elected positions build up rich knowledge and experience: not something to be lightly discarded. Outgoing Board members should be encouraged to stay involved and serve in other capacities. Past Presidents in particular have an enormous amount to offer. If we do not take advantage of this, we have failed in the simplest measures of our own values, allowing political passions to overcome common sense and decency.

If (by some miracle) I am the next President of the AASW, I will make every effort to reach out to Karen Healy. She has put in 6 years of hard work on behalf of all of us, built up networks, knowledge and insights that are invaluable. She deserves to be thanked and  revered, as do all past Presidents. I would hope that she would join the College. It would be a rich addition. And I would hope that she would continue to offer her counsel to the AASW in her areas of expertise. I would certainly welcome it. I hope to have the kind of relationship where I can just pick up the phone and ask for her advice. I would certainly need it.

We also owe our members this kind of continuity within and between Boards.

The average member might be mystified that these things need to be said at all, (and so this post is more a message for my senior colleagues). Most people would expect that this is the way we always do business. So let’s do our best to live up to it.

In the event that I am not elected, I will be back again next year and in following years offering my service. I think I have something to give by way of leadership and the right policies to set us up for a healthy future.

Next year I also plan to venture into podcasting with a colleague: a mixture of culture, politics and interesting interviews. I am anticipating it will be fun. We have a working title: “A Pair of Do- Gooders”!

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Aged Care: opportunities for social work to make a difference

Building an Integrated Practice in the Private Sector

By Lynne Harroldsocial work aged care

The community aged care sector for older adults is growing exponentially and will continue to do so as our population ages. The facts are there and the projections are clear, but despite this knowledge it seems that private social workers are lagging somewhat behind other professions in moving into this sector.  The challenge has in part been to do with the reluctance of this current aged cohort to seek our services,  and the restrictions of Medicare funding for residents in high care facilities. However all that is changing.

The current ageing of the very psychologically minded baby boomers has begun to change the culture in this sector with the demand growing for any type of service that can assist their needs. Furthermore funding streams are opening up. Prior to the introduction of My AGED CARE and the NDIS, private work in this field has been primarily limited to accredited mental health social workers via Medicare and DVA.

Changing systems creates opportunities and this is the time to start embracing these changes and start claiming our space in the market. We are needed and if we do not take leadership as a profession to claim that space, social workers will miss out and so will our clients.

The sector is becoming increasingly competitive with corporate enterprises vying for their share, in what is expected to be an increasing consumer driven market. Large GP super clinics employing allied health teams are partnering with some of the larger retirement villages and residential aged care facilities, which in effect make it difficult for the sole practitioner to access clients. Psychologists are developing specialist gerontology courses and positioning themselves in Aged Care facilities.

So how does the lone social worker navigate this terraine? How do we position ourselves in the market? Do we go it alone or are there safer options?

I would like to share my experience of how I am attempting to navigate this changing system on the NSW Central Coast an area which has the highest proportion of people aged 65 and over in the country. After many years of working as a sole practitioner in Sydney I made the decision only 12 months ago to resettle.  I also wanted to work with a team of like- minded social workers. The professional isolation of the sole practitioner was no longer for me.  I wanted to build a service that included a team of social workers who could deliver an array of services to the community aged care sector. My vision was to create mobile services for older adults living at home, and educational support to the aged care workforce. Not quite 10 months later I now have three people on that team with huge potential to grow.

So how has this been achieved?

We have aligned ourselves with several other private allied health services to set up the Central Coast Allied Health network. This network provides an array of mobile services to give wrap -around assistance to older adults  at home. Being able to offer a more holistic service to our clients is something that is crucial in being able to work with this age group who often have complex physical, social and mental health needs.

The network includes occupational therapists, dieticians, speech therapists, exercise physiologists, physiotherapists, podiatrists, naturopaths and of course social workers. It is this alliance and the cross referrals from these services that has created the foundation from which we grew our business in the early months. We facilitated this by educating each business as to our role, when referrals would be appropriate to our service and how we could best work together.

Apart from the advantages of cross referral the network is an effective way to market our service as a team or as individual service which is another bonus. It is a much easier way to access clients than attempting to market directly to GP’s. We did attempt to see individual GP’s when commencing the service but there was little interest in us as social workers. As our service has grown we are now beginning to get referrals directly from the GP’s! A sign to us of emerging success.

As a large network of specialised allied health providers we are also more strongly positioned to apply to funding bodies like our local Primary Health Network, which is more interested in funding larger conglomerates than individual providers.

We are not aligned to a large medical conglomerate choosing to keep autonomy of our business and our work and not be restricted to a medical model. The strength in this is that we are not paying the exorbitant rent and commission fees that many allied health providers are forced to do if they work in a large medical practice, or are contracted by many of the emerging corporate allied health companies that are now emerging.

As private social workers we are guided in business by our strong social work values and ethics, which in fact lend themselves beautifully to growing an ethical business.

As the business develops new opportunities arise.

Recently we signed up with two major community care providers as the sole service to provide counselling & general social work services to their clients and carers. Our services are being funded through the new care packages and also through Medicare and DVA. We are extremely interested to see how these packages work for our clients and for us. By working closely with these organisations, educating them on the bio/psycho/social needs of their clients and how we can assist them with their clients we believe that we are facilitiating cultural change within these organisations to better care for the needs of this age group.

We are very much aware that if our service is to survive and grow into the future there are real challenges ahead. Our challenges are the challenges that we as a profession are needing to address now if we are to secure a space for social work .

The first is recruitment. It is difficult to find social workers who have mental health accreditation and experience in either working with older adults or knowledge of the aged care system. Both are needed as are social workers with palliative care experience.

Secondly we need to stand out from the crowd as offering specialist skills.

Community aged care organisations provide untrained support workers and pastoral care positions to largely service the emotional distress needs of their clients. We need to be able to market ourselves as offering specialist skills. Credentialing gerontology and palliative care social work is much needed as is the opportunity to develop evidence based individual and group programs.

We also need the infrastructure as a profession to be able to network each other not only for recruitment purposes but to be able to strongly advocate for our clients. We are dealing with some of the most marginalised people in our society and need to be united in our quest for social justice in this sector.

I can truly say that I have never felt more of an advocate for my clients or for my profession since moving into the private sector. I strongly encourage others to get involved. Yes it is challenging but extremely rewarding and there is more than enough work for all of us now and in the future.

Lynne Harrold BSW/MSW had over two decades of working in community mental health before moving into fulltime private practice in 2006.She has subsequently worked predominantly in the private Aged Care sector. She is  the convenor of the NSW self-employed practice group as well as an executive member of MHSWiPP.

It was a pleasure to host this article on my blog. It was originally slated to appear in the AASW magazine- In Focus- but was pulled as it was deemed to give unfair publicity to Lynne during the AASW election period!

 

 

Posted in AASW Election 2017, Ethics, Private Practice, Social Policy | 1 Comment

Why aren’t more social work students joining the AASW?

older graduate image This year there are approximately 14,500 students enrolled in social work across Australia; a staggering number! (the entire membership of the AASW is only 10,000).

In 2017 we can expect around 1,200 graduates from qualifying masters programs, and 1,700 from bachelors programs.

Which universities are doing the heavy lifting? Actual figures from 2014 indicated that five universities had enrolments of more than 500 students. These were the University of South Australia with 778, Charles Sturt with 676, Western Sydney University with 550, Latrobe with 546, and Deakin with 528.

The AASW keeps its student membership numbers secret (why?). Nevertheless, I can be confident in guessing that AASW student membership is a tiny proportion of 14,500.

When I talk with students about this, a few themes emerge,

  • Many students are in abject poverty and the membership fee is beyond their means
  •  some students see the AASW requirements around recognition of prior learning, and  placement hours and attendance as punitive and irrational
  • Exposure to AASW marketing is on campus is patchy or limited

I would add to this by saying that in my estimate, only around 50% of social work academics are members of the AASW.

Boosting student membership is an issue of real urgency. The future health of the social work profession is in the hands of the next generation.

We must have,

  • a $10 membership for students
  • free mentoring for students and new graduates
  • a memorandum of understanding between Heads of Schools of Social Work and the AASW that guarantees regular access to students for marketing purposes
  • a placement regime that strikes a sensible balance between outcomes and hours
  • an AASW student club on every campus
  • a national student advisory body

 

 

Posted in AASW Election 2017, AASW Policy and Strategy, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The NDIS: ethics, dignity and choice: some dilemmas for social workers

smaller finger painting

Let me frame this piece by stating unequivocally that the NDIS is a genuine capacity building initiative and a great social good. Its current target is to improve the lives of 460,000 Australians with individual funding packages, to help them to participate more fully in their communities. It enshrines in legislation the assertion that,

people with disability have the right to determine their own best interests, including the right to exercise choice and control, and to engage as equal partners in decisions that will affect their lives (National Disability Insurance Scheme Act 2013, Section 4 (8))

and that people with disabilities should be supported so that,

in all their dealings with the NDIA..their capacity to exercise choice and control is maximised in a way that is appropriate to their circumstances and cultural needs (Section 4 (9))

 Our taxes (via the Medicare levy) have been increased to help cover the costs, and no sensible person would begrudge paying a bit more to help their fellow citizens to participate more fully in their communities.

The design of the scheme and the manner of implementation does however create risks which will inevitably continue to cause harm if not dealt with quickly.

Firstly a few words about outsourcing. This is the ‘go to’ methodology of governments captured by free market thinking. Outsourcing ensures that labor markets are fluid and flexible. But as we know the ‘flexibility’ is one way. Workers are paid less, career prospects diminish, 12 month contracts are standard, and professional development is less likely to be employer subsidised.

Governments are also striving to outsource risk and responsibility; not always successfully. And when things go wrong, the fallout can degenerate into enquiries, commissions, and a farrago of fingerpointing.

The NDIA has outsourced to varying degrees the assessment for eligibility, service planning and delivery of the scheme. In NSW for example, the NDIA has “commissioned” three “Partners in the Community”, for what is described as “local area co-ordination”. These partners are Uniting, the St Vincent de Paul Society, and Social Futures.

To use the word ‘partner’ in this context is to stretch the word completely outside its ordinary meaning of – a joint venture with shared risks. The NDIS has designed and funded the rollout to its smallest detail. In this context, comparing even the largest NGO to the NDIA is to compare a mosquito to a 160 kilo gorilla. It is a franchise, not a partnership; and the NDIS has done its best to outsource all risk to its franchisees.  Every NGO, every relevant NGO employee and every sole provider or small business must sign a Declaration of Suitability to be registered as a service provider with the NDIS. Providers declare that they are compliant with all employment and workplace health and safety laws, and that they have mechanisms in place to ensure that any contractors engaged also comply.

The Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (HIP) had some relevant points to make about the attempts of the Australian Government to outsource risk. Why, do you ask, am I bringing the ‘pink batts’ disaster into this discussion? We are all familiar with mess and chaos around outsourcing refugee processing and the operation of detention centres, but the example closest to the NDIS is probably the HIP rollout; A huge scaling up of existing services, a significant social good, and the apparent necessity that it be done in a hurry. In its wake, there were four tragic, avoidable deaths, as well as number of enquiries and a royal commission. Most readers will recall that the aim for the HIP was to install insulation into the ceilings of some 2.2 million Australian houses in a period of two and a half years. This was a stimulus package in response to the global financial crisis, that was also designed to bring significant environmental benefits.

In relation to outsourcing, there are some comments of the Royal Commissioner, Ian Hanger, that are worth quoting at length,

Government must recognise that as much as it might seek to do so, risk cannot be abrogated. The responsibility of Government is to care for its citizens and to exercise care and diligence to do everything reasonable to ensure citizens are not placed in danger by its actions…

It was said, by a number of federal public servants, that the Australian Government had no regulatory power in the field of workplace health and safety, and therefore that it was not a risk that the Australian Government could control. In my view, this attitude was deplorable. I discuss..the purported reliance of the Australian Government on the States and Territories and conclude that such reliance was both unjustified and unreasonable

Pretty blunt!

In my view, the most serious flaws in the NDIS occur at the very beginning of the assessment and planning process, and continue for those participants who need service coordination funded by the NDIS.

As things stand, at the beginning of the planning process, potential participants are asked a range of questions by “local area coordinators” to determine eligibility and formulate a plan. All the information needed to generate goals, support and a 12-month budget are gathered; usually in one meeting. Participants may have some verbal confirmation of the answers they give. This data is uploaded for a centralised desktop assessment and a plan is sent back to the participant as a fait accompli. The legislation makes it quite clear that as soon as a plan is approved, it comes into effect. But there is in fact no reason why a paper copy of the participant’s answers could not be left with them for a week, in order to double check completeness, accuracy, and to fully digest the implications for the participant; and further, that the plan be considered a draft, subject to discussion. Remember that the Act states,

people with disability have the right to determine their own best interests, including the right to exercise choice and control, and to engage as equal partners in decisions that will affect their lives. (my emphasis)

This a lopsided transaction; it is not a partnership. It is an insurance assessment that gives the most vulnerable participants no time to review or reflect. (Sixty percent of approved plans in the third quarter of 2016/17 were for participants with an intellectual disability or autism.) I have heard anecdotal evidence of 12 month reviews of plans that revealed unreasonable anomalies between what was needed and granted to assist participants in achieving their goals. But this is not just a question of efficiency and accuracy; it is one of fundamental dignity.

I don’t know what has been happening behind the scenes, but I find it puzzling that disability advocacy groups have not made more of a public fuss about this? I do know however, that governments of all persuasions have lately paid lip service to human rights, whilst simultaneously de-funding robust advocacy. Any consumer group funded by government has difficult choices to make, if it involves biting the hand that feeds it.

These ‘take it or leave it’ plans also present ethical dilemmas for local area coordinators. Some of these frontline workers might make an ethical choice to defy NDIA driven KPI’s and routinely give participants time to reflect in a genuine partnership. But this could be a hard choice for anyone to make, working on low paid 12 month contract.

Ironically, in the Royal Commission into the HIP, Commissioner Hanger had plenty to say about ethical pressures faced by public servants fearful of their tenure.

It has been a long-standing principle that public servants had security of tenure giving them both longstanding experience in the field of public administration, a great depth of knowledge about that art and the workings of various portfolios. Security of tenure has another important consequence: public servants could, if warranted, advise their Minister against certain courses of action, and in trenchant terms if necessary.

 I found the APS Values and Code of Conduct .. a valuable resource..(in particular) the concept of frank, honest, comprehensive, accurate and timely advice, referred to in ..the Public Service Act. After having read all of the documents provided to the Commission, and having heard all of the evidence given particularly by public servants, I have little doubt that had such advice been given at key junctures of the HIP, the tragedies that occurred would have been avoided..

Commissioner Hanger couldn’t however bring himself to recommending security of tenure. Instead he advised these senior civil servants to include a “devil’s advocate” section in their briefing templates! Astonishing advice to some of the smartest and most skilful people in the country.

This underlines just how unreasonable it is to expect individual workers, either in management or the frontline, to defy the powerful, when dignity and human rights ought to be built into the system. Only a concerted, combined effort by the relevant trade unions, disability advocacy groups, and the range of professional associations that cover these frontline workers, will ensure that justice prevails.

And, as can be seen from the pink batts disaster, should some scandal or tragedy occur, there is no guarantee that the senior public servants will be able to successfully argue that they washed their hands of all risk.

Turning our focus to ‘support coordination’, it is important to note that this is the only funded service that gets a mention in the Declaration of Suitability. It will soon become apparent why this is the case. (The role of support coordinators is to work creatively and resourcefully with NDIS scheme participants in how they utilise their support budgets to achieve their goals.)

Social workers (along with other Allied Health professionals) can register to provide specialist support coordination; their tertiary qualification and relevant experience being routinely accepted as sufficient credentialing. But few participants need specialist support, and the more generic ‘line item’ of support coordination is open to a broader range of workers. Obtaining credentialing to provide generic service coordination requires the provision of extensive evidence to state based credentialing agencies. It is time consuming, and may cost thousands of dollars. Workers who already have specialist support coordination credentials, are given no recognition, or advanced standing in applying for generic support coordination; an illogical anomaly that also has important consequences for participants.

NGO’s have put themselves in the business of providing support coordination in the marketised environment of the NDIA. Importantly some of them seek to provide a ‘one stop shop’ that offers both coordination, as well as the services themselves. (Sometimes as a hangover from how they used to do business pre the NDIS era.) The inherent conflict of interest is so great that the Declaration of Suitability document seeks to outsource this risk. Paragragh 12 requires that individuals and agencies to declare that

If you are seeking approval in relation to both the provision of supports and managing the funding for supports under plans- the provider has mechanisms in place for dealing with conflicts of interest when performing both of those roles in relation to the same participant.

Because of social work’s robust code of ethics, it is reasonable to say that social workers (along with other health and disability professionals) have been at the forefront of embracing the disaggregation of service coordination from service provision. Let me remind you again of Section 4 (8) of the Act,

people with disability have the right to determine their own best interests, including the right to exercise choice and control, and to engage as equal partners in decisions that will affect their lives 

Hypothetically, if a sole practitioner social worker were providing support coordination, and a participant wanted to stay with agency XYZ for occupational therapy based services, but wanted to change their speech therapy from agency XYZ to another provider, the social worker would do their best to honour this choice. If, however agency XYZ is providing support coordination and a range of services (as it might have before the NDIS), it is a nonsense to think that the agency will be as scrupulous in honouring the wishes of the participant, no matter what “mechanisms” it has “in place”. The proper intent of the Act could easily be implemented, by simply stating that agencies cannot provide both coordination and services to the same participant. Problem solved; end of story.

Let us hope that it does not take a scandal or a tragedy for this problem to be fixed. And again, we ought not rely on individual whistle blowers to bring it to the public’s attention. The combined efforts of trade unions, consumer groups and professional associations is a better way to get the changes we need. To continue to allow agencies to provide a ‘one stop shop’ simply facilitates patronising attitudes that no longer have a place in a society that respects the worth and dignity of every human being.

Want to continue the conversation on Facebook? I have created a page connected to my blog for just that purpose. fb.me/socialworkblogger

Posted in Ethics, Social Policy | 7 Comments

Waiting for a paradigm shift: How the AASW and universities could do more for social work students

student largeAs a major employer of social workers, I have spoken to countless new graduates and  students on placement. Sadly, I have heard too many stories of placements gone wrong. Even worse, some students have told me that they set aside serious grievances in order to be able to complete their placements. They could not afford to do otherwise with rent to pay and kids to feed. This speaks to me of a system that tolerates too much variation between our best and our worst.

To its credit, the AASW has made robust representations to government, advocating for increased student allowances to alleviate poverty. But equally, it should be acknowledged that our current government is so cruel and stupid, that any pleading, for any disadvantaged group was bound to fall on deaf ears.

Consequently, this increases the obligation of universities and the AASW to focus on measures actually within their powers that could make life easier for students, whilst not compromising the quality of social work graduates. There appears to be plenty that can be done; and this piece will examine some of the barriers and opportunities.

Students are the least powerful player in a complex set of relationships between the field educator, the host agency, and the university. And increasingly one can throw into that mix an “external” supervisor. Whilst all players share the goal of producing competent professional social workers, there are many confounding variables.

You would not be surprised to learn that producing great professionals is not a goal that universities count amongst their KPI’s. Whilst our older, more established universities make it into various top 100 global lists of university rankings, the favoured parameters of academic peer review and citations per faculty have little relationship to the quality of social worker graduates. No one would make the claim that the Universities of Sydney or Melbourne, ipso facto, produce better social workers than Charles Sturt or Deakin.

Perversely however this aspect of academic culture has had a negative effect on field education. A few years ago, the US Council of Social Work Education designated field instruction as social work’s “signature pedagogy”. This is a relatively new term is considered to be “types of teaching that organise the fundamental ways in which future practitioners are educated for their professions”.  It is a pedagogical approach that acknowledges the deep and implicit assumptions about how best to impart professional knowledge and know-how, and includes a moral dimension that comprises a set of beliefs about professional attitudes, values and dispositions. Logically, if signature pedagogy were to be implemented, the position of field education co-ordinator would become on of the most prestigious in any social work faculty. Clearly this is not the case, in an academic pecking order that valorises how many times a research paper has been cited.

The key professional instrument in mitigating this problem is the Australian Social Work Education and Accreditation Standards (ASWEAS); the standards that the AASW uses to accredit social work courses. On the subject of field education co-ordinators, it states,

  1. There must be a clearly identifiable field education unit including administrative support dedicated to organising field education.
  2. Staffing of field education programs should reflect the social work academic organisational unit’s (SWAOU) commitment to the centrality of field education in the social work curriculum. (my emphasis) For example, there may be clear connections between the academic and research interests of staff and the field education experiences offered by the academic unit.
  3. All members of staff will actively contribute to the field education program. All academic staff will use opportunities to integrate learning from field education into other parts of the curriculum.
  4. The social work program will assign a field education coordinator and field education liaison staff to each placement.
  5. Field education coordinators must be social workers with a minimum of five years’ post-qualifying practice experience….

Interestingly, it goes on to say that, “Field education liaison staff must be either experienced higher education provider -based social work educators or social workers with a minimum of five years’ post-qualifying practice experience.”

I will leave you, the reader, to be the judge of how well universities have performed against these requirements.

Given the centrality of placements in developing competent professionals it is surprising how little effort has been put into improving the quality of host agency supervisors, (referred to in ASWEAS as “field educators”).

Very little experience or extra education is required for this key role; the ASWEAS stating,

  1. Field educators are qualified social workers (eligible for full membership of the AASW) with a minimum of two years’ full-time practice experience, or its part-time equivalent, who demonstrate a commitment to continuing professional education and an interest in developing social work knowledge and skills.
  2. In recognition of the difficulties for some regional higher education providers, in exceptional circumstances relating to distance, a field educator with less experience may be allocated for one placement only. In this circumstance, the field education coordinator must ensure that the field educator has additional support and mentoring.
  3. Field educators must undertake training for the field education role before or during their first experience in the field educator role.

Two years practice and a one day workshop is not (in my view) adequate experience to equip supervisors to host a student placement. There is some excellent training to be had out there- but it is costly in time and money and boutique in scale. The AASW  is not addressing the issue of providing quality on a large scale, although the numbers now are truly industrial.

In 2013, over 2,100 students (bachelors and qualifying masters) completed their degrees. This year it will be over 3,000, and in 2020 it is projected to be 3,700! This is against a background of an inexorable productivity squeeze that leaves potential supervisors exhausted by their daily work, and less and less inclined to take on the responsibility of a student placement. Consequently, In the scramble to find placements universities are turning more to paying external supervisors to provide supervision to students in agencies that do not have qualified social work staff. ASWEAS states that in situations where the host organisation has no suitable social work field educator, the faculty should “negotiate with the host organisation to engage an external social worker to undertake the professional supervision requirements”. It goes on to say “only one placement should have an external field educator, except in the exceptional circumstances”

Clearly implicit here is the assumption that an ‘external’ supervisor’ is second best; and there is feedback from some students to back that assumption.This is a paradigm of scarcity and ‘making do’. But it need not be so. With the right paradigm and the right governance, an external supervisor could be running a virtual student unit far more enriching than any collection of individual placements.

One of the thorniest issues from a student perspective is the requirement to clock up 1000 hours of placement. The ASWEAS states,

“Students must successfully complete a minimum of 1,000 hours in at least two field education subjects. These hours must be completed within the normal working hours / days of the organisation hosting the placement. No leave of any kind may be included in this requirement; that is, the full 1,000 hours must be completed.” and, “Practice–theory integration seminars may be included within the required hours up to a maximum of 14 hours per 500-hour placement.”

It goes on to list what one may or may not do in accumulating these hours in an exacting pedantic style reminiscent of  taxation codes. There is a 19th century atmosphere to this level of prescription; and it is putting the AASW at loggerheads with the very educators that it ought to be collaborating with. Following a review last year, the next version of ASWEAS is about to be unveiled. A selection of quotes from the Australian Council of the Heads of Schools of Social Work (ACHSSW) in its submission to the Review will give a flavour of the gap between the AASW and the Heads of Schools.

The Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work .. is committed to an outcome-focused curriculum that enables and empowers programs to demonstrate how they would meet specified AASW graduate attributes. Our inclination is to follow international trends and pedagogical approaches that move toward guidance rather than prescription in creating a capability-based framework that includes a strong emphasis on desired graduate attributes. Currently AASW graduate attributes reflect an input-focused curriculum presenting a fundamental problem when reviewing them as they are: not amenable to evaluation with respect to program accreditation; they describe knowledge content rather than being framed as attributes (doing and being); they are inconsistent with the AASW Practice Standards…

 Social work field education in Australia is currently at a point where tertiary educators struggle to resource placements for social work students and to manage multiple stakeholders’ growing expectations. There are a number of factors that contribute to an increasingly unsustainable context including expanding student numbers and intensifying expectations linking placements with employability, and the declining capacity of organisations and their staff to provide practice-based learning opportunities or supervision.  Higher education funding, policy and regulation issues also impact on the resources for and provision of field education.  A paradigm shift from ever expanding expectations towards sustainable expectations for Field Education is being advocated internationally, as well as at national and local levels and by industry in Australia (Hunter et al., 2015; Billett, 2012; Lager et al., 2010; Bogo, 2015)…

…There is no hard evidence available that can clearly demonstrate that face-to-face teaching is more effective or better at supporting learning outcomes than an on-line alternative

Simulated activities can be assessed against strict criteria and used as an alternative to face-to-face on-campus contact. They can provide a first step to assessing readiness or suitability for practice before commencing a placement at an agency outside of the university. Simulated learning is widely used in other allied health degrees, and is an accepted and valid medium in contemporary learning and teaching environments…

The Council nevertheless asserts that the current placement learning model of agency-based, single supervisor one to one supervision and three liaison contacts is not necessary to the support of a successful placement for the majority of students, and that it is also unsustainable in a climate of fiscal restraint. Accordingly, there is an urgent need to review the nature and content of the 1000 hour requirement and to provide a rationale for its continuance.

.. the range of learning opportunities and associated activities within Field Education.. could include: simulations; agency visits and associated work; pre-placement readiness and preparation; integrative seminars; and broader appreciation of recognised prior learning (RPL) and recognition of work-based learning…

 The Council .. sees signature pedagogy as offering a more powerful articulation across the curriculum, including both classwork and field education.. This conceptualization could move beyond the binary of classroom and field, and focus more acutely on the integration rather than its individual components – a reflexive pedagogy that is used in both classroom and field.

The Council supports the proposals .. to work towards the development of a national standardised common assessment framework or tool that takes into account RPL, research/project placements and field placement information as a whole…

…The Council wishes to endorse a move beyond agency-based conceptions of a placement to a focus on the way in which a broader package could support learning outcomes. For example, this could be a ‘satellite model’ where an agile worker, regardless of location, could undertake a project on behalf of a number of agencies or stakeholders. A more flexible approach to the great diversity of potential learning opportunities is also required, for example (but not limited to) two placements at the same organisation where diversity of experience is maintained; split placements based on the learning needs of the student; university-hosted placements; rural community student teams; project work and internships; and work-based placements.

Some elements of signature pedagogy could clearly be implemented with or without AASW blessing; and so we are left to wonder how much has been done; and how much the ASWEAS has been used as an excuse for academic inaction?

The ASWEAS review has certainly been an opportunity to make the paradigm leap to signature pedagogy. The new standards are about to be published. We could be pleasantly surprised; but I doubt it. As part of the review the AASW states that the process has involved (amongst other things),

“a review of literature relating to teaching and learning, with a particular focus on the contentious issue of distance education and the emerging significance of information technology as both an aid to learning and a means of service delivery.”

If this literature review was done, it is not available on the website; and yet it is potentially the vehicle, the conduit, and the time machine that will enable the paradigm leap into genuine signature pedagogy. Publishing the literature review before a call for submissions would have set the tone and the frame for the future direction of social work pedagogy. As it is, the submissions to the Review rehearsed the same old loyalties, with precious little evidence on any side (albeit the Heads of Schools quoted some research that, as you would expect, supported their positions). And if any document deserved to have an exposure draft published it was this! We then may have had a genuine conversation.

There are now approximately 10,000 students enrolled in social work across Australia; almost half of them in masters qualifying programs. Despite committing to do so, the AASW has not yet been able to facilitate the creation of a student advisory body. That body, when it forms should play a key part in these conversations.

I prefer a pen and you prefer a word processor; that’s nice; but what are the implications? A car is not just a faster horse, and email is more than very fast snail mail. One does not replace the other, but new processes and technologies fundamentally change our workplaces, our communities and our cultures.

The ASWEAS is not only increasingly contentious; it requires a paradigm shift that is fundamental to the future of social work. Let’s hope that it is more than a collection of increments and add-ons that satisfies no one, and leaves students wondering why the grown ups can’t do better.

Posted in AASW Policy and Strategy, Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Social workers in private practice: Why the AASW should be doing more for them

individual therapy1The world of work has changed significantly in the last 25 years. Permanent employment is declining and casual and part time work are on the rise. Outsourcing is fashionable, and markets (we are told) can deliver whatever we need. Trade unions are in retreat, real wages have flatlined, and our personal household debt, per capita, is amongst the highest in the world.

In this environment the ranks of the self-employed have risen, in our industry and others. There are now around 2,000 social workers in private practice across Australia, counseling, consulting, teaching and training. Needs must when the devil drives! We are all familiar with the alphabet soup of acronyms that are the sources of our income- DVA, MBS, NDIS, and EAP to name a few.

Whilst not telling the whole story of the rise in private practice, a cursory glance at MBS item number 80160, (individual focussed psychological strategies provided by a social worker) illustrates some of this growth in the mental health social work sector.

In the financial year 2007/2008, almost 71,000 services were provided, and this had more than trebled by 2015/16 to over 231,000 services, for which Medicare payed out approximately 18 million dollars. The strongest growth was in Victoria.

The story of how the AASW gained social work access to Medicare goes back to the 1990’s. In 1997 the Commonwealth Department of Health, as part of a mental health services reform process, held consultations with social work, nursing, psychology, occupational therapy and psychiatry, as well as consumers, to discuss the future of education and training of the professional mental health workforce.

The AASW was granted $50,000 by the Department of Health to develop standards of social work practice in mental health settings. When these competencies were published in 1999 they were groundbreaking, and remain the foundation document on which the AASW Practice Standards for Mental Health Social Workers is based. It is these standards that informed the mental health accreditation of social workers and their entry into the Better Access program in 2006.

It was also around this time too, that the AASW set recommended fees for its private practitioners. These fees were unfortunately set lower than Australian Psychological Society recommended fees for similar services- a mistake that would come back to haunt us, as Medicare used our own recommendations against us when setting MBS fees and rebates. Since then the AASW has made repeated representations to government (to no avail) to establish rebate parity with psychologists for similar services. On top of this social workers have suffered the further indignity of a Medicare rebate freeze since 2013.

Many social workers will remember the 2010 budget cuts that threatened social work clients access to Medicare rebates. The AASW led a strong political campaign, reminding the public at the time that more than one-third of social workers using Better Access were based in regional, rural and remote parts of Australia, more than 60% of them offer bulk-billing to at least some clients, and more than two-thirds of clients when surveyed, said they would be unable to access these services without Medicare funding. The direct action of the private practitioners forced the government to back down.

Private practitioners have become a cornerstone membership cohort within the AASW. In other parts of social work, membership penetration is usually no more than 25% to 30% of the maximum membership potential. But in private practice it is likely to be more than 90%. That constitutes a relationship of profound significance for both sides.

The AASW is not a trade union, but it should by necessity include some elements of industrial representation for its members in private practice. There is no alternative.- and private practitioners are doing it tough. Those of us working for an employer enjoy regular pay rises, but the self employed are forced to pass on rising costs to their clients or take a pay cut. And the current Federal Government is as mean spirited as they come in setting rates in ‘markets’ it has created in education, health and welfare.

Whilst the AASW cannot be faulted for its efforts in making representations to bureaucrats, these are not administrative issues, but politics pure and simple.

We have governments that are hostile to pay rises, and indifferent to the marginalized and the disadvantaged. ‘User pays’ and ‘outsourcing’ are their chief weapons. Political problems require political solutions. The AMA has no fear when it comes to political campaigns on behalf of its members. Go to their website and you will find a range of campaign resources related to the Medicare freeze, including templates that can be used to print a copy of the AMA’s Medicare Freeze poster in the tear off portion at the bottom of computer prescription forms. You will also find instructions on how to share campaign material on social media. The poster itself is highly emotive, featuring a distressed mother and a crying baby with some bold text stating- “The cost of running this practice will rise substantially between now and 2020. You will pay a new or higher copayment every time you visit you GP, every time you visit other medical specialists, every time you need a blood test, and every time you need an x-ray or other imaging. Tell your local MPs and election candidate you are not happy.”

There is an urgent need for a well resourced political campaign of this kind on behalf of social workers and their clients, perhaps in concert with the other allied health professions affected by the freeze. It is about time that every Coalition and independent MP heard from us.

 The AASW also need to think very seriously about the resources that private practitioners need in order to thrive in the current marketised environments. On top of their annual membership fees ($670 in 2016), mental health practitioners pay an additional $200 pa for their ongoing accreditation. Assuming 2,000 members, that amounts to $1,340,000 pa in regular fees and $400,000 pa for the accreditation surcharge. Add this up and it reveals that 20% of the members account for 45% of member revenue! Despite achieving their highest ever profit in 2016, and having a strong ratio of assets to liabilities, the AASW has introduced a 4% fee hike this year to both the full membership component ( to $697 pa) and the accredited mental health social worker fee (to $208 pa). It will be interesting to see how this hike is justified.

The $208 pa fee is levied only on the mental health accredited practitioners – and so ought to be applied exclusively towards capacity building for that group. This includes not only customized CPD, but also workshops to train our most experienced private practitioners so that they can pass on their knowledge and skills to fellow members. We can create a virtuous circle, skilling up our experienced members, on the proviso that they will offer some of their time in the following year or two, to teaching fellow members at subsidised rates. I am fed up with seeing non social workers advertising expensive training in our National Bulletin. Access to our members is a precious resource, and our motto must be ‘members first’.

Just as important is enabling those who want to take the next step beyond solo practice. Professor Ian Hickie, a National Mental Health Commissioner has called on PHN’s to deliver more appropriate, multidisciplinary care for those service users with complex and ongoing needs. Wholistic models of care are built in to the social work DNA. The AASW needs to be providing the skills and resources to help social workers build multidisciplinary practices that can bid for tenders to provide packages of care.

And last but not least, private practitioners need a professional networking platform on their smartphones linking them to fellow members in a community of practice. The small proportion of private practitioners who use AASW SWOT will agree with me on how clunky it is.

These urgent steps have not been taken because of a failure of governance. Private practitioners do not have a proper voice in the life of the AASW. They need a well-resourced policy development forum, a transparent conduit to the Board, and some measure of independence in running their own affairs.

 

 

Posted in AASW Policy and Strategy | 21 Comments

Can a corporation be socially responsible: some ethical and moral challenges for the AASW

shutterstock_572834302 copyThe use of the word “corporation” in the same sentence as “social responsibility” usually conjures up cartoon-like images of global pharmaceutical firms or telecommunication giants being caught behaving immorally.

But even small non- profit professional associations are not immune to poor behaviour. Indeed, not long ago the American Psychological Association (APA) substantially watered down its Code of Ethics in order to provide psychological services to the US Department of Defence (DoD) during the investigation and torture of terror suspects. An independent report concluded that the principal motive was to curry favour, to keep the growth of psychology unrestrained and to create a good public relations response to terror interrogations.

There is clearly a growing disconnect between a moral conscience and a social conscience; between public relations and truth. In a recent book on values and ethics in social work, Professor Richard Hugman and Jan Carter raised the issue of whether the social and moral aspects of conscience could be brought together again.

“It has become common to distinguish between different types of ‘values’, between personal morality on the one hand and a desire or impetus for social, economic and political change, reform and social justice on the other, as though these two aspects of conscience could be bifurcated and operate independently one of the other. This is a contemporary distinction that would have been foreign up to even only a century ago, when conscience was social and moral, indivisible and unitary. But now a moral conscience has become understood as being confined to the private sphere of life, whilst a social conscience is seen as an appropriate responder to those injustices detected as public issues, particularly those involving vulnerability, suffering and victimization for human and other species and the environment.”

 The very mechanism of being a corporation must, in and of itself, shape the way an organization thinks and behaves, responding to the distinction between what is legal and what is moral. I note with considerable disappointment that the recent changes to the AASW Constitution almost completely expunged the section on the values and principles that inform our code of ethics. These include belief in the equal worth of all human beings, respect for others, compassion fairness, respect for privacy, and the promotion of human rights. The deletion was justified by legal advice that the Constitution was not the ‘appropriate’ document to detail values. According to the AASW, there is the risk that the Constitution could be used,

“inappropriately and therefore not for its proper purpose. This particular proposal is about moving, not deleting, language to its proper document. It’s an administrative change to ensure the Constitution remains contemporary.”

Weasel words. Just how could a commitment to human rights be used “inappropriately”? Being a corporation is a legal mechanism that allows us to exist. It should not shape what we believe in.

Ironically, the business world is moving to acknowledge that corporations should not just be motivated by the desire for profit. ‘Benefit’ corporations are now becoming legal entities. In the United States, a benefit corporation, in addition to ‘profit’ as its legally defined goal, includes a requirement to have a positive impact on society, workers, the community and the environment. The Italian Parliament has also introduced a new type of for-profit corporate entity named Società Benefit, a virtual copy of the US legislation. Australia too is in the process of drafting their own legislation.

A benefit corporation’s directors and officers operate the business with the same authority as a traditional corporation, but are also required to consider the impact of their decisions on shareholders, on society and the environment. In a traditional corporation, shareholders judge the company on financial results; with a benefit corporation, shareholders judge performance based on the company’s social, environmental, and financial performance. Transparency provisions require benefit corporations to publish annual benefit reports of their social and environmental performance using a comprehensive, credible, independent, and transparent third-party standard.

Despite having stripped many of its values from is Constitution, the AASW is clearly remains a ‘benefit’ corporation in the broader meaning of the term. Clause 3g of the Constitution, for example, states that one of the objectives of the AASW is to “advocate for the pursuit of social justice and changes to social structures and policies in order to promote social inclusion and redress social disadvantage”.

If the AASW were to hold itself to a third party social responsibility standard, the most relevant would probably be ISO 26000:2010, Guidance on Social Responsibility (International Organization for Standardization). IOS is a worldwide federation of national standards bodies. It is the world’s largest developer of voluntary international standards. Nearly twenty thousand standards have been set covering everything from manufactured products and technology to food safety, agriculture and healthcare. ISO 26000:2010, Guidance on Social Responsibility, was developed using a multi-stakeholder approach involving experts from more than 90 countries and 40 international or broadly-based regional organizations involved in different aspects of social responsibility. These experts were from six different stakeholder groups: consumers; government; industry; labour; non-governmental organizations (NGOs); and service, support, research, academics and others. The core subjects covered by the Standard are organizational governance, human rights, labour practices, the environment, fair operating practices, consumer issues and community involvement and development.

In relation to governance, ISO 2600:2010 states that,

“An organization’s performance in relation to the society in which it operates and to its impact on the environment has become a critical part of measuring its overall performance and its ability to continue operating effectively. This is, in part, a reflection of the growing recognition of the need to ensure healthy ecosystems, social equity and good organizational governance.” (my emphasis)

In relation to stakeholder engagement, the standard provides “guidance on the underlying principles of social responsibility… and on ways to integrate socially responsible behaviour into the organization”.

and

“Some stakeholders are an integral part of an organization. These include any members, employees or owners of the organization. These stakeholders share a common interest in the purpose of the organization and in its success. This does not mean, however, that all their interests regarding the organization will be the same.” (My emphasis)

Located as we are in an affluent Western democracy, many areas of the standard might not be relevant to the AASW, but it should be noted,

“an organization might assume that because it operates in an area with laws that address core subjects of social responsibility, then compliance with the law will be sufficient to ensure that all the relevant issues of such core subjects are addressed. A careful review .. may reveal, however, that some relevant issues are not regulated or are covered by regulations that are not adequately enforced or are not explicit or sufficiently detailed.”

A cursory glance at the Standards would suggest that governance- particularly in the area of stakeholder identification and engagement is a key vulnerability for the AASW. The contours of our vulnerability are clear. Our governance complies well with auditing standards and corporate law, but does not maximize member engagement.

The Standard states,

“Organizational governance is the most crucial factor in enabling an organization to take responsibility for the impacts of its decisions and activities and to integrate social responsibility throughout the organization and its relationships.”

Member engagement is vital in three key areas of the AASW; office holder elections, policy consultations and member forums.

In annual elections only around 16% of eligible members vote. Serious efforts are needed to make it easier to access information about candidates. The option of online voting needs to be explored. Optional preferential voting should be reintroduced. (It was changed to first past the post without explanation!)This method is not only acknowledged by experts to be the most democratic election method, it is more likely to honor diversity.

Governments and many organisations involved in developing policies or position papers have transparent and inclusive consultative processes. This involves clarity around who in the organisation is considering the submissions as well as calling for submissions and publishing them online. The AASW does not make a habit of publishing internal submissions- a major flaw in its governance processes. A recent consequence of this flaw saw the AASW endorse two different positions on gambling reform in Tasmania! Similarly, the AASW did not publish my submission arguing against the changes that stripped the values from our constitution. The overwhelming number of members who sent proxy votes on this issue were therefore not exposed to the full range of arguments against the change.

As I have indicated elsewhere on this blog one of the elements of membership most valued by members is belonging to a network within the AASW. These networks need to be nurtured and listened to, whether they be divisions of the College, branches, mental health social workers, interest groups and so on. The feedback that I receive about networks suggests that, too often, access is clunky, and management is top down, rather than inclusive or empowering.

As yet, there is no agreed way of measuring member engagement or the value that should be put on it. Nevertheless it remains the constitutional duty of the AASW Board to pursue “social justice and changes to social structures and policies in order to promote social inclusion”.

We need an independent review of AASW governance, which is not just focused on fiduciary duties, but on finding governance models designed to build member networks and nurture member engagement. A robust review would ask, how the AASW can,

  • help members to make an informed voting choices and participate in AASW elections
  • help member forums to be a real policy voice in the Association
  • increase the number of member who are contributing their expertise to the AASW
  • increase the number of members who renew their memberships
  • increase the number of members who actively engage in member networks
  • increase the number of members who support each other’s professional development and career aspirations

Wouldn’t it be great to read an AASW annual report that included an independent audit against the relevant sections of ISO 26000:2010.

One day.

Posted in AASW Policy and Strategy | 7 Comments

Rethinking Values & Ethics in Social Work : a book review

shutterstock_309826982 (1)Social workers who wish to explore the ethical dilemmas in achieving universal human rights would do well to watch the 2012 Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln. With the American Civil War winding to a close in 1865, President Lincoln, fearful that the courts would strike down his executive order to free all slaves, sought to guarantee the abolition of slavery via the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment into the United States Constitution.  Lincoln authorized his Secretary of State to bribe outgoing congressman with the promise of government employment, in order to induce them to vote in favor of the amendment. In compelling scenes during the debate, one congressman warns that passing the amendment could be the thin end of the wedge, leading not only to the enfranchisement of black men, but (heaven forbid) women gaining the right to vote. At this point the House of Representatives explodes into uproar and hilarity. Whilst this debate proceeded, Lincoln delayed negotiations to end the Civil War until the Amendment could be passed. To further complicate the politics, Lincoln also had to rely on racial equality advocate, Thaddeus Stevens, to moderate his radical position and to declare that the amendment represented only “equality before the law”, not actual equality.

Lincoln may be able to claim that he did the ‘right thing’ at the ‘right time’, but it was not by any stretch the ‘right way’. What is now hailed as a piece of political genius could also have the seen the President impeached, and his Secretary of State imprisoned. Yet Lincoln is portrayed in the film as a man of strong moral conscience, the courage of his convictions, great personal virtue and an abiding respect for the dignity of all the people in his orbit. And we, the observers, are inclined to believe this deeper truth.

Social workers often find themselves in the frontline of the war between those would grant human rights to all, and those who would prefer to privilege some people over others. It is a messy and complicated war. Governments weigh in, slicing and dicing people into more or less privileged categories (asylum seekers, people on the dole, the disabled and so on). The battle is engaged all over the planet between rich and poor, north and south, big city dwellers and their rural cousins, communitarians and libertarians, as well as many permutations of racial divides. Tactics shift, and all sides claim a superior ideology and a higher moral ground.

Discussions of ethics in the context of this war often revolve around tactics. Is it enough to demand equality of opportunity, or should we insist on equality of outcomes? Do ends justify means? How much weight should we give to the looming ecological disasters? What about feminism? When do we compromise and take a minor victory, and when do we choose martyrdom?

These ethical decisions are in turn are underpinned by our moral conscience. By some accounts it has taken tens of thousands of years for humans to develop a conscience. Most of us now accept the premise that a moral persons are guided in their actions by giving careful consideration to the interests of each individual affected by their decisions. And many of us now (at least in principle) aspire to the ideal of universal human rights.

This provides some context to the recently published book edited by Richard Hugman and Jan Carter, Rethinking Values and Ethics in Social Work.

For readers who want to begin by exploring notions of moral conscience, I would suggest beginning at Chapter 13. In her piece on postmodern ethics for practice, Sacha Kendall relies heavily on the insights of Zygmunt Baumann. Kendall contends that

“moral responsibility consists of individuals choosing to take unconditional responsibility for the Other. Morality cannot be grounded in ethical principles, nor can it be a means to an end. The ‘self’ is therefore central to ethics. This self is a moral self that will take responsibility for and act to address the needs of others without reason or reward. The moral self is part of the human condition; it is our moral impulse or moral conscience. Accordingly, morality has no foundation, but is rather the ‘ultimate, non-determined presence..”

It follows that to slavishly follow any moral code reduces us to replaceable machines. Kendall believes that we should continually deconstruct our notions of professional expertise, and critically reflect on our relationship with the ‘other’. This is a theme echoed by many contributors to the book.

In Chapter 1, Carter and Hugman hark back to a time

“when conscience was social and moral, indivisible and unitary. But now a moral conscience has become understood as being confined to the private sphere of life, whilst a social conscience is seen as an appropriate responder to those injustices detected as public issues, particularly those involving vulnerability, suffering and victimization for human and other species and the environment. One of the tasks of this book is to see how the moral and social aspects of conscience might be brought together again.”(my emphasis)

Although impossible to measure, it certainly does seem that the modern world offers a more fertile ground for the growth of cynicism, corruption and self regard. The times seem to suit a Trump rather than a Lincoln. Like Donald Trump, we have all become more acutely aware of our own social standing, and many of us are adept at image polishing on broadcast and social media. And of course it is easy, with one click, to ‘like’ a social justice campaign or send a donation to Get Up. In a similar vein, Hugman and Carter approvingly quote Sennett,

“Flexibility, adaptability and agility are valued ahead of stability; teamwork practices favour people good at public relations and ‘spin’ and ignore developing the deep commitments and loyalties that are fundamental to the formation of character”

If, as it seems, courage combined with a critical commitment to ethics is in short supply, how can we nurture it within the ranks of social work? Sarah Banks, (Chapter 4) in her contribution to the book, recommends that we actively participate, and

“work through professional groups and networks. Integrity is often invoked in situations of adversity –when someone’s values are undermined or threatened. This means practitioners need courage to stand up for their beliefs and act in accordance with them. They may need to resist pressures to cover up or conform to corrupt agency norms (Preston-Shoot 2011) and to be prepared to ‘blow the whistle’ on bad practice. Solidarity with other work colleagues and through professional associations, political networks and trade unions is also important in such cases. Individual practitioners, no matter how resilient or courageous, risk victimization and disempowerment if they stand alone as isolated individuals.”

Building on Banks thoughts about the ‘right way’, Michael Reich (Chapter 3) helps us to consider the ‘right thing’, stating that a social justice framework might include:

“particular attention to the causes and consequences of inequality, oppression, marginalization and exclusion; increased recognition in practice settings of the significance of history, culture and context in the development of people’s problems and in creating ways to resolve them; an understanding of the interconnectedness between individual problems and their institutional origins and between domestic and international issues; integration of a critical perspective on the impact of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and ability status on people’s lives; an enhanced focus on the impact of the maldistribution of power, resources, rights, status, privilege and opportunities, and a critique of their ideological rationales; a view of society and social change that emphasizes the basic humanity and equality of all people; and a goal of not simply ameliorating people’s problems, but of transforming society through the creation of alternative values, institutions, laws and processes”

The foundation of social work in the liberal traditions of individual freedom have made it natural for the profession to gravitate towards identity politics as its main battleground, in standing up for human rights. But this kind of politics risks collapsing into culture wars that do not examine the roots causes of social injustice, or offer practical programs beyond slogans of resistance. We should not forget that the hundreds of thousands of One Nation voters in regional Queensland are by any measure, marginalised and oppressed. Their access to jobs, health, education and welfare has been seriously eroded by agribusiness, globalisation and the failures of all the political parties that claim to represent them.

Its suits the powerful to fan culture wars and promote the building of walls, either virtual, or made with concrete and steel. Social workers who would like to think about alternative futures would do well to read Paul Mason’s latest book, Post Capitalism: A Guide to our Future. He argues that the rise of robotics and the information technology revolution, with its refusal to fit with economic orthodoxies, and its privileging of networks over hierarchies offers a glimpse of real alternatives. (You can catch a recent interview with him on ABC Radio’s Late Night Live.)

To round of the book, Carter and Hugman, in the final chapter, (Chapter 14) remind us that the notion of a moral conscience applies beyond the character and actions of individuals.

“collectivities too can be understood in relation to values such as honesty, responsibility and integrity through the way in which structures, policies and procedures are formulated and create a social space for the actions of individuals.”

Many large corporations have developed sophisticated public relations strategies to promote themselves as good citizens, whilst simultaneously engaging in a range of immoral practices that adversely affect the communities within which they operate. In a similar vein trade unions and churches have betrayed the trust of their members, and worse still compounded the bad behaviours with sustained attempts to cover them up. The reflexive response of loyal individuals to hide and excuse wrongdoing is so pervasive, it must surely give us pause to consider the effect that group loyalty has on the otherwise sound moral conscience of individuals.

Our colleagues in psychology have done some significant and sobering and research in this area, particularly around the phenomenon of confirmation bias. There is sound evidence that the teaching of critical thinking skills, which is supposed to help us overcome the bias on a purely individual basis, does not seem to yield very good results. Individuals with a pre-existing opinion are likely to search for supportive arguments rather than dispassionate evaluation. The upside of course, is that people (either individually or in groups) are very good at assessing arguments and evidence in an unbiased way provided that they have no axe to grind. For a review of the research in this area, I encourage readers to look at the comprehensive review paper, Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2011). Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34 (2), 57-74. This research has profound implications for social workers exercising power in organisations, both for themselves and the groups they work with.There is a clear imperative to seek independent counsel, rather than suppress divergent views.

There are many gems in this collection, some already mentioned, but I would like to highlight a few that resonated with me.

Dorothee Hölscher (Chapter 7) gives us fresh insight into the refrain, ‘the personal is political’, turning it on its head. She reminds us that social justice and injustice are experienced, felt and recreated by each and every person in their day-to-day relationships, interactions, practices and routines. A social worker, for example, who attends to her own experience of vicarious trauma opens up an important source of understanding, “and therefore reveal crucial ways in which structural processes and contextual factors work through relationships to impact people’s sense of self, agency and so on.”

“Acknowledging this may help to judge less and attend more to the need to create safe spaces for people to engage critically with themselves and one another so as to better meet their responsibilities in relation to the social injustices within which they are implicated. Knowing this, practitioners may feel encouraged to pursue social justice as a practice that is political and personal at once.”

Hilary Weaver (Chapter 9) outlines Indigenous and First Nations people’s experience of social work both as a product of colonization and as a potential ally in struggles for decolonization. If we accept that  human rights do no exist outside culture, there are crucial implications. Western culture privileges an individualist ethos legally, morally and ethically. Consequently the collectivist, holistic value systems and aspirations of Indigenous societies struggle to gain a proper footing within an individualist framework. This casts sharp relief on just how central Indigenous self- determination is within a human rights context, and why “settler” societies fight so hard against it.

Sarah Todd (chapter 11), specifically addresses ethics in community practice. She makes important points about the humility and level of tact required to work in the space of provisional uncertainty, invoking Levinasian ethics to acknowledge the impossibility of truly ‘knowing’ a community. Whilst it is possible to work in the space of culture and social inclusion, working to transform power relations or tackling injustice is rarely within the scope of the possible.

Mark Hughes (Chapter 12) in his piece on ethics in organizations gives us a timely reminder that there is plenty of room to move before a social worker needs to ‘blow the whistle’. Most organisations share many of the values that are found in the AASW Code of Ethics. This provides fertile ground for strategic collaboration; points well illustrated in Hughes practice vignettes.

There were also some contributions that left me disappointed.

Kam-shing Yip (Chapter 8) suggests that the ideas embodied in the international social work organizations’ ethical statements are culturally specific to ‘Western’ society. Using the example of Chinese cultural values, the author gives a couple of clinical examples that would seem to be within the bounds of good clinical practice in both Western and Chinese social work. Given the real and significant difference between these cultures, I was left wanting sharper illustrations.

Elisabeth Reichert (Chapter 2), notes (not unreasonably) that the use of human rights frameworks that are not legally enforceable seriously weakens the capacity of social workers to implement human rights. But her prescriptive exhortations are jarring and unhelpful within the critical, provisional and tentative tone of the rest of the book.

“There can be many reasons for a state’s non-adoption of a human rights document, some of which have no relevance to social work ethics. Certainly, though, if the ethical consideration violates local laws then the social worker may have to yield to those laws. Generally, though, the social worker should always follow ethical guidelines regardless of whether a state has adopted a human rights document.”

Fred Besthorn, Terry Koenig, Richard Spano and Sherry Warren (Chapter 10) champion the notion of ‘ecological justice’, repudiating the notion that ‘environmental justice’ can “effectively and collaboratively to mediate the extractive and exploitative contours of capitalist excess”.

The distinction appeared to me to be simply a matter of degree . With over seven billion people on the planet some extraction will continue to occur! Let us take a local example. The Coorong Wetlands are in danger of dying. Overuse of water along the Murray River is a principle cause. Whether the Coorong is saved by joined up movements of ‘environmental’ justice initiated by many communities along the Murray, or by ‘ecological’ justice imposed in a single stroke by an enlightened Federal Government, will be a product of campaign tactics informed by local circumstances.

For a better understanding of capitalism and its relationship to the ecological destruction of the planet, readers should have a look at Naomi Klein’s bestseller, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. It documents the efforts of environmental activists around the world, who are fighting extractive industries that threaten to ruin their homelands.

As a whole, this collection will, I believe, become a very important text within its genre, and the profession will be thankful that Jan Carter and Richard Hugman took the time to both contribute and put it together.

Posted in Ethics, Social Policy | 6 Comments

Measuring the value of AASW membership: a story of hidden potential

The real value of membership organisations is not in the knowledge they hold, but in the relationships they nurture.

Cast your mind back to Australian social work in the 1950’s; specifically to the emerging group of hospital almoners in Sydney, one of the seminal groups that built the profession in Australia. In the early days of their professional association, all its members knew each other personally.

Many members formed sub groups based on mutual professional interests. In some instances lifelong friendships blossomed. These sub groups were the crucible for teaching, learning, professional development, mentoring, supervision and ethical guidance. These were passionate and determined women committed to a vision for a nascent professional body. Connecting with colleagues across Australia, they built the social worth and the intellectual capital of the AASW.

But in that era, when groups grew beyond a certain size they inevitably faced diseconomies of scale. Value and productivity based on personal proximity can only be extended so far with telephones and snail mail.

There are simple ways of measuring the potential utility of any subgroup forming network. One of the better known measures was developed by David Reed, a computer scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

Reed’s Law states that the utility of networks increases exponentially with the size of the network. He derives this from the number of possible subgroups of network participants expressed as (2 to the power of N) –N – 1, where N is the number of participants.

And so for example a network of five people has twenty six possible subgroups, (25-5-1=26). But if we simply double the group to ten members, there are potentially over 1000 subgroups (210-10-1=1013). Twenty members yields over one million subgroups. 30 members equates to one billion subgroups, and 40 members gives a trillion. The exponential growth is astounding.

The real yield of this network effect is limited however, by the technology available and the cognitive capacity of the human brain. The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has famously suggested that 150 is the limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.

And so returning to our hardy band of hospital almoners in the 1950’s, we can reasonably speculate that value reached a peak at some point, when face to face meetings, snail mail and telephones could no longer link subgroups in a meaningful way. (what is now referred to as network congestion) The more the AASW grew, the less sub group networking occurred proportional to the number of members.

Like any growing organization with the same dilemma, the AASW became a service provider, distributing member benefits, with a top down, one to many communication style. Sub groups of course continued- in workplaces, state branches, interest groups and so on, but shrank rapidly as a proportion of the number of members and as a proportion of the potential number of subgroups. (This is not a criticism. The AASW like any similar organization had no other realistic choices)

This service strategy, distributing intellectual capital, has worked for us (after a fashion) for about fifty years, but inevitably meant that many social workers did not join the AASW because it could not offer some of the networking benefits, and in some workplaces those benefits could be had without joining.

As information technology rapidly developed in the 90’s, non-members also derived increasing value from the intellectual capital and professional culture built from those early networks, without having to pay for it. (e.g. our code of ethics) Courtesy of the Internet a staggering array of knowledge is now free. Those of you old enough to remember how expensive it was to buy Encyclopedia Britannica, will recall that it was wiped out almost overnight by Wikipedia, a resource that many of us use daily.

Paradoxically, whilst the Internet has seriously eroded the cost of digitized information, (the season finale of Game of Thrones was illegally downloaded over 14 million times and our kids just don’t pay for music anymore), the web has re-invigorated the value of networks in the most astounding fashion.

Facebook, with a tiny workforce of 14,000 people is one of the biggest companies on the planet, valued last year at around 350 billion dollars. (Reed’s Law at work! – and network congestion no longer an issue.)

All of us have stories of using social networks for professional benefit. I recently found a placement for a student I had never met in an organization that I did not know existed, until I posted a request for help on Social Work Changemakers- an active Facebook group for social workers.

Meanwhile AASW membership continues to decline as a proportion of the social work workforce. (Crucially however the AASW has positioned itself as the gatekeeper for Medicare provider access for social workers, making membership highly valuable for private providers.)

But whilst information technology has slashed the cost of digital information, it has unleashed networks. We now collaborate in groups that span the entire planet.

It is imperative that the AASW tap our potential network power, to recreate (many times over), the networks our founding mothers had back in the 1950’s.

The AASW should, as soon as possible, build a Facebook style app and and make it very easy for members to use it. The subgroup possibilities are endless, and the snowball effects staggering.

Posted in AASW Policy and Strategy | 1 Comment