The AASW election: policy, character, and ethics as a political weapon

I had hoped that this election would be fought on policy, leadership and vision, rather than casting aspersions on the character and competence of myself and other candidates.

Back in 2010 I was one of the National Vice Presidents of an AASW Board.  It was a Board that had grown complacent and comfortable in its views about what was best for the profession.

Our worst mistake was developing a proposal to create categories of membership below that of qualified social worker in order to develop a human services industry in which qualified social work was at the top of the pyramid. Whilst well intentioned, it was nevertheless a fundamentally flawed and stupid idea.

A groundswell of opposition to the notion, led by Karen Healy, made it a key policy issue in the 2010 AASW election. Karen ran for President, and my fellow NVP, Marie Claire Cheron-Sauer, whose term on the Board was coming to an end, was also a contestant for the Presidency.

Karen won the election handsomely; and rightly so. We had developed a tin ear. We repudiated the Pathways proposal before the election- but it was too little too late. We were correctly punished for not listening.

So far so good. Democracy prevails. In the normal course of events, the new Board members (all part of a Healy ticket) would have reached a rapprochement with remaining Board members who still had a year to serve on their terms.

But during the election an email between Karen Healy and others was inadvertently sent to Bob Lonne, at the time the National President. Bob made a formal complaint about the email, alleging that Karen had breached the AASW Code of Conduct that prevailed at the time. As was required by the rules , the Board constituted a Code of Conduct Committee that included eminent members of the AASW with some having considerable expertise in ethics. The Committee deliberated and found that Karen had breached the Code of Conduct, but did not apply any penalty. Bob appealed this decision, believing that a penalty should apply, and Karen appealed the decision, believing that the she should be found innocent. A process of mediation could not be agreed, and therefore the matter had to be put to the Board for decision, according to the rules at the time.

Karen did not believe that the process was fair and sought to have the matter expunged. The method she chose was to individually sue each member of the Conduct Committee in the Victorian Supreme Court. At that point one of the members from “old “ Board promptly resigned, flabbergasted by this turn of events. The Board negotiated for legally oversighted mediation to occur. This involved the AASW paying considerable legal costs for each member of the Code of Conduct Committee. ( In total somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000.) Karen paid her own legal costs which I assume were also considerable.

It is not too hard to imagine the pain and stress that all sides went through in this matter. Loyalties hardened. We stopped listening to each other, and harsh judgements were made.

Although wanting to resign, I felt some duty to ‘hang in’ to ensure the members of the Code of Conduct Committee (who had simply been doing their job) were properly looked after.

I resigned from the Board as soon as the mediation was concluded, and over the next few weeks all the members of the old Board and the Indigenous representative also resigned. The Board simply replaced those who had resigned within the processes allowed by the Constitution.

I can only reiterate what is already publically known about this case. All involved had to sign confidentiality agreements- although in my view transparency would have been a far better option.

At mediation it was agreed that a new body would be constituted to hear Karen’s appeal. It exonerated her. The reasons were not published.

In the following year there were no contested elections.

The 2011 Board quickly constructed a narrative of financial profligacy to lay at the feet of the 2010 Board. These ethical crimes oscillate between financial incompetence and/or milking of entitlements. This is what I mean by weaponised ethics. I won’t stoop to engaging with these allegations. It is the kind of narrative that is easy to construct with a few facts placed out of context. I could easily do the same. Six years in office leaves any governing body vulnerable. Nobody is perfect and stuff happens. But that kind of politics sickens me – and cheapens all of us. I am happy to assure you that I believe I have always acted ethically, morally and legally as a member of the AASW. And I am sure that Karen Healy and her champions also feel the same. If anyone feels differently- by all means lay a complaint.

This ethical war is the vestige of those of us who were loyal to Karen, and those of us who were loyal to Bob. In the eyes of most of our 10,000 members I would suggest that it is essentially trivial, and of no political consequence for the future of the profession. Both sides had an obligation to our hardworking members to do better. We must grow up- and it must stop.

The real problem for the current Board is not the real or imagined ethical crimes of 2010, or attempts to gain political mileage from them.

It’s problem is a political tin ear; the same problem we had in 2010.

  • It has not listened to the academics, students or industry in relation to ASWEAS. (those close to this matter know that it is about to explode.)
  • It has not listened to the new graduates on low pay and short term contracts
  • It has not listened to private practitioners (who are now contributing 45% of membership income.)

I have learnt some painful lessons from 2010. Ethics should not be used as a weapon. And true democracy means genuine grassroots engagement. (Including engaging with people you disagree with.) It is time for some healing.

The current Board has not learnt those lessons. It is about to be thrown out of office, just like we were in 2010, because it is not listening- and no amount of weaponised ethics can save it.


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Your guide on how to vote members first

I have posted a short video on Facebook to help intending voters to sort the substantial policies from the motherhood statements and the cliches.

and this is our how to vote guide.

How to vote members first

How to vote members first


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Lynne Harrold: AASW election statement

LynneAustralian social work is teetering on a precarious tsunami of systemic change. We can choose to ride the crest of change, invigorating our profession as we do so, or get dumped and swamped in a sea of passivity. We have challenges ahead, but if we are to ride this wave, doing so requires an AASW that can lead us forward and support us. I think we are unprepared for this challenge.

Many social workers, members and non-members of the AASW are struggling to find a job, earn a decent living, be recognised as a professional of value or even for that matter identify as being a social worker. Some are leaving the profession, whilst students struggle to find decent placements. New graduates have increasing difficulty finding work.  Those entering the private sector may find themselves unprepared and overwhelmed, coping in a free market that does not always appreciate social work knowledge and skills.

I make these statements from my perspective as a social worker in the field who is witnessing all the above; someone who is deeply committed to social work. I can truly say that I have never been more concerned, but at the same time more hopeful about our future.

My views are based on having spent the last 37 years working at the pointy end of service provision, firstly in the public health sector, and for the last 11 years running my own business in the private domain. I have advocated strongly for social workers over many years, but it seems that as a mere member my voice is rarely heard. I want this to change for all social workers and by being on the National Board I am determined to make that happen.

So how do I intend to do this? Certainly not by myself. The #Members First team, to which I am aligned, have a vision for the way forward, and it involves YOU. The only way our profession can become strong again is if you and every member gains more value from AASW membership.

These are some of our ideas.

  1. We need to make the AASW very relevant and accessible to all social workers. Creating the infrastructure to give you the opportunity to say what YOU want from this association must be a top priority. You need to be heard. Assessing your needs will be where we begin.
  2. A focus on raising the profile and status of social work is a high priority. This is multifactorial. After talking to many members, these are some of the ideas we have heard repeatedly.
  • A targeted national marketing strategy & campaign to help employers and the general community know what we do and why they need US.
  • Social work research & development of innovative practice across all sectors to be strongly supported & linked closely to our universities. Currently there is a disconnect.
  • Credentialing of specialist practice to differentiate our expertise in both the free market and public sector enabling clear role differentiation & strong professional identity.
  • Stronger resourcing of advocacy functions of the AASW to look out for social work interests.
  1. Let’s harness the skills/talents/interests of our members for the benefit of both members and our clients.
  • Make greater use of technology to bring practice/interest groups together linking & creating communities to enable support, advocacy and a whole lot more.
  • Provide a mentoring system to new graduates & those transitioning into new sectors.
  1. Ensure transparency of how members fees are spent.
  2. Develop a CPD system that is relevant, enables career development and is attuned to industry needs.

Although I have been strongly advocating for private social workers over many years my support is for all social workers as together we face the same challenges and need to be united.

Social workers are such a passionate group. Our voice for social justice is strong and needs to remain so. Our world needs a future generation of social workers that can lead the way however before we can do this we need to save ourselves.

Join our campaign team

Find out more about us

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Some KPI’s for the AASW: Improving member engagement

inclusion roadsignThe value of membership is engagement in member networks. 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.

“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.”

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, whether they be divisions of the College, branches, mental health social workers, interest groups and so on. The feedback that I receive about some networks suggests that access is sometimes 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” ( including internally).

Some of our current concerns are,

  • A crisis in field education
  • 14,500 social work students – of whom only a tiny proportion are members
  • 2000 private practitioners, some feeling increasingly restive and unsupported
  • a workforce of recent and new graduates facing a decline in real wages, low pay and 12 month contracts

You can add to this list yourself! As Antonio Gramsci the famous Italian Marxist once wrote,

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear

 Here are some KPI’s that can be benchmarked now and should be reported on annually.

  • the number of members that actively participate in branches, interest groups and policy development
  • the number of student members
  • the number of members who support each other in mentoring, supervision and professional development
  • the number of members who vote in Board and Branch elections (currently 16%!)
  • The number of consumer groups and trade unions that we have engaged with to advance our mutual interests
  • the number of members involved in providing CPD for other members

You can add to this list yourself!

And here are some obvious measures that would help.

  • Develop a members only social media platform with a smartphone app. This will allow any member to connect with any other member, anywhere, anytime.
  • A free or low cost membership for students
  • Capacity building for member groups that want to provide CPD
  • Developing MOU’s with trade unions and consumer groups to support campaigns that increase subsdised CPD for our members, and support the time and resources required for ethical practice
  • Publish policy submissions and key documents as drafts for comment- not faits accompli!
  • Change the by laws to mandate AASW election forums

Annual reports that include the KPI’s for member engagement would keep the AASW grounded and relevant.

If you want to see these things happen VOTE membersfirst in the AASW elections.

If you want to support us and find out more about our campaign- like and follow our election conversation page on Facebook.

For those who strongly agree with our policies- you can ask to join our campaign team on Facebook by clicking on our campaign team link.

Posted in AASW Election 2017, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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!

Lynne is exactly the kind of social worker we need on the AASW Board! And yes- we are running for election as part of the #membersfirst team.

If you want to support us and find out more about our campaign- like and follow our election conversation page on Facebook.

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

If you want to join the conversation about having an AASW that truly connects with students, go to the #membersfirst AASW election conversation page on Facebook


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

Walking into a room of social workers always raises my spirits

hands network

Walking into a room of social workers always raises my spirits. It could be a seminar, a supervision group, or a lunch; it doesn’t matter, I feel at home. I know I’m with a group of people who aim to make the world a better place; a group of people committed to continually honing their knowledge and skills; who share a culture, a code of ethics; a group of people who cooperate, collaborate and leave no colleague behind. This is the true value of being a social worker.

Whatever the AASW is, and whatever it does, it must recognise and nurture this value. It must create opportunities for social workers to gather together, in person and in digital space, to meet, learn and share. The success of the AASW should be measured in large part by the number of members it has helped to connect in meaningful networks.

This is the guiding principle behind the #membersfirst election policy platform.

Please join me and my #membersfirst colleagues, Lynne Harrold and Julianne Whyte. We need your support in the 2017 AASW elections- so that we can raise the true value of AASW membership.

Our Policies include,

  • Meaningful engagement with fellow members and a real say in policy development. We must make it easy for members to connect with each other through an AASW social media app on our phones and tablets
  • More transparency and accountability on how members fees are spent
  • Better support of our private practitioners
  • Stronger advocacy for low paid members working in NGO’s
  • The development of more specialties and pathways to advanced practice
  • A coherent national framework for CPD
  • Targeted marketing of our profession with government an employers
  • Stronger and more collaborative relationships with higher education
  • A free mentoring scheme for students and new graduates,
  • An AASW student club on every campus and a National AASW student advisory body
  • collaborating with trade unions and consumer groups around issues of mutual interest to our members

Join our campaign team

For those who strongly agree with our policies- you can ask to join our campaign team on Facebook by clicking on our campaign team link.

Find out more about us

You can go to our open Facebook conversation group- like and follow us; put questions to our candidates and join the discussion.

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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.

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

Members first: Why I’ll be standing for National President of the AASW this year

hands clapping presentation sizeFor the last few years the story of the AASW has been one of underachievement.

When I ask many of my fellow members whether they feel they are getting value for their membership dollar, the resounding answer is “no”.

To turn this around we need policies that put members first. That includes,

  1. Meaningful engagement with fellow members and a real say in policy development. We must make it easy for members to connect with each other. We need an AASW social media app for our phones and tablets.
  2. Transparency and accountability on how members fees are spent
  3. Better support of our private practitioners
  4. The development of more specialties and pathways to advanced practice
  5. A coherent national framework for CPD
  6. A mentoring scheme for new graduates
  7. Targeted marketing of our profession to government an employers
  8. Stronger and more collaborative relationships with higher education

Leading up to the AASW election this September, the #membersfirst team (including Lynne Harrold and Julianne Whyte) will be elaborating and promoting these policies.

This is a pivotal year in the life of the social work profession, and there will be a big voter turnout.

Help us get elected; not just by voting for #membersfirst- ask to join our campaign team  on Facebook.

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Posted in AASW Election 2017 | 7 Comments