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 | 6 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 | 11 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 | 12 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 | 22 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”.


“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

AASW announces a record profit: an analysis of the financial statement and some strategic implications

Record Profit

I took a look at the AASW financial statements for the past few years to bring you a summary of some of the salient features. (Note that references to a particular year mean financial year. For example 2016 refers to the 2015/16 financial year.)

This year the AASW has announced a record profit of $549, 868. This follows 3 previous year of substantial profit- the cumulative 4 year profit totalling over 1.5 million dollars.

The chief measure of company health is the ability to pay current debt without having to resort to outside financing. This is measured by describing the ratio of current assets to current liabilities (the current ratio). The AASW with current assets of $5.1 million, and liabilities of 3.3 million dollars has a healthy current ration of 1.54.

Excessive Reliance on Member Fees

The AASW does however have an excessive reliance on member fees as its main source of revenue. In 2011 membership fees comprised 67% of total AASW revenue. This year membership subscriptions represent 79% of total revenue. By comparison, the Australian Psychological Society (APS)  and Occupational Therapy Australia (OT Australia) are both far less reliant on member subscriptions. Compared to the AASW, OT Australia reports a modest 44.3%, and the APS stand at 48%.

Non member subscription revenue has flatlined, showing no growth in dollar terms, as well as a shrinking proportion of overall revenue. This is an issue that must be addressed.

Potential to Develop Other Income Streams

So how do professional associations generate revenue outside of membership subscriptions? Professional training and development, as well as some conference revenue account for a substantial chunk of revenue for OT Australia and the APS, as can be seen from the percentages in this table. The AASW managed to generate only 5.9% of its revenue from training and development, despite running a conference in the 2015/16 financial year. There are clearly significant opportunities for improvement in this area.

Increasing Student and New Graduate Membership

The AASW has experienced a pleasing, steady growth in membership. Describing the growth accurately is however not possible, as the AASW announces membership figures anytime between January and April. For example, our financial membership in August this year was 8,000, and will not climb back to full membership until the other 2,000 members have renewed sometime next year.

In the drive to reach 10,000 members by July 2016, 500 members were signed up in the last three months of the financial year. Many of those new members were students or new graduates taking advantage of the generous discounts on offer.

Revenue Implications of a Changing Member Mix

Whilst I strongly approve of this strategy, the effect on finance and resources must also be understood. Average revenue per member will naturally decline, particularly with our very low student and new graduate rates. The effect can be seen in this chart and will obviously accelerate in coming years.

All members naturally require support and services. And obviously the main resource in servicing the membership is the AASW staff. A rise in membership has implications for how thinly this resource is spread. Dividing the total wages, salaries and related costs per member is one way of appreciating these implications.

It is clear that the time is ripe to invest some of the AASW’s accumulated profits into retention of new members. If one considers for a moment the professional lifespan of  a social worker, her need for a full range of professional support is at its highest in the beginning years. Early investment in mentoring, CPD and quality supervision set good habits and strong foundations. AASW support of these investments in our student and new graduate members will build strong professional foundations and loyal lifelong membership.

The fee jump from new graduate membership to full fee membership is significant. Substantial membership retention will rely on the professional support offered before the fee increase kicks in.

Continuing Growth in University Social Work Enrolments

Whilst recruitment of student members has improved, it is by no means near its true potential. Next year there will be approximately 14,500 social work students in Australia. (10,000 BSW’s and 4,500 Masters qualifying). Around 3,000 of those students will graduate in 2017. (1,700 BSW’s, and 1,300 Masters qualifying). We can also expect further growth in coming years.

These numbers are staggering and point the way to our real growth potential. Scaling up our recruiting efforts to have a strong presence in all 26 universities is vital. we should be aiming to have at least 50% of all social work students in the country joining the AASW.

Investing our Profits in the Future of Social Work

And so how do we  invest our profits wisely to do this?

  1. We must make it easier for our members to talk directly to each other. Every member who wants it should have an app on their tablet or phone with a Linkedin/Facebook type function for AASW members only. This can used by members to set up their own groups, for example campus student clubs, private practitioners within a particular Primary Health Care Network, research interest groups, practice groups, etc.
  2. We should set up a mentoring program for new graduates above and beyond normal supervision arrangements. We have hundreds of wise and experienced members who, with the right training, would be happy to donate time towards career development, as well as ethical and professional guidance.
  3. We must build the quality and capacity of our field educators, so that every placement offered is outstanding.
  4. We must build the capacity of our members to offer quality CPD tailored to the learning needs of fellow members.
  5. We must professionalise and scale up our member recruiting (and our presence) in universities, not just to gain members, but also to help build a long term sense of professional identity and vocation.
  6. We must boost our research capacity.
  7. We must enhance the profile and reputation of our private practice cohort.

All these initiatives will come with a price tag, and we are fortunate to have the profit to invest in them. These investments will pay for themselves both in membership recruitment and retention, as well as building the strength of our profession.



Posted in AASW Policy and Strategy | Leave a comment

Your guide to the AASW election results: the winners, the losers and their policies

Percentage of voters stays the same

The voting electorate grew from approximately 7,600 in 2015 to 8,000 members this year. But the percentage that voted remained exactly the same, at 16%, despite pleas from some candidates (including myself) to fill in your ballot and post it. If any non voters would like to comment on this – I would love to get their views- and to find out from them what would help them to vote next time.

Support for the current Board is eroding

Last year the incumbent candidate, Christine Craik won the race for National Vice President with 59% of the vote. This year the incumbent, Maria Merle, was defeated in the National Vice President race, gaining only 45% of the vote.

Candidate Votes Percentage
Marie Claire Cheron-Sauer 692 54%
Maria Merle 582 45%

Congratulations To Marie Claire. Her outstanding leadership as well as her skills in policy analysis and policy development will bring a much needed fresh perspective to the Board.

Last year in the race for two Director positions the incumbents gained 62% of the vote. This year in the Director race for 3 positions, the incumbents gained 56.6% of the vote.

Seven candidates contested the race. The first two incumbents won in clear cut fashion, with the third scrambling over the line. (See table below)

Congratulations to the all winners and losers. A contested election is a sign of organisational health.

Candidate Percentage
Anita Phillips 22%
Dr Brenda Clare 19.8%
Barbara Moerd 14.8%
Mark Wilder 14.2%
Vittorio Cintio 12.6%
Jeanne Lorraine 9%
Sarah Joy 7.5%

Voting system changed to favour incumbents and reduce the potential for diversity

Students of AASW politics will know that the in the 2015 elections the voting system was optional preferential. This enabled David Gould to win a Director position on preferences.

This year the Board changed the voting system to first past the post. (Optional preferential is widely considered to be the most democratic system, because it ensures fairness and diversity).  The four independents got 43.4% of the vote. It is very likely that one of the independents could and should have won the third position in a preferential voting system.

It is frankly disgraceful that the Board changed the voting system.

No debate or discussion between candidates- as usual

The election was conducted as usual with no debate or discussion between candidates. Some candidates answered questions in a couple of forums that were seen by a handful of members. Kudos to those all those members who took the time to ask questions of candidates.

Only a few hundred would have looked at the candidate statements on the web.

What were the candidates policies? And why do policies matter?

Boards have two main functions; Firstly making sure that everything that is done on behalf of members is legal, ethical, and efficient, and secondly driving the organisation in the right direction by ensuring that everything that is done helps to achieve the long term mission and vision.

And so a candidates policies ( what they would like the AASW to do) are a critical component of how will achieve its mission.

All candidates devoted considerable space to describing their professional background, qualifications, committees served on, interests and experience. Most outlined the vision they had for the AASW. Words like “strong voice”, active engagement, action on social justice, wholistic, equitable, evidence based, diverse representative, vibrant, responsive, excellence in professional practice, inclusivity, leadership, and collaborative all got a strong workout.

The incumbent Board members also wrote about their track record in increasing the membership, SWOT, building finances, constitutional changes, and strengthening the AASW voice on child protection. Part of their pitch was an appeal to continue the program of “reform” they had begun, but with little or no detail about what further work this might practically entail.

In analyzing the candidate statements, I have tried to infer as fairly as I could the policies of each candidate. To be considered a policy in my mind, the statement had to involve some specific future action, not just a declaration of what the candidate stands for. Below is a list, by candidate, of all the policies I could find.

Marie-Claire Cheron Sauer, elected National Vice President
  1.  Investing more in research and working with our academic colleagues to strengthen research expertise in social work
  2. Accrediting a larger range of specialist practice and post grad qualifications that support this
  3. Drive the strategic development of social policy working with social work experts in key policy areas
  4. Further develop innovative approaches for tapping into the expertise of members
  5. Further develop the profession’s policy profile
Maria Merle, defeated in the race for National Vice President
  1.  Committed to the campaign for the national registration of social workers
  2. Build membership to 15,000
  3. Increase range of flexible CPD options for rural and regional members
  4. More national symposiums and local branch events
  5. Strongly support the new student council
  6. Ensure membership fees remain affordable
  7. Pursue national registration
Anita Phillips, elected as Director, ranked 1st of 7 with 22% of the vote
  1.  The determined pursuit of registration
  2. Strong representation for rural social workers
Dr Brenda Clare, elected as Director, ranked 2nd of 7 with 19.8% of the vote
  1.  Continue the registration campaign
  2. Follow up on the changes required upon the completion of the ASWEAS review
Barbara Moerd, elected as Director, ranked 3rd of 7 with 14.8% of the vote
  1.  Bed down the strategies we have put in place (did not specify which strategies needed further work)
Mark Wilder, not elected, 4th in the Directors race with 14.2% of the vote
  1.  Pledge to cover the area of front line clinical practice and liaise with members and colleagues about these matters
Vittorio Cintio, not elected, 5th in the Directors race with 12.6% of the vote
  1. A personal AASW web page for every member who wishes to have one. Facebook/Linkedin type networking features would enable ease of communication between members across the country
  2. A national voluntary and comprehensive mentorship program available to all members
  3. Sharing power and responsibility with the Branches
  4. Build a longer term social justice agenda embedding our core commitments to equality of opportunity and social justice, in collaboration with trade unions, churches and consumer groups
  5. The creation of an umbrella group of counseling associations and non-registered professions to strengthen ethical self-regulation
  6. Working collaboratively with trade unions that cover our members to advocate for reasonable workloads and adequate supervision
  7. Negotiating with employers to enshrine the AASW Code of Ethics as the professional standard for our work
  8. Instigate a national summit of all stakeholders in social work education and social work employers to start collaboratively tackling issues of mutual concern
  9. Supporting a treaty with our first peoples
  10. Join the movement to divest from fossil fuels, and move AASW assets (bank accounts and super funds) into institutions that will invest our money ethically
Jeanne Lorraine, not elected, 6th in the Directors race with 9% of the vote
  1.  Advocate for registration of social work
  2. Partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to ensure equitable outcomes for all
Sarah Joy, not elected, 7th in the Directors race with 7.5% of the vote
  1. Continue to grow our organisation
  2. Provide support and representation to the diverse practice groups that make up the AASW

 Next year?

Reading this list you might agree with me that policy is not necessarily a gamechanger in AASW elections!

it is worth noting that many candidates pledged their continuing support for the registration campaign. But readers of my blog would know better than most, that our representations to COAG are bound to fail, and it is only a matter of time until this will need to be acknowledged.

I await the day when the Board takes the members into its confidence and explains this.

The unfolding political scene of the next 12 months will be fascinating, both in our broader socio-economic fortunes and in AASW politics.

I will be standing for AASW Vice President in September 2017 and asking for your vote.


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AASW Election 2016: the case for change

Those of you who read my previous post analyzing the progress of the AASW strategic plan will see that I am less than impressed with how we are travelling.

The current AASW Board has done much that is praiseworthy, including building financial reserves, developing SWOT, recruiting student members with a low cost introductory fee, promoting contemporary advanced practice via the revamped National Bulletin, as well as strong social justice advocacy particularly around asylum seekers

And yet there is a lot missing, both in how things could and should be done, as well as what needs to be achieved.

Beginning with how, there is no easy way for members who share interests to have an online conversation. Consequently some members have set up closed Facebook groups for this purpose. See for example Australian Social Work Changemakers https://www.facebook.com/groups/1486334714924119/

The AASW should be offering this kind of facility to all members on the AASW website.

Related to this deficit, are the flawed consultative processes within the AASW. Submissions are not routinely published, nor are there online forums where members can critically engage with each other around submissions, be they policy papers or reviews. The recent constitutional and governance changes and the ASWEAS review are cases in point.

Segments of members that are looking for a stronger voice within the AASW (eg, students and private practitioners) are being dealt with in silos; again because there are no forums where the rest of us can engage in the conversation.

The Board changed the voting system for AASW elections last year from first past the post to preferential, and this year promptly changed it back again. The membership was not consulted about either change. Worse –the preferential system is generally acknowledged as being fairer, through honoring diversity and minority opinion.

This is the road to a more disengaged and passive membership.

Turning to the what- a key element of the AASW vision is collaborative relationships with educational institutions, industry, government, client associations and the community.

This is an area of serious concern. We need to see a strong body of ringing endorsements and partnerships around shared concerns with any and all of these groups. So lets get serious. We must:

  • Start self-regulating now, with or without government subsidy. Include the counseling associations as well as NASRHP under the self help umbrella,
  • Reassess our futile attempts to gain registration through COAG, and be straight with the membership about the chances of ever achieving registration
  • target inequality in our social justice campaigns and the toxic effects of unfettered free markets on the poor, via pay day lending and the deregulation of gambling and alcohol sales,
  • do our bit for the global environment by making sure that the AASW divests any assets it may have in fossil fuels
  • Support a treaty for our first peoples
  • Lead a national summit of educators, employers, professional associations and community groups in our sector to develop an integrated vision of how to support and maintain quality social care

And if we want to improve internal membership engagement we should:

  • implement a national voluntary and comprehensive mentorship program available to all members. This would give our junior and student members access to the rich knowledge and wisdom of our older members,
  • Share power and responsibility with the Branches. This can be done through a funding model that funds programs and areas of responsibility, rather than our outdated capitation model.

There is so much to be done!

The incumbent candidates for the Board are resting on their track records and offering more of the same!

If you agree with my analysis -vote for the independent candidates in this election- including Marie-Claire Cheron Sauer, Jeanne Loraine and Mark Wilder.

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