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.


Posted in AASW Election 2016 | Leave a comment

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

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.

Posted in AASW Election 2016 | Leave a comment

The AASW report card: treading water

It would have slipped under the radar of many- but the AASW has a strategic plan (Strategic Plan 2014-17). With some delving you can find it on the AASW website. And so what better way to assess the performance of the AASW than via its own strategic plan, both for what it does and doesn’t target, as well as how it has performed so far against those targets.

Strategic Goal 1 is “to be innovators in knowledge, skills and actions for social workers”.

For this goal, the AASW lists eleven measures on which to judge its performance, three for accreditation reviews, seven for CPD, and one for coaching and mentoring.

The three university accreditation measures are,

  1. 100% compliance with annual calendar of university reviews
    My comment- This a core function of the AASW, not an innovation or improvement!
  2. Regular participation in forums with our stakeholders
    My comment- This is meaningless without specifics (what forums? What stakeholders?), and in any event a baseline expectation of any sensible organisation.
  3. 80% satisfaction of framework with stakeholders including Heads of School, students, field educators, employers.
    My Comment- Well intentioned, but again meaningless without specifics. 80% of whom? About what?

The most important measure, the ASWEAS review is not mentioned. Sadly, the parameters of this review are, in my view, so limited that they nibbles around the edges of current practice, when genuine innovation is needed. If there have been submissions that are paradigm shifting, we may never know, because the AASW is (at this point) not publishing submissions.

The seven CPD strategy measures are,

  1. Member consultations conducted by December 2014.
  2. Employer consultations by June 2015.
    My comment- I would like to think that both these happened. If anyone can point me to the evidence, I will link to it and acknowledge it here.
  3. Policy and initial curriculum developed by December 2014
  4. National Office develop content and pilot SWOT program etc
  5. Each Branch develop and pilot one CPD activity that contributes .. to SWOT content.
    My comment- The SWOT resources look good. Clearly a lot of work has gone into SWOT. Well done to all those involved. I hope the current survey results are made public so that we can a sense of membership views on how SWOT can be improved.
  6. Three social work practice papers per year, which promote contemporary and advanced practice
    My comment- The AASW has done some excellent work in converting the Bulletin into serving this purpose. The issues devoted to Health and Leadership had high quality contributions from experts in the field.
  7. One CPD partnership (with other professional organisation, private provider) developed by June 2015
    My comment- Am I the only member that feels uncomfortable about a CPD partnership with a private provider? Is it OK for a private firm to make a profit on our CPD needs when so many of our own members also provide training? Could we do more to build the capacity of our own members in training and marketing?

The one coaching and mentoring strategy is to,

  1. Develop a policy paper and a model on coaching and mentoring by March 2015
    My comment- This is a crucial need which is now well overdue! We have a skewed membership of many over fifties and increasingly many students. There is not enough incentive for student members to swallow the massive increase in post graduation fees without a direct supportive link to a mentor/coach. Why is it taking so long?

The lack of progress on mentoring is a major gap. My overall rating on Strategic Goal 1-Six out of ten.

Strategic Goal 2 is “to a strong voice for social justice, relevant and engaged with stakeholders”.

For this goal, the AASW lists fourteen measures on which to judge its performance- four on social policy position papers and media strategy, one on CPD marketing, four on stakeholder engagement, and five on self-regulation.

The four social policy position/media strategy measures are,

  1. Three Position papers and twelve Position Statements per year
    My comment- I doubt that anyone would be too concerned about the number of statements. Quality and relevance are the key issues. Our advocacy on refugee policy has been outstanding. And the quality of our other work is consistently good.
    In my view however, we must do more to comment on the rising tide of inequality in Australia. We have a strong grip on the inadequacy of welfare payments but, globalization, privatisation and unfettered free markets have led to an explosion in problem gambling, pay day lending, under employment of the unskilled, as well as rising costs for health and education and transport. The lack of robust response from the Labor party and other progressive organisations on these issues has left fertile ground for the rise of One Nation and other right wing groups.
  2. Two press releases per month and two other type of publications
  3. At least one publication in media outlet per month
  4. At least weekly updates and promotion of AASW in social media
    My comment- The AASW is certainly improving its performance in this regard, but the website paradigm is ‘one to many’ with the exception of SWOT.

The networking in SWOT is limited to a few groups and is centrally controlled. The architecture of the software is more a classroom than a forum. The aims of these networks and number of members is often invisible. The network that interests me (Green Social Work) appears to be inactive. We should have our own internal social media.
I am proposing a Linkedin/Facebook type function for our members to communicate with each other on a ‘many to many’ basis. Logging in to the AASW website would give you immediate access to your own page should you wish to have one, and access to the pages of other members who agree to connect with you.

The one CPD marketing measure is,

  1. At least one large employer to promote and purchase a package of SWOT CPD material
    My comment- The AASW sees this as a concrete measure of an improved reputation for high quality CPD. Whilst I have no problem with making a modest profit from our intellectual property, I do not see it as a measure of quality. Our members will be the best judge.

The four measures on stakeholder engagement are as follows,

  1. Strategy paper by March 2015
    My comment- I have no idea what this refers to?
  2. Conduct a member survey by June 2015
    My comment- I cannot find any reference to this on the website?
  3. To ensure representation at all Heads of Schools meetings
    My comment- Seriously? Turning up at a meeting to which we have a standing invitation is not a strategic measure!
  4. To develop an active project partnership with the Heads of School group
    My comment- If this happened, I would love to hear what it is.

The five measures on self regulation are,

  1. At least 3 employers in any state or territory actively recruit social work with the accredited trade mark
    My comment- This seems to me to show a fundamental misunderstanding of how employers operate in the human services labor market. I would be surprised if this measure is ever achieved. If I am wrong- please let me know and I will post it here.
  2. To have 10% of members using the collective trademark by 2014.
    My comment- Given our significant membership in private practice, this exercise in branding may have reached the target. Can anybody confirm?
  3. Actively contribute to the development of the National Alliance of Self Regulating Health Professionals (NASRHP) model
    My comment- It is one thing to develop a model, but the implementation of the model seems to be stalled because the Federal Government is not prepared to fund it. As I have repeatedly said we should proceed with this model as soon as possible, funding it from within the participating associations, including the counseling associations.
    The AASW is still pursuing the cause of registration via the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Health Ministers meeting. As I have discussed at length elsewhere, this is futile. Unfortunately the AASW has committed another $10,000 to the campaign.
  4. Complete NZ Mutual Recognition Agreement by July 2014.
    My comment- I am certainly in favour of ease of movement between countries. This recognition is done and dusted, driven by overarching issues in the Australia/NZ relationship.
    It is worth noting that the many holders of 3 year degrees in NZ have caught a lucky break, given the extra requirements that the AASW puts on holders of 3 year degrees from any other country. NZ social work has long recognised both 3 and 4 year degrees, and is now transitioning to exclusively 4 yr degrees.
  5. Active mutual recognition negotiations with one other country
    My comment- I have seen nothing about this. Can anyone help? Has the AASW chosen a country (or countries) to talk too? 

Summary for goal 2 on being a strong voice for social justice

Apart from developing and publicizing policy papers, I fail to see what the rest of these measures have to do with being a “strong voice for social justice”.

My overall rating for Strategic Goal 2- Five out of 10.

Strategic Goal 3 is “provide responsible governance and management of the AASW in partnership with Branches and National Committees”.

For this goal, the AASW lists nine measures on which to judge its performance; three for enhancing governance capability, three for having satisfied and engaged staff, and three for engagement between the Board, National Committees and Branches.

The three measures for enhancing governance and management are,

  1. Publish reviewed and updated policy and procedures by October 2014
    Comment. I have written extensively on the governance review here on my blog. Sadly many members were not exposed to the full arguments against some of the AASW proposals, and would have been puzzled by the tense environment at the AGM.
    I cannot recall an instance in the past few years where the AASW has published submissions for any review on its website. This is fairly common in other organizations. It stimulates discussion and debate during the review period and it promotes the kind of transparency that the AASW ought to be embracing.
  2. All Directors complete governance training within 6 months of election
    This is a baseline expectation of any sensible organisation. Nothing strategic about it.
  3. Review the Risk Management Strategy quarterly
    Ditto point 2.

The three staff measures are: completing performance appraisals for all staff, offering professional development opportunities to all staff, and having annual staff surveys and acting on them.

Comment. Frankly these measure are so basic to any organisation, they do not merit the description of “strategic”.

The three measures for engagement between the Board, National Committees and Branches are,

  1. Board to meet at least annually with Branch Presidents in conjunction with monthly teleconferences
    It is the content of meetings that may or may not be strategic- not the fact that meetings simply occur.
  2. National Office to convene bi- annual meeting with Branch Managers
    Sounds worthy. Nothing strategic about it
  3. Active liaison between National Committees and the Board
    I would hope so. (again – a standard expectation)


Is it just me? I cannot find any reference to National Committees on the website? The AASW used to publish details of National Committee membership, email addresses and terms of reference.
If there is a theme here it is the decline of transparency and accessibility. Each National Committee should have its own blog and publish drafts of policies and submissions for comment.
State and Territory Branches do not have a defined role or unique responsibilities within the AASW. Until this is sorted there won’t be much change.

As a NSW Branch Committee member, I have found the one-size fits all approach imposed by National Office on recruiting a Branch Professional Officer very frustrating. NSW has been without a professional officer for 8 months. Branches need the flexibility to determine needs locally and find local solutions.

My rating on Goal 3 is three out of ten

Strategic Goal 4 is “build a strong sustainable membership and equity base”.

For this goal, the AASW lists three measures on which to judge its performance.

The three measures for building a strong sustainable membership and equity base are,

  1. To grow retained earnings by $300k per annum
  2. Implement a cash management strategy
    Why can’t this strategy include ensuring we do not invest in funds that support fossil fuels?
  3. Grow membership by 10% per annum
    Comment. There is no doubt that the AASW has done well in building savings and growing the membership. The Board should be commended on this.


The question now is- how to invest savings wisely to build for the future of the AASW?

And the related question- how are we to retain and sustain the newer, younger members we have recruited?

Without a mentoring program and an open and accessible way for members to connect with each other, our member renewal rates may falter and our membership numbers plateau.

My rating for Goal 4 is eight out of 10

Overall, this document confuses standard operational issues with strategy.  What strategy there is does not do enough to move us towards closer and more “collaborative relationships with educational institutions, industry, government, client associations and the community”, (a key element of the AASW vision). There are serious gaps related to member engagement, member mentoring, transparency and connecting with our education and industry. Currently the AASW is simply treading water- my global rating- five out of ten.

Posted in AASW Election 2016 | Leave a comment

Five reasons why workplace bullies survive and thrive: And what we can do about it

bullyingIn 2015, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons went through a serious soul searching exercise following some alarming reports of bullying in the profession.

The College commissioned an independent report that contained shocking findings. These included,

  • 49% of Fellows, trainees and international medical graduates report being subjected to discrimination, bullying or sexual harassment
  • 54% of trainees and 45% of Fellows less than 10 years post-fellowship report being subjected to bullying
  • 71% of hospitals reported discrimination, bullying or sexual harassment in their hospital in the last five years, with bullying the most frequently reported issue
  • 39% of Fellows, trainees and international medical graduates report bullying, 18% report discrimination, 19% report workplace harassment and 7% sexual harassment
  • the problems exist across all surgical specialties and
  • senior surgeons and surgical consultants are reported as the primary source of these problems.

You can find the full report here.

There is nothing new in this- and surgeons may be no better or worse than any other professional group, including social workers. We ought to commend the surgeons on their honesty. But why is it so bad? Let me restate the blindingly obvious.

  1. Bullies get short-term results. We live in the world of the KPI, the financial year, and the spreadsheet. For many organisations these are not just tools, but substitutes for real values. So let’s get real about the causal factors between “performance” and bullying cultures.
  2. Bullies successfully “manage up” and accumulate power and influence. They seek to make themselves indispensable. Many are charming- some are just threatening. The result is the same- wrapping themselves into power structures with octopus-like tenacity.
  3. Bullies don’t care about their victims- their empathy stretching only to those who share their world view. Ironically, bullies often see themselves as victims, making the tough decisions, and doing work that others cannot stomach. This theme is eloquently captured in the Hollywood courtroom drama, A Few Good Men. In the climactic scene, a Marine Colonel, pressed to justify the death of one of his men says, “You can’t handle the truth! ..we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? ..I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You..curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives! You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like “honor”, “code”, “loyalty”. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it! I would rather you just said “thank you”, and went on your way.” (You tube clip here)
  4. Policies and procedures meant to investigate and remediate are not used -or do not work. Whilst there is important work to be done to assure real justice and protect human rights, these processes will never be perfect. The best analogy is an ambulance waiting at the bottom of a cliff. And to be sure- if you need an ambulance you want a good one! However I have yet to see a workplace with a truly independent process, and sufficient to power to prevent the organisation from shielding the bully, together with the authority to deliver timely justice. Even the quick removal of a bully still leaves post traumatic scars and necessary repairs.
  5. Whistleblowers are often ostracized and punished. Like a surgeon seeking consent for a dangerous procedure, we need to be honest with victims about the true chances of proper redress, as well as the consequences of alternative choices. We all have stories of traumatised colleagues, who in hindsight, could have and would have protected themselves better.

And so lasting remedies will rely far more on prevention than cure. If your workplace rates highly on the following parameters, it will seriously reduce the oxygen that bullying needs to survive. Does your organisation

  1. Identify and reward respectful behavior
  2. Honor truth
  3. Encourage cultural diversity
  4. Acknowledge the need for work/life balance
  5. Plan for the long term
  6. Reject quick fixes and addresses root causes
  7. Nurture talent and innovation
  8. Seek to promote talent from minority groups

If your workplace does not have real metrics to monitor progress on these things, it will continue to be a haven for bullies. And no matter where you sit in your organisation you can have some effect on promoting a positive culture.

Posted in Culture, Social Policy, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Seven reasons to abstain from approving amendments to the AASW Constitution

At the AASW 2015 AGM a number of constitutional amendments are being proposed. These proposals were the subject of a discussion paper in March this year and comments were invited. One could reasonably have expected, at the very least, that comments or submissions would have been published on the AASW website. And at best, that there could have been some online discussions on the back of comments received. Sadly neither occurred.

I sent a submission last June, based largely on my previous blog post on the topic and received a polite thank you- and then…. nothing.

After publishing this post, I sent a version of it to the AASW, asking that it be published in the interests of fair and balanced discussion. The answer? A polite no. I then sent the AASW a number of questions based on my concerns. These have been published. Tricky to find- and so I have provided a direct link here.

I have incorporated the answers in this piece. You will see that I am less than impressed with the AASW responses, but I would like you to make your own judgements.

My reasons for abstaining from these proposals are set out below.

The problem of putting diverse amendments as a “take it or leave it” package

Some the amendments are important and others routine. All the amendments are however being presented as one package. This means that members cannot pick out and vote in favor of the proposals they agree with, whilst voting against others. Personally I am comfortable with longer terms of office and other routine matters that provide for fair elections or alignment with corporate law. But the amendments are being put as a “take or leave it” lump. I am therefore compelled to vote for abstention, until my concerns can be addressed, and the amendments are presented separately further down the track.

None of the proposals are urgent. There is no reason why they cannot be deferred for further consideration. I therefore urge all members who cannot attend the AGM to carefully consider the AASW proposals and send in an abstention proxy if any of the proposals is not to their liking.

The considered AASW response is

” the Board has thoroughly reviewed and endorsed the changes and it is because they see them as important and uncontroversial that they are presenting them to members at the AGM to be accepted with a single vote. This is also seen by the AASW’s lawyer as best practice for Constitutional amendments because a single vote will ensure consistency in the outcome”

The plain english translation is- trust the Board assessment that all these matters are related and uncontroversial, and beside our lawyer tells us it is best practice.

Sorry, not good enough. A lot of the amendments are unrelated and controversial. I also need to know why something is supposedly “best practice”.

Stripping our values and principles from the Constitution

I find it distressing that this issue was not even canvassed in the March governance discussion paper; i.e., the proposal to completely expunge 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 (including compassion fairness, equity and justice), belief in collaboration as the cornerstone of effective practice, high quality social work service provision, respect for privacy, the promotion of human rights, and positive change that brings about growth and development for human beings. These values should be regularly reviewed- but certainly not deleted.

The proposed deletion has been justified by legal advice that the Constitution is not the “appropriate” document to detail values. Lawyers tell us that a constitution should only set out a company’s rules and legal requirements. According to the AASW,

“The risk of not following this particular piece of legal advice is that the Constitution is 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.”

I struggle to think of an instance where one could use our values “inappropriately” if they remain in our constitution. Can you? In the corporatist universe the Code of Ethics is informed by …..well… the Code of Ethics. In reality the Code of Ethics has the same status as any other by-law. It should be guided by a higher set of principles. And what more logical place is there for those principles to be found than in our Constitution? We are above all else a professional association. Without our values in the Constitution, the AASW moves towards being a corporate shell.

Locking membership eligibility clauses into the constitution to protect the members from future rogue Boards

Some readers may be puzzled by the need for membership eligibility clauses to be locked into the Constitution. Currently the Constitution allows for broad consultation before the Board makes any changes. This proposal is a bit like putting an extra deadlock on your door, because you’re afraid that the existing one is not enough.

There a many things that frighten me- global warming, free market fundamentalism, and the erosion of social capital -to name a few. But I am not frightened of the prospect of a rogue board betraying the will of the majority of AASW members. I trust my fellow members to behave ethically and democratically.

Even if you think my trust is naïve, and the extra deadlock on the door makes you feel safer, be aware that unless the constitution includes the entire body of our accreditation standards, and lists every approved university course, it is still actually the Board that decides who is eligible for membership, because it is the Board, not the membership that approve accreditation standards, which can be changed at any time. The Board also decides which universities meet those standards. Future “rogue” Boards can simply change university accreditation standards without having to change the Constitution.

The AASW simply confirm my analysis when in response to my question about this the Board states,

“As with any changes to our core values, any changes to our core education standards would be undertaken in consultation with members and stakeholders and following a full review of the ASWEAS.”

The current Board also claims that this amendment will assist our registration campaign. In reality, our campaign for registration is over, and there is not a shred of evidence that this amendment would help to revive it.

The need to make provision for accrediting overseas qualifications

There is no provision for the current practice, which often involves granting membership eligibility to overseas applicants with 3-year degrees and sufficient experience deemed to make up the difference. Additionally, applicants from New Zealand with 3-year social work degrees are granted eligibility in a special deal that the AASW has with that country. I have no problem with this, but I cannot see how, on any plain reading of the proposed amendment, that any allowance is made for this.

The AASW response is as follows,

The key principles in international qualifications recognition are comparability and outcomes, not equivalence and inputs. The AASW’s role as a skilled migration assessing authority is to determine whether an applicant has the key transferable skills and knowledge required to evidence the competencies needed to practice social work in Australia, not a comparison of the structure as to how these were acquired. In operating an international qualifications assessment program, it is not possible or reasonable to require an exact match of course structure and content between countries. Further, the AASW assessment criteria is consistent with the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) global education standards which are intended to promote the individuality and uniqueness of national standards while acknowledging the commonalities needed to compare diverse training programs throughout the world; to facilitate movement of social workers between countries; and to identify core purposes of social work globally, while still maintaining and valuing national/local creativity and innovation in social work education. Furthermore, the IFSW/IASSW states that “from an ethical point of view the migration of those social workers that wish to practice in another country should be enabled and not blocked” (IFSW, 2012).

I am comfortable with all the above, but it misses my point. Anyone reading our proposed Constitution would not have a clue about any of the above.

We have a contract with the Federal Government to assess overseas credentials for skilled migration. The AASW assessment criteria is consistent with the International Federation of Social Workers and International Association of Schools of Social Work global education standards. The values of the IFSW/IASSSW as stated above should be the enshrined in the membership section of our constitution to provide the ethical underpinning of our work in assessing overseas credentials.

Barring students from standing for high office

The proposed amendments prohibit student members from being elected to the National Board or to the offices of Branch President or Branch Vice President.

The AASW rationale is as follows,

” it is not appropriate or reasonable for a person who does not hold the qualification for a profession to be responsible for or represent that profession. Further, to allow this would serve to diminish the importance of the qualification.”

I consider students to be colleagues and I have learnt a lot from them over the years.

May I remind you that the average age of a social work graduate is 30 and that we have many outstanding student members with invaluable experience and qualifications in other fields.

It is crucial to point out that elected offices are political offices. It is voters who decide fitness for office, and what perspective a candidate might offer.(including a student perspective)  Provisions that bar entire categories of people from standing for office do not pass any test of democracy.

Some boards also actively seek people with a particular perspective- for example consumer, legal or finance expertise.

Imagine the reaction to a proposal that only people who had successfully completed year 12 of high school would be allowed to stand for parliament?

We have thankfully arrived at a point where we allow voters to decide the particular merits of any candidate on an individual basis, rather than barring whole categories of people as being unsuitable. We can trust our members to sort it out.

Deleting the requirement that Branch Presidents be required to participate in annual strategic planning.

The March governance discussion paper stated that,

The Branches are integral to the functioning, success and relevance of the AASW. The Board, Branches and members have identified that the role of the Branches is not as well protected as it should be in the Constitution. A key goal of this review is to better define, strengthen and protect the proper role of Branches in the Constitution..”

It is currently a constitutional requirement that Branch Presidents be involved in annual strategic planning. It is therefore quite bewildering that the Board is proposing deletion of this requirement. Removing this to a governance document simply means that it is no longer guaranteed. It is a further step in eroding the already diminishing power and influence of the Branches; the exact opposite of the intentions stated in the governance paper. The AASW now states,

“references to strategic planning and operational issues are not relevant to a Constitution.”

Really? It begs the question of why the Branches are in the Constitution at all?

Abolishing the Board Executive Committee

Currently the Constitution requires that an Executive Committee be established, consisting of the National President, two Vice Presidents and the CEO. The AASW states that “governance and legal advice is that this is not best practice, as Executive Committees can create a real or perceived ‘Board within a Board’.” Why is it not best practice? I have never before encountered the phrase- “Board within a Board”. Where does it come from?

My experience of Boards suggests that there are greater risks of concentration of power in finance committees.

During my time as Vice President, everyone involved valued the diversity of views and robust testing of options in Executive meetings. There are risks involved in concentrating more power in the hands of the President. Has this been considered? We don’t know- because the process has been less than transparent.

The constitution defines relationships not just for the current Board but also for all Boards. The logical consequence of the proposed amendments is to dispense with Vice Presidents altogether. After all what is the point of a Vice President?

The essence of the AASW response is that the change will,

“remove any perception of too much power resting with the National President and Vice Presidents.”

Frankly this response simply evades the question.

Capacity of Board Directors found in serious ethical breach to delay termination of membership

Our Ethics By-Laws provide for the termination of membership of members found to have seriously breached our Code of Ethics. But it appears that we have legal advice “that the Corporations Act deals with breach of fiduciary duty by a Director and it is not appropriate to use the Ethics By-Laws in that context. If a Director refused to resign as a Director as a result of a breach of fiduciary duty, then removal by a general meeting would need to be sought.”

It beggars belief that Board Directors are exempt from routine termination of membership in these circumstances. Common sense would suggest that if a Director is no longer eligible to be a member of the AASW it should also be impossible to continue to be a Director.

I am not satisfied that this issue has been thoroughly explored and would like to see the legal advice. We all need to be completely satisfied that all legal avenues have been exhausted in finding a means for Directors to be subject to termination of membership in the way that all other members are.

Just as importantly, if it does turn out to be the case that the only way of getting rid of an unethical Director is through a general meeting then the mechanism for this must be spelt out in detail within the Constitution. Who would call this meeting? In what time frame? Who prepares the brief and motions for the meeting? How is the meeting funded? Without robust provisions for the immediate triggering of a general meeting, a rogue Director could drag out a legal process for months or years and expose the AASW to enormous legal costs and ongoing reputational damage.

The AASW response is less than comprehensive!

Clauses C.6 and C.7 of the current Constitution already set out the provisions for the calling of a general meeting. No changes are proposed to clauses C.6 and C.7.

 Clause C.6 cannot apply since corporate law dictates that directors cannot remove other directors. Clause C.7 requires 100 members or 5% of the membership to initiate a general meeting. How would the members know? Well….the names of members who are found to be ineligible for AASW membership due to serious ethical misconduct are published on the AASW website. (Seriously, this is the AASW answer to my questions on this issue) When is the last time you looked at this list? If this is genuinely the only way we can be rid of a director found to be ineligible for membership- then there must be an automatic trigger in the constitution for a general meeting to speedily deal with the matter.

Send your proxy to the AASW

If you share my concerns on any or all of the above matters, remember that they are being put as a package- not as separate proposals.

I will be attending the AGM to speak in favor of abstaining on the package. Many of the proposals need further consideration. Just as importantly they need to be put as separate amendments at our next general meeting, so that members have a real choice about voting for or against all items on a case by case basis.

If you would like me to hold your abstention proxy at the AGM you can download the form here, fill it in and send it to the AASW by Wednesday November 25th.  If you wish you can send it to me and I will forward it to the AASW for you.

If you allocate your proxy to me,  my membership number is 200763.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Living in dystopia: ten tips for reconnecting the personal and the political

Heading into town, by the fire sign, up ahead one mile Mum and naked child by the highway

Flash four-wheel drive, I only want a ride to the other side. Don’t try and hide behind your window

I bet your weekly wage could pay my ransom and free me from this sand fly infested castle

Johnny Walkers Shoes- Pigram Brothers

 I am blessed in many ways. I have a well-paid job where I get a chance to make a difference. I live in a comfortable house, eat well, and share my good fortune with family and friends.

And yet I often feel tired and overwhelmed. There is such a yawning gap between my personal circumstances and the world around me. We are daily reminded that we are on the edge of apocalypse. Everything is relentlessly marketised and monetized. Mindfully watching or reading the news is deeply distressing.

And meanwhile we all carry on. Did dystopia arrive while we weren’t looking?

Consider these facts.

  • The planet is warming rapidly. No matter what personal ethical choices we make to reduce energy use, and live in harmony with our environment the difference will not be enough. Only mass action to quickly move to zero carbon economies by all industrialized nations will avert a global catastrophe that could kill a billion people, and make life miserable for those who survive. The response of our government? Fight the next election on electricity prices.
  • There are almost 20 million refugees worldwide. Worse still -more nations are imitating Australia, closing their borders. For over 400 years the first world has exploited less industrialized countries, and continues to do so. We reap what we sow, and then blame the victim. The government response in our name? Incarcerate men, women and children in conditions that any reasonable person would describe as torture.
  • Many of our first nation peoples live in abject poverty in third world conditions- and we think we are not racist.
  • We are amongst the richest nations in the world, and yet individually we are hocked to the hilt. Our mortgage debt as a proportion of property values has almost tripled over the past 25 years, rising from 10 to 28 per cent since 1990. Australians owe $51 billion on credit cards. $33 billion of that is accruing interest, costing card holders more than $540 million a month. And of course pay day lenders exploit the most vulnerable with high interest schemes that skim repayments directly from Centrelink benefits.
  • Research commissioned by the Australia Institute found that on average full-time workers are working six hours unpaid overtime each week and part-timers are working three hours. This works out to be $9,471each in unpaid overtime to their employers each year – a total value of $110 billion per annum. If the unpaid hours were allocated to and paid to Australians looking for work the unemployment rate could be zero rather than 6.2%.
  • Meanwhile the dole sinks lower and lower below the poverty line.
  • Self employed workers face the constant stress of rising prices, pressures to keep costs down and an uncertain economic climate threatening their livelihood.
  • There is a rising trend of people not getting enough sleep. Unsurprisingly the most at risk of this phenomenon are full time workers, and the poor consequences for health and well-being are numerous. This statistic would be even worse for women because of their larger share of domestic labor.
  • The poor get easy access to junk food, and the “time poor” google 15 minute gourmet meals.
  • We are all spending more time connecting to screens and devices. We have less time for each other, and more of our elderly are going to end up living on their own. The fastest growing household type is the lone person household, projected to grow by an average of 2.2% per year, from 1.9 million in 2006 to 3.2 million in 2031.

Amid the daily chatter of opinion, hand wringing, finger pointing and culture war, we are distracted from the root causes of our dismal dystopia. Our politicians and corporate warriors have unleashed the most radical and destructive elements of free market fundamentalism across the planet.

Although championed by conservative politicians- there is nothing conservative about it. The profit imperative reigns supreme. Global corporations have become adept at squeezing every ounce of profit from every region and every workforce and then moving on and leaving unemployment and misery in their wake. Where is the end point in this relentless pursuit for the last drop of productivity? Not only is it the chief driver of unemployment, lower real wages and longer working hours: mining corporations needing to make every last dollar out of coal are also endangering the well being of billions of people.

If the purpose of humanity is simply to serve the economic system, rather than the system serving human society, the logical endpoint is to turn all workers into zombies. Former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis put this succinctly in a recent Guardian essay,

“economic theory that treats human and non-human productive inputs as interchangeable assumes that the dehumanisation of human labour is complete. But if it could ever be completed, the result would be the end of capitalism as a system capable of creating and distributing value. For a start, a society of dehumanised automata would resemble a mechanical watch full of cogs and springs, each with its own unique function, together producing a “good”: timekeeping. Yet if that society contained nothing but other automata, timekeeping would not be a “good”. It would certainly be an “output” but why a “good”? Without real humans to experience the clock’s function, there can be no such thing as “good” or “bad”.”

Freud once said that love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness. In that sense the endpoint of unchecked capitalism is the destruction of love.

Any student of debt will tell you that the battle around debt is also a battle between rich and poor. Kings and lords used to impose debts on their subjects as a kind of protection racket. Pay me tribute and I will give you a currency with my image stamped on it, backed by my power and authority. The alternative was death or imprisonment. Now the state has become a middleman, and the inducement is subtler but just as powerful. Make credit (actually debt) freely available. Lenders don’t need to worry if people can’t pay it back, (because the state will find a way a recouping the money for them).

Economists have a cute phrase for this – “moral hazard”. Economist Paul Krugman described moral hazard as “any situation in which one person makes the decision about how much risk to take, while someone else bears the cost if things go badly”.

This is the root cause of the GFC and the ongoing woes of the people of Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal and the third world. It is also the model for pay day lending across the globe.

And yet deep within our psyches is the notion that we must always repay debt. Why? Paradoxically, according to the World Bank, of the nearly 100 banking crises that have occurred internationally during the last 20 years, all were resolved by bailouts at taxpayer expense.

From big banks to pay day lenders, corporations that make credit too freely available all have the same get out clause to excuse their behavior: customers have the choice to borrow or not. They just provide a needed service. It is a slick way of blaming the victim. Banks in fact know that a certain portion of their credit card customers will not go into debt, but their entire business model fundamentally relies on a known proportion of their customers being unable to resist the temptation to go into debt. The same “free choice” argument applies to the purveyors of junk food and the clubs that stack their premises with poker machines.

And the people who have maxed out their credit cards for so called “discretionary spending”? They gave it to their children and shared it with friends. David Graeber, writing on the history of debt talks, about the poor responding with “ a stubborn insistence on continuing to love one another. They continue to acquire houses for their families, liquor and sound systems for parties, gifts for friends; they even insist on continuing to hold weddings and funerals….”

Meanwhile, the privileged among us read about “sleep hygiene” and grapple with a problem that many people on the planet would find very odd: work/life balance- or as Freud might conceive it – how to keep love from being leached from one’s life.

How did this come to be? Imagine this conversation between a group of hunter gatherers?

“You know what guys….we should spend more time hunting and gathering and less time feasting and having a good time. But [objects someone] Hang on.. the whole point of hunting and gathering is so that we can spend as much time as possible feasting and having a good time”.

There has of late been an entire industry develop around the concept of happiness and how to achieve it. Its chief discovery is something that would strike most of us as entirely obvious- but in the current climate, oddly subversive: genuine happiness lies in being generous, connected and helping others.

Given all of the above, I am happy to share my personal list of tips to help reconnect the personal to the political, ranked from the global to the individual. Consider this a small contribution to the burgeoning industry of advice on self-improvement. Feel free to add your own.

  1. Insist that whatever savings you have are ethically invested. This also applies to the savings of any organisations you belong to. This means for example, hassling your bank, trade union and professional society to divest from fossil fuels. Check out
  2. Vote for the Greens. It is the only party with realistic policies to tackle our dystopian nightmare. Skeptical? Have a look at their policy platform.
  3. Listen! Be mindful, and assume that people who disagree with you may also have good intentions.
  4. Stop doing unpaid overtime.
  5. Give some of that time to your community in whatever activity you find enjoyable
  6. Offer to mentor someone who will benefit from your skill and experience.
  7. Be more generous.
  8. Have more parties!
  9. Spend a little more time being where you are (turn off that device!)
  10. Go to bed earlier…..

Neither fire nor wind, birth nor death can erase our good deeds

The Buddha

Posted in Social Policy, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Monsters, angels and vicarious trauma: social work and the limits of empathy

Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.

Sigmund Freud

Last year Helen Garner published a book about Robert Farquharson, the man found guilty of drowning his three young sons by driving his car into a dam. Garner attended his trials, finding it both a compelling and gruelling experience. In a piece she wrote recently for The Monthly, reflecting on her own and others’ reactions she said,

What people find really hard to bear, I’ve noticed, is the suggestion that they themselves might contain their share of human darkness, hidden inside their souls. I believe this refusal lies behind the strange hostility I encountered, many times, when I was trying to write about Robert Farquharson’s trials. Friends would ask me what I was working on. When I told them, they would be at first quite curious – what’s he like? What sort of man is he? I would be barely three sentences into an account of his family background, his broken marriage and his broken heart, when my questioner’s mouth would harden into a straight line and she would make a sharp stabbing movement at my chest with a straight forefinger and say, angrily, “You’re making excuses!”

Well no….she was simply trying to put herself in his shoes. And as we know, any social worker in direct practice does this routinely in her daily work, immersing herself in the lived experience of others. Being empathic is often straightforward, but sometimes it means bearing witness to the unbearable: a death or trauma, bringing fear, rage, loathing, shock or impossible grief.

The memory may be fresh or a recollection from 50 years before…it matters not.

Nevertheless it is an essential component of our work. We travel the liminal space between high and low tide, love and hate, compassion and fear – the no man’s land between monsters and angels.

Vicarious trauma is an ever-present possibility. Without supportive colleagues and good supervision we would burn out, stumble and fall. But as dangerous as this space is, it is the space of shared understanding. How can we possibly help our clients if we do not truly understand them?

Yet increasingly we live in a world where empathy is conflated with agreement; (If you see it from their point of view -you can’t be one of us!) The monsters are cast out and the liminal space is simply denied. If monsters do exist, they live in another country entirely- never in our own hearts. ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ is replaced with membership of ‘Team Australia’.

In this brave new world of black and white, marketing plays an essential role- expunging monsters and polishing our claims to membership of the just and righteous brigade. Politicians surround themselves with flags, and we too burnish our images on Facebook and Linkedin reflecting a world without fear, rage, doubt or failure.

Professional bodies of all disciplines manage their marketing with great care. In our sphere the promotion of counselling or psychotherapeutic intervention is so relentlessly upbeat, that a visitor from another planet would conclude that a kind of utopia (of the Stepford Wives variety) has already arrived. Writing about this issue in 1913 Freud said,

A friend and colleague of mine.. once wrote to me: What we need is a short convenient form of treatment for outpatients suffering from obsessional neurosis. I could not supply him with it and felt ashamed; so I tried to excuse myself with the remark that probably physicians would also be very glad of a treatment for consumption or cancer which combined these advantages.

 The talking cure has gotten longer and shorter, gurus come and go; solution focused, narrative, CBT, mindfulness, and so on. Whatever the form, the variables make it impervious to randomized controlled trials – but easy to promote as the next good thing.

But the need for empathy and understanding will never go away; nor the implicit knowledge that we all carry darkness in our hearts. To be understood is a necessary and visceral experience- not achievable via text message, website or user manual. In the real world therapeutic gains are often hard won and provisional; bullies thrive and the oppressed are permanently damaged, along with those who try to help them. Too many of us are depressed and despairing because we cannot live up to the shiny expectations of our social milieu.

This however is not an invitation to cynicism or despair; it is a reminder to temper hope with reality, to know our limits, to use language for truth rather than propaganda, to admit that our best is sometimes not good enough and to acknowledge that we are both monsters and angels.

 ..much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness

Sigmund Freud

Posted in Culture | 8 Comments

The death of Chloe Valentine: the future of professional social work in child protection

In January 2012, four year old Chloe Valentine died in appalling circumstances at the hands of her mother and her mother’s partner. Both were found guilty of manslaughter and jailed. During her short life Chloe was the subject of many notifications to Families South Australia, and her family received considerable support from Families SA social workers.

The public were understandably horrified and sickened by the manner of the Chloe’s death. These strong emotions unleashed a powerful impulse to allocate blame. The mother and the social workers involved were in the front line of a flood of righteous rage.

Sometimes when children die in these circumstances qualified social workers are justifiably annoyed at being blamed since the workers involved do not always have a social work degree. But in this case there was no place to hide….Families South Australia hire qualified social workers as a matter of policy.

After a long running inquest, Mark Johns, the South Australian Coroner handed down his findings in April this year. I have always felt a strong empathy for any social worker caught up in this kind of enquiry. No matter what their personal accountability, they are usually caught in a web of bureaucracy, inadequate supervision, and high workloads. Add to this a sensationalist media, and these workers will feel besieged and persecuted.

The extended inquest fuelled the outrage led by the local media. And far from providing the balanced or thoughtful analysis that this tragedy deserved, the Coroner weighed in with his own simple remedies to tackle the root causes of child abuse, including the holus-bolus application of income management, trampling on privacy, mandatory drug testing and fast-tracking the adoption of foster children. Whilst these measures played well to popular sentiment, they are solutions that have all been tried- and failed- the USA being the favored testing ground for this kind of social engineering.

In its haste to be seen to act, the South Australian government supported all the Coroner’s recommendations. But past experience suggests that few if any will be implemented. In the last 15 years there have been at least 32 child protection enquiries in various parts of Australia, and many more overseas. We are entitled to ask- what has changed?

It is difficult to make any definitive judgments on the Coroner’s views without access to the thousands of pages of statements and transcripts. But on the facts that the Coroner reports, it is hard to disagree with his primary finding- that Families SA should have used its coercive powers against Chloe’s mother to stipulate a range of conditions that had to be met in order for Chloe to remain with her mother. If she had not complied, Families SA would then have been justified in removing Chloe from her care.

In effect, Families SA were being berated for simply not following their own rules. What went wrong? The Coroner blamed it on a departmental culture that sought to downplay the actual risks of abuse, together with a reluctance to use its coercive powers. It is noteworthy too, that from top to bottom in Families SA no one broke ranks, from the department head to the most junior caseworker. If there was debate or disagreement on the conduct of this case, it seems to have been kept in house. Unusual, as this kind of enquiry often offers up a scapegoat on the altar of blame.

What is lacking (at least in the Coroner’s report) is evidence of any critical reflection or analysis from the senior social workers involved in this case. Social work is an independent profession with a core commitment to child protection and social justice. The Coroner could have called on a range of highly qualified social work experts, but he seems to have relied on one expert with a particular view that suited his own. This is no substitute for a robust root cause analysis. If Families SA conducted an internal analysis we are not privy to it. Nor did the Coroner (or Families SA) as far as I know, call upon the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) who could have provided high quality informed comment. (What a lost opportunity!)

The Coroner also recommended that social workers be registered. These days professional registration is a national process oversighted by Health Ministers from all the states and territories through the Council of Australian Governments. COAG does not have a mechanism for family and community service minsters to get together, and South Australia is the only state that prefers to employ qualified social workers in statutory child protection. And so what might the remedy be to ensure the practice standards of the thousands of child protection workers who are not social workers? Health Ministers agreeing on social worker’s registration is extremely unlikely for reasons I have covered elsewhere, and child protection concerns will not add to the argument.

More importantly, registration may define the lowest acceptable practice standards, but it will not create an environment where the highest practice standards can flourish in a challenging and complex work setting. Indeed in countries where social work is registered, the process has been used to scapegoat individual social workers, rather than address the systemic issues of inadequate supervision, poor training and excessive workloads. (See the case of baby Peter Connelly in England). The registration recommendation sends a message that the social work profession cannot be trusted, even within a tightly controlled environment, to maintain quality practice standards.

From time to time there have been calls to establish a national entity such as a college that would identify the qualifications, attributes and qualities of statutory child protection workers. In our free market world neither the states nor the federal government will join forces to invest in such as body. (Perhaps just as well because it could never be truly independent.)

More salient still- this independent body already exists in the shape of the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW). But the AASW lacks authority simply because its membership is sparse amongst the child protection workforce, even in South Australia. Worse still there are too many eminent child protection experts who are not members.

This must change. We can reduce the number of child deaths and the rate of child abuse. We must reclaim our professional independence and our professional authority. In government bureaucracies individuals who speak truth to power are often scapegoated and marginalised. It is far more effective to speak up with a strong independent professional association at your back. If there were voices inside Families SA demanding better training, higher quality supervision, and adequate staff to cover leave or escalate complex cases- they were not heeded or heard.

The AASW must redouble its efforts to recruit child protection workers. But it cannot do this without the partnership of the industrial unions that cover this workforce. Public sector unions are becoming far more conscious of defending the right of the public to a socially just and high quality service. There must be a partnership between the AASW and public sector unions to advocate for reasonable workloads and adequate supervision. Most vital of all must be a concerted effort to drive a culture which accepts only the highest standards of professional care. The public are entitled to it.

And South Australia is a good place to start.


Posted in Social Policy, Uncategorized | 7 Comments