In defence of social service that puts the needs of people first

Effective social work focuses on fostering meaningful human relationships for the common good. Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock

You might assume that social work, as one of Australia’s oldest and well-established caring professions, needn’t worry about its future. You’d be wrong. Far-reaching changes to organisational culture and workplace practices in recent years have left many social workers deeply concerned about the direction of the profession.

They fear that the Abbott government’s commitment to privatising services and eradicating “waste and inefficiency” will further undermine professional values that are pivotal to social work’s identity.

Social workers are a varied professional group but most would probably agree with this value statement by the Australian Association of Social Workers:

We have a strong voice on matters of social inclusion, social justice, human rights and issues that impact upon the quality of life of all Australians. We seek a close and collaborative relationship with educational institutions, industry, government, client associations and the community.

Since its inception through philanthropic reform and social activism in the 19th century the contribution of social work to the betterment of people’s lives has been incalculable. And yet it is a profession that has always had to defend its values. It has often been seriously misunderstood and is even seen in some quarters as an obstacle to progress.

After all, argue apologists for Dickensian social order, why opt for state-funded intervention when self-responsibility will do?

End of entitlement declared

Treasurer Joe Hockey recently announced:

The age of entitlement is over, the age of personal responsibility has begun.

That comment sent shivers down the spine of the social services sector. Comparisons have been drawn with the 1980s Thatcher government, which fulminated against the “nanny state” and advocated self-reliance and a new spirit of enterprise and competition.

Interestingly, at the time of his statement, Hockey had been reading Margaret Thatcher’s authorised biography, Not for Turning. His admiration for the Iron Lady’s free-market economics has found its way into a carefully crafted narrative which pits entitlement against self-responsibility, state regulation against enterprise, and unions and current workplace arrangements against global competitiveness and profitability.

In May, Hockey will hand down a budget that is likely to accelerate government cost cutting. Significantly, he has already called on state governments to sell off public assets to help pay for infrastructure projects, a move that will undoubtedly impact social services.

Social services minister Kevin Andrews has also signalled his government’s intention to rein in welfare spending. He maintains that the nation can no longer afford to pay benefits to more than five million Australians.

Yet the real reason for the impending cuts and privatisations is that the Coalition dislikes the idea of comprehensive state welfare provision. It’s not in their ideological DNA.

No ‘we’ in fundamentalist liberalism

Traditionally, while liberalism advocated small government, trade liberalisation, the free market and so forth, it recognised the critical role of government in providing targeted, publicly funded welfare services.

Neoliberal governments on the other hand see a very limited role for public welfare funding, as evidenced in “contracting out”, “recommissioning” and “contestability” exercises in Queensland and New South Wales. Quite simply, they prefer to privatise services whenever possible.

Also, instead of traditional client–service relations, we are now urged to think of service as a commercial encounter between providers and customers, subject to the laws of supply and demand. The customer is no longer part of a collective or integral to the social, nor a citizen with rights. He or she is a creature of the market.

As Thatcher put it, “there is no such thing as society”, only individuals locked in a neo-Darwinian struggle over resources.

Neoliberalism, of course, involves much more than rugged individualism. Its advocacy of Hayekian “spontaneous order” means the erosion of state institutions and less public spending, as well as privileging market competition over moral considerations.

Treasurer Joe Hockey is a believer in small government and has welfare spending in his sights. AAP/Daniel Munoz

Reducing social work to business

At an organisational level, neoliberal ideology also requires a complementary administrative culture; this is where economic rationalism and managerialism come in. Each has contributed to a stifling culture of managerial audit in which everything is measured in inputs, outputs, cost-effectiveness, efficiency and other rationalities of transparency and accountability – the bean-counters version of “service delivery”.

Social policy researchers John Wallace and Bob Pease have catalogued the impacts of this culture on social work. They note the:

…strong evidence of dismantling, restructuring and fiscal strangling as part of neoliberal ideas and practices.

According to Wallace and Pease, this has been accompanied, among other things, by:

  • Loss of institutional legitimacy and the denial of the need for welfare, leaving social workers on the defensive.

  • Replacement of the social by individualism so the immediate and practical demands of “the case”, “case management” and “service delivery” override structural issues.

  • Less emphasis on social theorising and the political nature of social work.

  • Increased talk of cost containment, efficiencies, dividends, incentives etc.

  • More intensive practices including line management reviews, performance targets and output measures linked to complex accounting systems that focus on cost-effectiveness.

Wallace and Pease further note that a more functional emphasis on service delivery, tightened client eligibility criteria, talk of defraying costs to customers, the exclusion of social workers from policy deliberations, and the undermining of advocacy have significantly impacted the client-worker relationship.

Privatisation looms as a constant threat. Some areas of child protection services in Queensland and other states have been deemed suitable for contracting out. This despite evidence in Australia and overseas that privatisation shifts social services to a cost-conscious, profit-based system that frequently fails to deliver the promised economic benefits. The result is “streamlined” services and cost shifting to “consumers”.

Among social workers, there is growing demoralisation, alienation and anger at what has been dubbed “business social work”. While Wallace and Pease suggest ways in which social workers might resist neoliberalism, the profession’s identity and future is uncertain.

Hope for change might lie in aligning with opposition to the idea that productivity takes precedence over the well-being, creativity and contentment of all human beings. It might also rest in reaffirming that the most important aspect of social work is not in pursuing measurable outputs, but in developing meaningful and empowering human relationships. Social work is so much more than a business.