What makes great social work

Social work is about more than changing outcomes for children and families, says Professor Donald Forrester

Woman speaking to parents

I was fortunate enough to be involved in the ExChange launch conference1 on "What is great social work?"

It was an amazing event – bringing together workers, academics and those who use services to understand and celebrate social work.

And like all great events, it really got me thinking about what great social work is and how it goes beyond outcomes.

Changing outcomes isn't the only measure of success

I came into social work to help people. Helping social workers to help people is still why I do my job, although now I do this through research and teaching. And in every study we carry out we hear stories of how social workers have transformed the lives of children and their families.

But doing research has helped me realise there's far more to good social work than changing outcomes. And in my opinion we've become unhelpfully obsessed with this aim.

Focusing on outcomes can be problematic

Focusing on outcomes can be a problem for 2 reasons:

1. Outcomes are about more than social work

If you read evidence of what works, even the best methods only have a relatively small impact. They may work better than normal practice, but neither is as important as all the other aspects of someone's life –  social factors, their personality and relationships and numerous other things.

More than anything people try to sort out their own lives and the influence of helpers on this for most people tends to be limited.

2. Social work is about more than outcomes

A big part of social work is deciding whether or not people need a social worker. In child protection, social workers often make complex judgements about whether to be involved in a family against the will of the parents and the weight that can be placed on the views and wishes of the child.

In this respect, social workers are more like judges than therapists. And we wouldn't evaluate a judge on outcomes.

Similarly when social workers are assessing risks to children, they're also making difficult judgements about the limits of freedom and state involvement in a family's life.

A good outcome may involve being more confident that a child is safe, or a decision that nothing can be gained by further work with a family. These decisions may be great social work, but they may not influence the outcome for child or family. Rather they are about balancing freedom and protection on behalf of society.

What contributes to great social work

So what are the implications of this for understanding what great social work is? I draw 3 conclusions:

Much of social work involves working out whether a social worker is needed

Social workers are similar to GPs. They deal with a whole range of problems and their ability to differentiate those that are serious from those that aren't is a key element of good practice. Although it's difficult to measure the outcome of such an activity.

Humane and wise social work is central to an enlightened society

The quality of the interaction is important. Social workers deal with individuals with complex individual and social problems. We come armed with great authority given by the state and make crucial decisions about individual liberty and its limits. Humane and wise social work is therefore central to a caring and enlightened society.

Caring and authoritative social work transforms lives

Social workers do still make a huge difference. This is most apparent for the minority of families with really serious problems, where wise, caring and authoritative social work transforms lives. This is the heart of great social work – but it's not all that's involved.

Working towards a better society

Social work isn't just about helping people. It's also about balancing individual freedoms and state involvement.

As social workers, we're as much the protector of a humane and liberal society as we are professionals who help people with the most serious problems.

Therefore, an act of kindness or the ability to empathise is important. Not merely because it may influence outcomes, but because in such acts of human respect and care we embody the just, humane and caring society we seek to create.

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  1. ExChange network is a knowledge exchange hub working to build better social care in Wales. The launch conference was held on 26 October 2016 in Cardiff. It focused on exploring what great social work is, how we can know what great social work is, what difference it makes to people, and how we can learn from social work and social care successes to further develop humane and effective services for people across Wales.