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Valuing the complexity of direct social work practice in an era of managerialism.


The public, the welfare sector and the social work profession undervalue direct social work practice. The public has negative views of social workers as 'child snatchers, ineffective do-gooders, fuzzy thinking liberals, parasites on the public purse, (or) self serving bureaucrats' (Davenport and Davenport 1997, 1). Direct practice social work positions, the majority of which are filled by women, receive low remuneration with limited career paths, replicating the gendered disadvantage that women face in the public workplace (Warskett 1990). Funding cuts and managerial demands for quickfix outcomes means that the welfare sector no longer values the complexity and quality of direct social work practice. Within the social work profession, longstanding debates about forms of intervention undermine our credibility as a profession and the status of direct practitioners in the community.

Social work practice is distinguished by its broad conceptual framework in responding to the personal and political circumstances of people's lives. This disadvantages direct social work practice, as it is often more time consuming and contentious in an environment that focuses on outcomes.

This article begins with a brief overview of what is meant by the term 'direct social work' then explores the ways social work practice is seen in public, welfare and professional arenas.


Direct practice is one way of describing a range of activities involving face-to-face contact with service users or clients in the human services. Furlong (2000) outlines a range of terms used to describe 'casework' activities and these serve well as descriptors for direct practice: direct work, one-to-one work, clinical work, counselling, therapy, case management, protective work and (case) advocacy. Duty work, intake, outreach, assessment and in-home and family support are other terms used by the eighty-seven per cent of 2003 RMIT social work graduates who identified themselves as working in direct practice (Hawkins 2004).

Some of the non-direct tasks of casework are cause advocacy, systems-environmental change, network promotion, social action, policy development and research (Furlong 2000) and campaigns, consultations, skills programs, professional education, community education, public advocacy and law reform (Weeks 1994).

For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the terms casework, face-to-face work, direct practice, front line work and social work practice interchangeably to represent the range of interventions used in working directly with people.


Concern for the welfare of disadvantaged people is not a high priority in our culture. This is demonstrated in a survey where people ranked welfare issues such as child abuse significantly lower than local concerns such as government rates and charges (Nader 2003). A comment by John Hewson, former leader of the Liberal party notes the community's low recognition of work based on relationships:

If I think of the issues of most genuine significance to me and to my society, I cannot understand how our system can so dramatically underpay some of our most valued contributors, like nurses, teachers, academics, social workers ... and others. Yet, we can so visibly overpay some of our executives, and in some cases we have paid them for short-term incompetence (Hewson 2003).

These are traditionally areas of women's' work. Women are seen as the carers and guardians of the emotional lives of families within dominant cultural values (Milner 2001) and women occupy these paid roles in the community. Women's work receives lower pay and poorer conditions than traditional male areas of work (Burgmann 2003). Women are often in the most subordinate and degraded positions with no bargaining power, low pay and no promotion opportunities (Warskett 1990, 58). Table 1 illustrates the current average earnings in Australia, demonstrating the gap of around $300 per week between male and female average incomes (ABS 2003).


Little has happened to date to systemically challenge this situation. Union support for workers, never particularly strong for women, diminished in the 1990s. Enterprise bargaining has become the predominant way of addressing workers' rights, with a double disadvantage for part time or casual workers having to 'bargain' individually for their insecure employment conditions. Women who work part time or casual hours to fit in with the second shift (Hochschild 1989) of family and caring roles (as do many female social workers) are vulnerable and adversely affected by this process (Probert 2002).

This phenomenon has long term implications for women's economic independence:

... if women earn less than men, it makes economic sense for fathers to be the primary breadwinners, but working full time in the paid workforce takes men almost permanently out of the home so women take on the primary responsibility for child rearing and are grossly handicapped in their pursuit of job promotion and higher wages, and more generally in access to better employment (Burgmann 2003, 116).

Some organisations value their staff by providing family-friendly practices. Flexible working hours, work-based childcare facilities, casual or part time work, the ability to work from home, access (study, maternity, paternity and family) leave, or leave without pay reduce staff turnover and increase job satisfaction. They also benefit the organisation in productivity, greater morale, loyalty and improved job satisfaction (O'Connor 2003). Clearly, such practices are desirable in welfare agencies where predominantly women workers have primary responsibility for family on top of paid work responsibilities.

Workplaces that claim to be flexible, child and family-friendly, non-hierarchical and egalitarian, do not necessarily ensure that employees have fair and equal access to the flexible policies and practices. Biggs found that less empowered workers were less likely to avail themselves of the flexibilities offered, fearing discrimination or compromise in career opportunities (Biggs 1998).


Social work practitioners experience the same gendered patterns of pay and conditions as other women. In the Social and Community Services (SACS) award, Class 1 social work weekly salaries of $539.40 begin below the Australian average income of $713.40 (ABS 2003) and only rise to $857.40 at the Class 4 level (SACS 2003). Direct practitioners are usually employed in Class 1 or 2 positions. Some team leader/caseworker positions offer practitioner roles at Class 3, but Class 4 positions at the top of the pay scale are not usually available for practice positions. Many experienced social workers, like teachers, leave their profession because there is no career pathway that rewards direct work with increased income and seniority.

This situation makes it particularly difficult for non-government welfare agencies to retain experienced practitioners. Positions in management, policy development, research, academia and private practice usually offer better pay and conditions. A report by the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association describes inadequate pay, poor workforce support, lack of development opportunities and poor resourcing as explanations of agencies' difficulties in attracting, training or retaining qualified staff (Leung 2003) such as social workers.

Psychiatric social work is somewhat of an exception to this trend, benefiting from the status of the medical profession and an active health workers' union. The Australian Health Professionals Association (VAHPA in Victoria) union has fought and achieved greater awards for hospital social workers. Still, in a medical bureaucracy, social workers are paid considerably lower than less experienced medical colleagues. Greater status and financial rewards are accorded to senior counsellors within psychiatric settings. Outreach support roles are rarely paid at a senior level, despite the complexity of the work.

The AASW is currently working on changes to the award in the health sector for social workers that will make promotions based on individual expertise possible for practitioners. The Department of Community Services (DOCS) in NSW has created senior clinical positions that value practice which will provide pathways for social work practitioners.

Social workers involved in direct practice in child welfare are the easiest targets for the media as they are visible when 'mistakes' are made. However, Davenport's study of social work's media coverage in the United States concluded that most of the negative and questionable remarks about social workers come from conservative politicians and writers who dislike government's welfare role in society (Davenport and Davenport 1997). Such views feed the public view that undervalues (and underpays) social work.

Social work direct practice is undervalued for being 'emotional' work

The 'social' and 'relational ' in social work (Furlong 2000) sets social workers apart from other direct practitioners. Three aspects of relationship-based practice in public welfare contribute to the status and value of this work in contemporary society: the emotional component, the tainting of workers by association with marginalised people and the transgression of class and ideological barriers. Welfare culture has moved away from valuing the social and emotional needs of people to the performance of welfare technologies to control citizens and manage problems of risk (Rose 1999).

First, the emotional component of social work is not considered 'real work' in a patriarchal culture that values the rational. Henderson and Forbat's (2002) analysis of British social policy asserts that the multidimensional aspects of caring relationships are invisible in legislation, policy and research. Emotional labour is seen as 'women's work', a component of familial and business relationships that are of less value than money-generating, evidence-based responses to human problems. This attack on relationships reflects a 'deeply-held prejudice which gives primacy to rational cognition and treats emotions at best as an irrelevance and at worst as extremely dangerous' (Watts 2003, 11).

From the perspective of service users, the relationship is crucial. The following were identified as good practices by service users: treating people as human beings, as an equal, someone who understands and has time to listen (Taylor 1990); sharing skills, being accountable to service users (Gilley 1990, 1995); reliability and responsiveness, approachability and ease of contact, competence to perform the required service in a sensitive, skilful and knowledgeable manner, with fun and humour (Allan and Potten 1998).

The social work relationship involves an understanding of and connection with the client and their context. It is personal work and takes time and self-awareness (Flaskas 1989). Workers need to be sensitive to each person's unique situation and able to adapt to their needs. For example, Lynn, Thorpe and Miles (1997) discuss the need to establish a relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders by having 'a yarn, a joke and a cup of tea'.

Second, direct social work is often dangerous, dirty and depressing and not what the public want to be told about (Stanley and Goddard 2002). It can be seen as 'dirty' work when it entails visiting public housing estates, detention centres or prisons. Working with marginalised people exposes workers to many of the same risks faced by clients: crime, abuse, violence, discrimination and health risks. These issues are 'unthinkable, but someone has to think about it, and the someone is often a ... social worker' according to Pamela Bone in The Age (2003, 17).

Practitioners suffer vicarious trauma from bearing witness to victims' stories of loss, terror and grief and often have to handle difficult and dangerous situations alone with inadequate access to debriefing or supervision (Stanley and Goddard 2002). Workers report feeling that they are not trusted or acknowledged for their skills and abilities (Jones 2001). In a study of Melbourne Protective Services workers, eighty-five per cent of social workers interviewed revealed that they censored information they told their families and partners about their safety, to prevent them worrying (Stanley and Goddard 2002). Social workers often have to fight for minimal protection such as mobile phones for home visits (Jones 2001).

A story about a lone social worker, employed in an ideologically alien environment, illustrates the impact of this type of work on her health and the lack of acknowledgement of her needs. She hoped that she could assist people from within a system that devalued her and the people the bureaucracy 'served'. Feeling ineffective, stressed and anxious, she saw a general practitioner who suggested she needed therapy. I disagree. What she needed was good supervision and support to normalise her response to an oppressive workplace and society, reverse her 'internalised oppression' and connect her with others equally angered by societal and work settings that demean people. Collective action through organisations such as Amnesty International or the Australian or Victorian Council of Social Services offers a less individual pathologising, more effective response.

Third, there are the issues of class, status, and blame. The general population does not understand the structural aspects of disadvantage. They blame (poor) people for their circumstances. Relations with family and friends can be threatened as practitioners are seen as being tainted by their work with disadvantaged people (Barber 1995). Social workers frequently deal with questions like, 'How do you do it? I couldn't do that work. Doesn't it depress you?', implicitly categorising service users as 'Other', those who are outside the familiar and acceptable way of being (Foucault 1990).

Self-reflective practitioners can feel confronted by their privilege in relation to the oppression experienced by 'clients' (Fook 2002). Although they do so from a safer societal position of education and employment, many female social workers experience similar forms of oppression as their clients. These include the demands of the double shift and workplace discrimination as discussed earlier, as well as the loss or reduction of income and assets following separation. Sharing these common issues can strengthen the relationship between social workers and their predominantly female clients (Taylor 1990). However, while service users value this style of practice, managers and funders may not.


Since the eighties, a growing culture of managerialism, driven by business rather than social principles, has shifted the emphasis from 'welfare as a safety net for the vulnerable and oppressed' to 'welfare as protection and control of risk', with policies shaped by available resources rather than by identifiable needs (Hough 2003). One of those 'risks' is welfare dependency. The philosophy of mutual obligation has resulted in new regulatory processes that cast social workers in the role of gatekeepers and service police (Jones 2001).

There is enormous pressure on welfare agencies to see increased numbers of service users, develop interventions that are short term, target specific problems and come up with evidence of effectiveness (Allan and Potten 1998). Welfare culture has moved away from valuing the social and emotional needs of people, to the performance of welfare technologies to control citizens and manage problems of risk (Rose 1999). Three technologies that attempt to monitor the effectiveness of direct work are evidence-based practices; the social model of health; and managed care.

Evidence-based practice is useful in providing managers with a means of ensuring that organisational inputs such as social work time lead to demonstrable desirable outcomes. Direct services are vulnerable to cutbacks without measurable outcomes (Leon 1999), so some social workers in health, corrections, juvenile justice, mental health and child protection have adopted evidence-based practice enthusiastically (McDonald 2003, 126).

The problem lies in the type of evidence that is favoured. The effectiveness of single focus interventions on individuals' symptoms is easier to measure than the impact of a repertoire of approaches on a social problem. Single approaches are not effective when used alone however (Miller 2004), and tend to fragment the integrated, contextual approach central to direct social work practice. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), for example, is favoured currently by many agencies as the panacea for depression and anxiety. This is concerning given that CBT, like other single models of intervention can be used acontextually:
 The main goal of cognitive behaviour therapy is to ... bring about
 changes in behaviour or thinking ... and ... may involve changing
 behaviour by being more assertive, changing feelings by being less
 fearful or depressed, changing thinking patterns by learning how to
 solve problems or deal with self defeating negative thoughts or
 beliefs, improving coping by dealing with panic (Hunter 2002).

Evidence of changed emotions and behaviour do not alter the oppressive reality of an abusive relationship, unemployment or discrimination. If used as part of a range of eclectic approaches that incorporate a contextual understanding of emotions and behaviour, CBT may be useful. The anecdotal information from the field indicates its over-use as a single solution.

Solution focused approaches also lend themselves to evidence-based practice (Miller 2004). A skilled counsellor can define a problem and its solution in realistic, client determined, measurable terms taking into account the oppressive environmental context in which the problem arises. The approach, like CBT, focuses on achieving a measurable outcome and therefore lends itself to evidence-based practice. The difference is that, like narrative approaches which will be discussed later, the writing about solution focused work values both the relationship and the broader social context (Miller 2004).

Complex situations require complex multi-layered ways of working but demonstrating their effectiveness is complex (Munford and Sanders 1999). Advocacy, legislative or policy changes usually do not qualify as evidence of effective practice. Social work's effectiveness in addressing the social injustices in service users' lives therefore often goes unnoticed. It is important to convey stories, dilemmas and outcomes of direct practice. Direct workers, however, mainly women with work and family commitments, seldom have time or head space to research or write about their work. Moreover, from my experience, researchers and policy officers within human service agencies tend to by-pass practitioners' potential contributions.

The social model of health defines evidence of community participation as demonstrating the effectiveness of health education and awareness programs. While this outcome avoids the individualised construction of problems, it is inadequate in addressing broader issues such as unemployment, inadequate housing and racial discrimination from which these problems derive. What evidence is sought to ensure that social issues are placed on the relevant policy and political agendas? (Allan 2002).

Managed care is a third technology used to broker and manage services for service users. As one community care social worker described, it is

... very different from being a social worker ... Care management is all about budgets and paperwork and the financial implications for the authority, whereas social work is about people (Jones 2001, 553). Direct social workers still see clients but the contact is more fleeting, more regulated and governed by increased paperwork and bureaucracy, which has transformed and degraded front line social workers and their clients (Jones 2001).


From its earliest days social workers have disputed the value of different forms of direct social work practice (Martin 2003, Fook 2002, Wood 2001, Weeks 2000,Wood 1996). In the late 1800s, the earliest social workers, 'friendly visitors' from the Charity Organisation Society, offered personal counselling and distributed material assistance to the 'deserving poor'. Social and political activists on the other hand, led by Jane Addams and the Settlement House workers, advocated for the disadvantaged at the policy level, persuading politicians to improve public health standards, childcare, housing and other practicalities (Wood 1996).

Both groups attracted criticism. The male-dominated academic and scientific community were critical and dismissive of the political actions of the Settlement House workers. They also derided social work for its lack of 'contributions to the literature of family treatment' (Wood 1996, 23). Mary Richmond of the Charity Organisation Society wrote her textbook Social Diagnosis (1917) in an attempt to validate direct social work practice as scientific and objective. With the development of psychoanalytic theory in the 1940s, social work counsellors sought prestige in psychiatric social work. For some time afterwards, social work focused on therapy, although there were disputes between the individual and family therapists about effectiveness (Wood 1996).

Then, in the 1970s in Australia, community development, advocacy and social action re-emerged as a form of practice for social workers, particularly those in feminist women's services (Weeks 2003, 2000, 1994,). Activists labelled counsellors and caseworkers as 'conservative' and their approach antithetical to social change (Weeks 1994; Mullaly 1997). They saw therapeutic social workers as playing 'expert' roles, colluding with a disempowering society in pathologising and blaming people individually for structurally created problems (Weeks 1994). Being valued was not a driving concern for activist social workers who wanted political change. The undermining tension between social work activists and counsellors has mellowed with the linking of the personal and political through feminist therapy and activism.


Early feminist (often social work) family therapists brought a gender analysis into therapy (Russell and Carey 2003). In the eighties, women such as Walters, Carter, Papp and Silverstein of the Women's Project in New York (1988) and James and McIntyre (1983) in Australia, linked women's personal experiences to broader power relations. The feminist phrase 'the personal is political' added an activist consciousness to therapy. Other social movements such as black power, the civil rights movement and gay liberation took up this phrase (Russell and Carey 2003).

Russell and Carey give examples of narrative therapy's capacity to address the personal and political aspects of a problem. Locating the problem outside the person 'externalizing' (White 1989) opens the exploration, naming and response to structural forms of oppression such as class, race, sexual orientation, age and ability. Like other strengths-based approaches such as solution--focused, cognitive and community building (Elliott, Mulroney and O'Neil 2000), narrative approaches are of less value to a social work framework if they are used without a critical analysis.

However sometimes there is clearly a clash of ideology and status for social workers. As an example social work students in South Africa expressed a preference for working with individuals and groups in traditional welfare organisations, despite identifying that community work was more likely to empower and reach people. Conditions of work, pay and location influenced this choice (Maritz and Coughlan 2004).

Ife (1995) urges social workers to take every opportunity to delegitimise and ridicule the dominant paradigms of human service organisational policy and management. This is difficult in competitive and insecure work environments.


The emphasis on management, expansion, efficiency and funding in human services also affects academic social work. With the decrease of government funding and increasing expectations for the university to generate its own funds, the priority has shifted from teaching to finance-generating activities. The university's emphasis on research, publications, consultancies and other fund-raising ventures can threaten the quality of teaching. Class sizes have increased, with less staff time available for student welfare. This over-focus on the financial and rational reflects the undervaluing of the social and emotional aspects of social work education. Field education is doubly at risk of marginalisation being practice based and non-income generating.


Alongside the devaluing of direct work is the broader question of the value of social work as a profession. The question about whether the title 'social work' should be registered represents longstanding debates about alliances. Activists shunned an alliance with the 'professional elite' while counsellors, particularly those in private practice, sought professional status and credibility through registration (Wood 2001). Here is the view of one social worker, interestingly one now in private practice, who expresses a lack of confidence in or clarity about the purpose of social work:
 We are no clearer than we ever were about what, exactly, it is we do
 as 'social workers' ... Our training is so general that it does not
 equip us to do anything practical of real value (so) our claims to
 being 'professional' and 'experts' are empty ... Could it be that
 ... we are becoming irrelevant and systematically marching towards
 professional extinction? (Cleret 2003, 24).

The title 'social work' may well become redundant in the future. Yet currently there are moves towards registration of social work as a profession. The NSW branch of the AASW is working on a submission to the National Advisory Meeting of Health Ministers. Whether this succeeds in attaining registration may have little impact on social work in public welfare practice. Many social workers are employed in positions that do not require social work qualifications and non-social workers are employed in social work positions (Hawkins, Ryan, Murray, Grace, Hawkins, Hess, Mendes and Chatley 2000). While some will argue that registration will increase professional accountability, others will argue that it does not guarantee good practice but may assist in raising the status of social work.


Direct social work practice is undervalued and in danger of marginalisation from the public, the welfare sector and the profession. The public is unaware of the complexities of social problems, ill informed about ways of addressing them at the policy and practice levels, and unexposed to evidence of effective social work practice. The focus of welfare has shifted to time-limited, single-focused outcomes under pressure from funders who require evidence of effectiveness. The type of evidence sought denies the multiple layers needed to address complex social issues.

Social work is predominantly a female profession and values the relational and emotional aspects of direct practice. Social work practitioners experience the same disadvantages in the workplace and home as other women yet most social workers choose to work in direct practice. This is despite some evidence indicating the greater effectiveness of non-direct forms of social work in addressing social injustice. Debates about effective forms of intervention and registration within the profession take a polarised position, which divide social work and undermine our credibility as a profession.

Social work practitioners cannot rely on others to direct and appreciate them. Our contribution will be rewarded with changes to inequities at the personal and political levels. The complexities of social issues require practice at the interface of personal, private and public domains. It is difficult to do this work without organisational approval or encouragement. With the devaluing of multi-layered complex practice models, direct practitioners face a grim future.

Following are a range of recommendations for practitioners and educators to consider as ways to address these ongoing challenges.


Work conditions

The demands of direct practice can be overwhelming. Social work managers can use their position to improve the work environment for direct practice workers. They can consult with staff about their conditions and pay. Strategic management can reduce stress, reward staff and create a culture of collaborative practice. One coordinator of a drop in centre quarantined six hours a week of non-client drop-in time for staff to think, plan and organise projects and social action relating to their practice. This reduced worker stress and increased networking and collaborative work practices in the community.

Direct practice workers should become familiar with their entitlements to fair and safe work conditions and join unions to collectivise and negotiate for these rights. I believe that social workers need to be assertive in advocating and bargaining for their own conditions in order to be able to argue for justice in society. Good supervision, support, debriefing, professional development and employment opportunities are basic entitlements and essential to maintain health in front line work. Practitioner/management positions offer scope for democratic leadership styles that include the relational and contextual complexities of peoples' lives.

Strategic responses to practice

Front line social workers have a major contribution to make in challenging oppressive practices within their agency and society. Practitioners and clients ideas should be included in the development of agency policy and service agreements. They can determine realistic, achievable and useful outcomes based on the service users' experience rather than 'experts' opinions of need.

Through feminist collective action, women have demanded and achieved massive structural and cultural change. Front line social workers can likewise form coalitions to oppose practices that demean and pathologise clients and compromise social work principles. Such alliances can be established within the workplace, local and global networks. Electronic communication is a useful medium for consultation, affirmation and strategy planning.

Collective responses to managerialist welfare delivery systems

The AASW has a significant role in coordinating coalitions to resist the marketisation of social work and welfare being external to the welfare bureaucracy. Culpitt suggests that health and social services professionals become 'unionised' at the level of client need. He calls for coalitions 'born out of the frustration at not being able to deliver quality services--mandated by the respective codes of professional groups' (1999, 157). Crimeen and Wilson (1997) invite social workers to mobilise with trade unions, community associations and churches that espouse collective values.

An example of such coalitions can be seen in the collective action organised by the Victorian Council of Social Services (VCOSS). In September 2003, VCOSS coordinated protests and petitions in response to the Victorian state government's proposed funding cuts to welfare provision. The Salvation Army refused to sign the new reduced service agreement until a more equitable arrangement was negotiated, jeopardizing their future funding. This attracted media coverage despite their inevitable agreement to a compromised contract (Dalziel 2003). Consistent with campaign principles, VCOSS changed tactics with the implementation of funding cuts. VCOSS has since tracked the impact of the enforced 'productivity savings' on welfare organisations and will use this data to push for change at the next election (Kleinman 2003). Such threats assert the value of direct work and reduce the sense of powerlessness felt by direct service workers.

Implications for Education and Research

Social work educators have a responsibility to alert students to the value, practices and politics of evidence-based practice and research. It is of benefit to graduates to be educated in the philosophy and methods of practice-based research using solution focused or other substantive methods.

Social work practitioners must find ways of measuring and documenting practice. There is potential for writing and research collaboration between academics, students, practitioners and service users. Field education provides scope for students to conduct supervised research and writing projects. One of many examples, a student on placement in a community health centre interviewed clients about their perceptions of the service. Her report formed the basis of a successful funding submission that resulted in a pilot program to meet the needs of isolated young people with a mental illness.

Collective action by academic activists has also been effective in addressing some social justice issues. One example is the campaign led by colleagues within my school that resulted in RMIT being the first Australian university to provide places and support for refugees.

With diminished funding from government, universities are under pressure to research, publish and engender funding from outside sources. This can take over the teaching agenda. Social work educators must maintain a commitment to high quality teaching of practice. It may be necessary to argue for sessional practitioner teachers to provide the praxis of theory and practice. Creative partnerships of research, training and supervision with welfare agencies have addressed this in some social work schools.

Finally, social work schools can honour the place of direct work through the status accorded to field education. Associate fieldwork professorial positions that engender research and fieldwork partnerships counteract the undervaluing of direct practice in the field and within the profession.


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* * Author:

Susan Costello: Social Science and Planning, RMIT, Melbourne. Email:
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Author:Costello, Susan
Publication:Women in Welfare Education
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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