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The Role of the Social Worker in the 21st Century - A Literature Review



6.1. Though there are constancies in terms of the assumed function of social work and the role of the social worker, it is nevertheless important to understand the social and political context in which they are situated.

6.2. As Evers (Evers, 2003) and Munday (Munday, 2003) both assert, understanding the social and political factors which have influenced the development of social work or social services across Europe is necessary to appreciate the very different forms they take and the directions they may take in the future. Social work does not operate in a vacuum. There are a number of contextual factors to be acknowledged in our understanding of the role to be played by social work and social workers, including the following.

Social change

6.3. The function of social work and the role played by the social worker in contemporary society has of course been influenced by major social changes which have occurred over the past two or three decades.

Demographic Change

6.4. In particular these include major demographic change such as the increasingly low birth rate in most European countries and a move to a much older age structure. As Munday (2003) points out the significance of the low birth rate means that in the future there will be a shortage of adult children to look after elderly relatives. This will have an obvious impact on the provision of social services more generally other than just social work and may well contribute to the further erosion of professional boundaries as new mechanisms and initiatives for providing affordable care for the elderly have to be found.

6.5. Munday (2003) and others also point to the continuing change in the nature of the family and the move away from the 'traditional' family model with its implication for the growth of one parent families and 'multi parent' families. The fact also that more women are entering the labour market will also have an increasing knock on effect on the provision of care and others have pointed to the fact that women may be less inclined than previously to view social work as an attractive career proposition.

6.6. Social work also now operates in a very different world from that in which Kilbrandon reported in terms of the priority areas to be addressed. In particular, in addition to the specific situation of the elderly and ageing population, social work is now practised in a context in which there have been a large number of scandals or problematic cases involving children and which have had an impact on the social work role. The rise in drug related problems has also contributed to the work of social work both in terms of work with drug users and also in terms of the implications for increasing drug use on children and families.

Poverty, Disadvantage and Social Exclusion

6.7. The inequalities between different sections of the population in most countries across Europe, and the UK, forms the basis of argument from a number of commentators (Jordan and Parkinson, 2001; Munday, 2003; Unison, 2004; Jones et al., 2004) that the distinctive role to be played by social work should not be lost. Without social work and the role that could be played by social workers, many members of our communities would continue to suffer the negative consequences of exclusion - poverty, ill health, poor housing, low educational attainment and so on.

Internationalisation of Social Problems

6.8. The growing internationalisation of social problems - especially as a result of the movements of people within Europe - has also added a new dimension to the role to be played by social work. In particular, migration has meant that social work must now have a more international outlook than before in seeking to address the needs and experiences of individuals from different ethnic, cultural and political backgrounds. EU enlargement may result in this becoming a greater rather than smaller issue. Interestingly, the removal of many international borders will itself have implications for the development of social work as there is a need to develop common qualifications and training programmes.

6.9. It can be no coincidence that there is considerable activity in international professional arena to foster cooperation, collaboration and harmonisation of activities in the social work field. 3 Where those concerned are asylum seekers, the fear is that social work will once more be drawn into a monitoring or surveillance rather than supportive and caring role (Ruch, 2000). But the general theme to be drawn from this section of the analysis is the need for a greater international perspective in social work, which is voiced in a number of the protocols of influential social work bodies 4 and finds expression in the number of social work training courses which include fieldwork placements overseas.

Modern Communications Technologies

6.10. The discussion above on the rural nature of some social work also points to another area of growing significance for a review of social work in the 21st century - the importance of information technology. Developments in information technology have already significantly influenced the nature of record keeping and data collection in social work departments. However, there is also an increasing commitment to the use of information and modern communications technologies in other aspects of social work, some influenced in particular by the fact that some service users live in and some workers practise in rural contexts.

6.11. Telemedicine technologies have for some time now ( http://www.teis.nhs.uk/; http://www.gla.ac.uk/Project/Telemedicine/) been developed to provide remote training for health workers and indeed remote diagnosis of ailments. In reference to social work, developments which may well alter the nature of social work practice in the near future include:

6.12. There can be no doubt that the nature of social work practice will increasingly be influenced by the deployment of modern communications and information technologies. In some respects, some technologies, such as videoconferencing in rural contexts, could actually allow more face to face social work to be carried out. It may also be the case that further use of online methods of working with clients might benefit those authorities - especially in a rural setting - where human and financial resources are scarce.

6.13. The increasing use of such technologies in learning; the making available of bodies of knowledge, information, skill and expertise to wider constituencies 9; and the facility to hold large databases and information on clients and client groups will all impact on the future nature of social work. In reference to the latter, the fact that social workers may be responsible for databases relating to named children and families means that for some this may entail a greater monitoring or surveillance role than is seen to be compatible with the nature of the work with children and families (Garrett, 2004). Recent Data Protection legislation also presents specific problems for any agency which keeps records on individuals and families. This of course is not an issue specific to social work.

Social Change: Summary

6.14. In summary, the nature of social work and the role to be played by social workers is increasingly influenced by the many social changes which impact on the context within which it operates. Developments in social work have already had to take cognisance of such changes as outlined above and there is every reason to believe that in the future such trends will continue to determine the nature of the role to be played by social workers.

6.15. The authors of this report emphasise their belief that if social work is a service for the poor, socially excluded and disadvantaged, then there will be a greater need for effective social work in the future rather than less.

Welfare Philosophy and Policy - Changing Ideologies

6.16. As we stated at the beginning of this report, it is also important to assess the function of social work and the role of the social worker in the context of much broader movements and philosophies. The welfare philosophy or political ideology at any particular point in time is an important determinant of what, to borrow from Payne (Payne, 1999), we described as valid knowledge. Validity for social work knowledge, skill and practice has to be seen in reference to the prevailing ideology of the time.

6.17. In Table 1, Evers (Evers, 2003) presents a description of the main ideologies that have suffused social and political life over the past few decades. This a very useful representation of the main ideologies for a number of reasons:

  • It provides an effective and economical backcloth to understand the chronological development of social work
  • It provides a useful means to understand better some of the organisational and institutional changes to be discussed later and which have impacted on social work in the past few decades
  • It also directly confronts the nature of the relationship between social work and clients or the social worker and the individual client. This is particularly relevant for our later discussion.

What this brief consideration of the positions presented in the Evers table will allow us to do is consider the current nature of the position of social work within existing ideologies and explore what implications this has for the future.

A Welfarist Ideology

6.18. Within a welfarist philosophy which prevailed in the social democratic post war years of the fifties and sixties, social work had not yet organised from disparate forms of service provision into large scale departments but operated with what some described as a paternalist approach - summed up best, and somewhat negatively, by Barbara Wootton's (Wootton, 1959) famous dictum of 'daddy knows best'. The welfare state accepted its responsibility for all on the basis of universal provision and where need was expressed it was to be met by the key welfare mechanisms of the welfare state. This is of course a simplistic conception of welfare provision but it does serve to highlight a number of assumptions which permeated the welfare services including social work:

  • The idea that the state could identify and meet need.
  • The notion that trained welfare workers could determine need and how best to address it
  • A relationship between social worker and 'client' which reflected the hierarchical nature of the organisational arrangements - that there was a power imbalance with social worker equipped to know better than the client what needs were and how to meet them.

Professional Ideology

6.19. With the professional perspective, not too divorced historically or conceptually from welfarism, there is an increasing commitment to professionalism in service provision by qualified professionals whose main focus is case management with regulation of practice. The relationship with the client is still one within which the power balance rests with the professional whose training has equipped him to assess and meet the client's need. The notion of a professional identity for social work


6.20. With the consumerist position there is something of a paradigm shift with the client becoming a consumer able to choose services or have services determined more through choice than at the discretion or judgement of the social worker. The market becomes an important and powerful force in the availability of services to meet needs and the balance of the relationship between social worker and 'consumer' begins to look less hierarchical though, as commented on by a number of commentators, the relationship is still biased in favour of the social worker by virtue of his authority to assess and also his/her knowledge of what the market can or has to offer. What is not introduced is the notion that protection can be afforded to the consumer and that indeed the consumer can complain at the level or quality of service provision.

Table 1.






  • hierarchical governance of service systems
  • full coverage/ uniform services
  • equal standards
  • boards and commissions
    for corporate governance
  • quality control by state inspection
  • social rights and patients' charter
  • case management
  • upgrading of educational levels
  • upgrading professional advice and consultancy
  • quality control through professional self control
  • public service ethos
  • competition
  • individual choice
  • market research
  • vouchers
  • customer orientation
  • consumer lobbying
  • consumer protection
  • managed care
  • target setting
  • upgrading managerial and economic concerns
  • external quality management
  • complaint management
  • collective self help
  • volunteering
  • strengthening user and community based service providers
  • strengthening local embeddedness
  • orientation towards empowering users
  • more service dialogues
  • more user control in designing and running services

(Source: Evers, 2003)


6.21. The move to a more managerialist position which privileges managerialist and economic concerns has been seen to do so at the cost of direct work with clients. With the consumerist position, it also further introduces service provision by external non state agency and the role of the social worker from this perspective becomes more one of assessment and regulation. Though the service user is seen less as being a 'client', there is nevertheless concern that managerialism as it applies to social work attaches more importance to budgets and targets than to work with individuals; removes much front line social work from professionally qualified social workers and allows service provision to be determined by the market. The management of cases is emphasised at the cost of case management (Jones et al., 2004). For the critics of managerialism, social work is devalued (Leadbetter, 2004) and the individual is somewhat lost.


6.22. From the perspectives offered by these positions the individual 'client', 'consumer', or 'service user' has little say in the nature of the service afforded or in the planning and design of policies and practices designed to improve his situation. There is still a power imbalance in the relationship with social workers or carers. It is this that the participationist position seeks to address and which is seen (Jordan and Parkinson, 2001) to afford a closer working relationship between service provider and service user.

6.23. For the participationist, the key objective is to strengthen the position of the user, to have more user input into discussions about the nature of service provision and to locate such discussions in local and community contexts. The emphasis is on community based services in which user and social worker are partners in seeking to address and ameliorate the life situation of the user. The power imbalance is reduced, the user is actively involved in his/her own future and has an active role to play as a citizen not excluded by virtue of poverty or disadvantage.

6.24. Future social work would involve itself actively and directly in the lives of those it seeks to support. The benefits would be to both users and also to social workers for whom the shift would be back to a form of social work which remained true to the value and practice commitments which have formed a tread through the history of the development of social work irrespective of the organisational and institutional changes which have impacted on it. We will discuss the possibilities of such an inclusive approach to social work later when we address 'constructive social work' as promoted by Jordan (Jordan and Parkinson, 2001) and others (Parton and O'Byrne, 2000) on the basis of the experience and programmes developed in other countries.

Ideological Change - Summary

6.25. This has of course been a rather simplistic review of the key ideologies impacting on social work over the years but the move from post war welfarism through to consumerism and managerialism will be familiar to many social workers and social work commentators. It will be particularly familiar to those who have charted what they see to be the demise of social work and its loss of direction. It is the rolling out of such philosophies which allowed Statham (Statham, 2001, p.30) to agree with the statement that until recently:

These were hard times for many of us. By the late 1990s the Chief Inspector in the Social Services Inspectorate was reporting that core social work skills had to be 'smuggled in'.

6.26. The provision of social work in no country is based on any one ideology but is rather a particular blend of the different positions available as discussed above. It is again for that reason that we counsel against the possibility of cross country transplants of thinking about the future of social work based on what happens in different countries.

6.27. But what a consideration of such ideologies does highlight is that the role of the social worker, and the ways in which how that role can be fulfilled, has had to be accommodated within ideological positions which may well have conflicted with the key values and principles underpinning social work.

6.28. The move from welfarism, professionalism, consumerism, managerialism, to participationism has continually presented social work with the need to re evaluate its nature and function.

Organisational Change

6.29. Just as there have been clearly chartable ideological shifts impacting on the role of the social worker so too have organisational changes impacted on what social workers do and what they cannot do. We identify these again briefly in order to explore just what has contributed to the crisis in the identity of social work.

6.30. Post war services were provided through rather disparate entities and it was only with Kilbrandon and Seebohm that the move to large integrated structures occurred. Most social work provision was made through the large social work or social service departments with a relatively small role played by non public agencies. Subsequent attempts to allow social work and social workers to have a closer relationship with the groups and communities they served can be seen in the proposals for 'patch' working and of course the advocacy of community social work made in the Barclay report. A number of developments has significantly influenced the nature of social work provision since then and will continue to do so in the future .

Local Government Reorganisation

6.31. The first is the changes in local government in Scotland which reintroduced a larger number of smaller social work departments.

Mixed Economy of Welfare

6.32. The second is the fact that there is now a greater mixed economy of welfare with welfare provision not only through public or state agencies but increasingly through voluntary non profit organisations, private commercial enterprises and of course the informal care sector in which Munday (Munday, 2003) includes family, friends, neighbours, and colleagues . But the main point to be made is that much social work provision is now no longer through state agencies but through other social sectors. Again, the nature of the mix will vary from country to country but there can be no doubt that there is universally a greater involvement of non state sectors in social work and welfare provision more generally. The fact that social workers may leave not the profession, but local authority departments, to work in other sectors of the welfare economy has been noted ( Community Care, 17 June 2004).

6.33. Similarly, there has been much comment (Healy and Meagher, 2004) on the growth of what has been referred to as the 'para-professional' sector by which is meant that body of workers who undertake caring roles and work in social care generally but who are not classified or qualified as 'social workers'. In most countries there has been an expansion of the para-professional sector with the concern expressed that much of what is seen to be the core task of social work may in fact increasingly be carried out by para-professionals 10. The consequence of this is that those qualified social workers may be left to fulfil responsibilities, such as care management and risk assessment, which are one step removed from what they take to be the true role of the social worker. The further danger is also of course that the goals set for the social work task are externally defined (the management of care, assessment of risk, fulfilling the management role) rather than being set within the terms of professional judgement and decision making. This changing role for social workers in which they are seen to lose elements of their core tasks may well account for the disillusionment expressed by social workers and why there is a high degree of turnover which, as discussed earlier, cannot be resolved by golden handshakes or golden handcuffs.

Professional Collaboration

6.34. The third aspect of organisational change is of course the fact that the social work role is increasingly carried out in close cooperation with other professionals such as teachers, doctors (van Zwanenberg, 2003) and nurses and indeed that there is an ever stronger move towards the integration of social work organisationally with other structures such as education, health and housing. The integration of social work with other bodies has been to be particularly successful as joint working has been valued as effective and beneficial to clients or users of services 11. There is also evidence that social workers within non local authority social work departments such as those who work in GP practices (Firth et al., 2004) and in a variety of healthcare settings can and do play a significant role as members of multidisciplinary teams. It is particularly interesting that similar discussions about working in multidisciplinary teams, the growth of para-professionals and the search for professional boundaries have been held in the context of the role of the nurse in the modernising NHS (Melia, 2004).

6.35. The implications of a wider health and education agenda for the future role to be played by social work/services is clearly one which fosters the argument that the need for social work to be carried out within local authority departments no longer necessarily holds. This clearly has important implications for both what social workers do and where they do it.

Social Service Departments may acquire a stronger strategic role in supporting the local authority's responsibility for promoting the economic, social and environmental well being of communities including through the Director's responsibility for the quality of provision and practice (Quality Strategy 2000). The end result is that social work will follow social care work in becoming increasingly separated from its close identification with local authority Social Services Departments. This is not a disaster, but offers new and more diverse opportunities. Like education and health, social work and social care are greater than the institutions in which they operate at a particular time and place. What is constructed, can also be reconstructed….(Statham, 2001, p.24).

6.36. However what we also know is that effective working together can be inhibited by the lack of knowledge of or assumptions made about the responsibilities of one profession by members of another (see O'Brien et al., 2003).

6.37. The fact that services for children may increasingly be accommodated within Education or that social work with offenders may be carried out within a separate criminal justice service, perhaps involving the prison service, does suggest that in the next stage of its development in Scotland social work may be undertaken within different organisational structures where the distinctive role of social work has to be based on professional considerations and not organisational location. Similarly, changes in other professions such as nursing, which has increasingly developed a broader care role with the nursing remit, will further erode professional boundaries. 12 In reference to the broader nature of the work undertaken by nursing, Melia (Melia, 2004, p.11) also points to the fact that:

We can also add to this shaping of nursing's agenda the political goals of social inclusion….

6.38. What the debate about professional roles also reintroduces is the discussion about whether social workers should be trained as generic workers to be able to work with all client groups including the elderly, children offenders, and so on or be specialists. The consensus does appear to be that social workers require some base or general training foundation but that specialisms may be required for working with specific groups. 13

Leadership and Management Issues

6.39. There is no doubt that joint working and cooperation between social work and other professions has had many positive outcomes. Nevertheless, it would be remiss to ignore those comments which counsel about the dangers associated with joint working and which might threaten the identity of social work and further contribute to the 'crisis' it faces. For example, in seeking the views of senior managers in social work in Scotland, van Zwanenberg (van Zwanenberg, 2003) is able to identify what for them are the main leadership and management issues associated with joint, partnership and multidisciplinary working where social workers may operate in teams with other professionals. These include the difficulties of:

  • providing leadership for social work within mixed teams and across 'separate governance arrangements'
  • maintaining a high profile for social work within a multidisciplinary team setting
  • retaining social work values
  • ensuring quality of professional service provision
  • ensuring a focus on the social work agenda so it is not a subset of either health or education and resisting professional boundary erosion
  • managing resources within the competing demands of differential team requirements
  • building and developing a care management culture that reflects the core values of social work and centres on the needs of the users and carers.

What van Zwanenberg (van Zwanenberg, 2003, p.8) was also able to identify was that the main challenges to future social work management focussed around concern at the further development and move towards single structures for social work and health and also

fears about the impact on the structure of social work services and the future of the profession, particularly if the current social work structures within local authorities, were to disappear as a result of the pressures to integrate with other services, for example, health and education.

6.40. From the leadership perspective there are clearly threats to the future of a distinct role for the social worker. The role of the social worker and indeed the distinct identity for the work undertaken social workers may well be threatened by increasing integration with other services (van Zwanenberg, 2003) (C ommunity Care, 17 June 2004). However, this need not necessarily lead to the position that professional social work will cease to exist. Rather, conversely, it could be argued that the need for social work to clarify and consolidate its professional identity is all the greater given the need to work more closely with other agencies and professions. The importance of the professional identity of social work is also seen by senior managers in van Zwanenberg's report to touch on the very importance aspects of recruitment and retention.

Social work has clearly been greatly influenced by the organisational changes of the last four decades including the move to smaller departments, the growth of a mixed economy of welfare provision, and increased collaboration and joint working. No suggestion is being made that such changes have been negative but they have meant that social work has continually had to change and adapt to new working conditions and arrangements.

Organisational Change-Summary

6.41. The impact on social work and the role of the social worker of the organisational changes discussed above is well illustrated by Zwanenberg and Jordan. Van Zwanenberg (van Zwanenberg, 2003 5.6, p.9) argues that the constraints on social work at present and the difficulty in identifying just what role social workers should play in the future is best exemplified in the recognition that

Recurrent themes in this area were the role of the professionally qualified social workers and social work service managers in an integrated service delivery world characterised by a range of cross professional and cross organisational partnerships and the continuing and continuous change agenda and the impact of current and emergent policy on service design and service management.

6.42. Jordan (Jordan and Parkinson, 2001, p.37), in addressing similar issues, focuses on the question of whether

…professional social work any longer seeks to be credible at street level, with service users and carers, or whether it is developing into an arm's length, office bound, report writing, official kind of practice which leaves face to face work to others.

6.43. The paradox is for Jordan that with the expanding role of the voluntary and private sector in the provision of street level services, much of what would be called 'social work' is now carried out by non qualified, non trained workers. He also argues however that social work and social workers do still have a valuable role to play but that it cannot be undertaken within present arrangements which tend to remove social workers from face to face contact. So again, the concern is not with the relevance of professional social work as such but with the arrangements within which it is being practised.

The Role of the Social Worker in Context: Summary

6.44. There is no doubt that the social changes which social work has had to accommodate - changing demographic structures; increased poverty, exclusion and disadvantage and the internationalisation of social problems - will continue in the future to impact on social work. Similarly, social work reflects a number of competing and potentially conflicting ideologies. Future developments will have to address the nature of the relationship between the service user and worker ensure the true participation of users.

6.45. Given the nature of current organisational and structural arrangements and the way in which they are seen by some commentators to inhibit the practice of truly effective social work, developments in the provision of social work will have to be based on a reconsideration of the structures through which social work is practised. Despite the concerns about the leadership and management issues presented, social work can also be and is successfully practiced in a variety of contexts outwith single local authority structures.