Paul Shuttleworth Special Edition

Can an independent review provide meaningful and ethical participation?

The drive to divorce social work expertise from social work experts is not new. Neither is the drive to divorce meaningful research from social work researchers and social work academics. As a social worker and a social work researcher, I have experienced these struggles for recognition first-hand. There have been consistent dismissals of social work as a profession and as an academic discipline.

Such struggles usually stem from the age-old debate about whether we should strive towards more individualised services that ’empower’ service users or focus more on the redistribution of resources. According to the literature and the global definition of social work, both are important. We are to instigate both individual change and societal change. However, this means that we a have “kind of inferiority complex” because others often perceive us as floundering in the middle ground with no alleged definitive social work theory or practice (Lorenz, 2016:456). Yet this is the well-trodden space in which we work. This continuous battle between the liberal left and the liberal right is what makes social work unique. The questioning of the state’s involvement in private family life ensures that reflection and reflexivity are the bedrock of our practice. What is my role, and what is my position in relation to the government and the families I work with? Are they troubled families or troubling ones? More regulation or less regulation? How can early intervention be achieved whilst accommodating risk, diminishing resources and an increase in poverty? Evidence-based versus evidence-informed? Medical, behaviourist, socialisation theories or more critical sociological and political ones? Care versus control? Service users or clients? I could go on. However, what is important to note is that these arguments consist of seeming opposites, of dualisms. They are divisive by their very nature, and because of this, they can easily lead others to dismiss our profession, academic discipline, practice, ethics, history and knowledge.

Unfortunately, when we place non-social worker Josh MacAlister’s appointment and the independent review into this space, things do not become clearer, less divisive, or less emotive. Many, such as Dr Steve Rogowski, have commented on the seeming crony capitalism inherent in his appointment. There are also concerns that the review’s recommendations will echo the contemporary neoliberal Buurtzorg model, which informed his blueprint. This can permit the steady demise into the privatisation of services which many, including Professor Ray Jones, are rightly cautious. It questions the review’s independence. However, despite the persuasive arguments, at the moment, this is all speculation. While early indicators do not alleviate anxieties, we will not know for sure until the final report has been released.

The concern for me is that rich debates in research and social work will be dismissed, simplified, and under-theorised by Josh MacAlister and his team of civil servants. I know that he has written some well thought out non-peer-reviewed articles on social work. However, I would propose that the lack of social work training and experience often hinders his perspective. For example, I will focus on the methodology of participation, as this is something I have spent the last three years researching and thinking about in depth.

My social work research demonstrates that the voice(s) of the child and the voices of those that use services are worthy of shaping services. They should be the starting points of our debates. Such meaningful participation is something that we all can seemingly agree on but is rarely put into practice. This is why, at first glance, we should welcome the review. The review heralds that an Experts by Experience group is central to gaining access to children’s views. However, for participation to be ethical and meaningful, there must be a recognition of the socio-political space in which it occupies.

The current socio-political space suggests the steering of social work towards managerialism, individualism, evidence-based practice. This is well-documented and evident.  Social work has also been increasingly plagued by introducing market disciplines. This modernisation of social work focuses on best value, consumerism and performance. We now experience this daily. It makes our work often seem unsustainable and unjust. It also conflicts with our social work ethics. Social work must not only be explanatory but anti-oppressive and emancipatory. Fair redistribution of resources must also be at the heart of social work practice and research. Even though Josh MacAlister has stated that he is aware of this, this is something that the more traditional, rationalist, pragmatic, evidence-based studies, practice and stances will often fail to address (Pawson, 2006). This is the first issue with such an approach to participation.

When we place the Experts by Experience into the space of childhood studies and previous social work research, the review’s process for participation unravels further. Such definitive solutions to treat everybody’s voice as equal does not consider the privileging of self-determination or how the system may be inadvertently biased. It may, to many, seem ideologically sound, yet it is problematic in practice. For example, for a child to contest or challenge their rights, they must possess a certain status. A more vocal, able-bodied, white, educated, well-connected, socio-economically wealthy child is more likely to speak up and be heard if they do. They must also make a claim within the system already set up. Overall then, such universalism proposes that invitations to collaborate are handed down from ‘on-high’. This is dependent on prior status, notoriety and how well they fit into traditional concepts of child ability and participation. It can quickly become a Catch 22 situation. You need status and to be perceived worthy of status in order to receive it.

This handing down of rights from ‘on high’ is especially relevant for care-experienced children who are often marginalised and rarely heard. Such perspectives mean that many children, whilst they may be seen as equal, do not have the correct tools or structures to ensure they are treated as such. Their voices are missed whilst the privileged few that have been permitted to be heard become the voice of the marginalised. Methodologically, this leads to a blindness to the constraints of ethnicity, class, poverty, gender, and age. For example, will there be younger children included in the review at all, and if so, how? Despite Josh MacAlister’s self-proclaimed awareness of these constraints, without proper recognition, reflexivity, and time appropriate for such a large scope, participation can unwittingly embed the exploitation and marginalisation it is meant to rectify.

Without a sound methodology for participation, the review will again further re-engage the divisive, emotive debates between the liberal left and the liberal right with little resolve. These debates will also, again, be one step further removed from our expertise and experience. Without a sound knowledge of social work theory, participatory methods, a limited timeframe and without experience of the realities of social work practice, the all-important in-between space in which we work will not be adequately (re)explored. Instead, there will be an overly pragmatic and possibly unethical approach to find solutions. The review may even revert to predetermined outcomes and further encourage marginalisation. As a social worker and social work researcher, such exploitation is a central concern to my everyday practice—one which I have yet seen to be fully alleviated by the review’s remarks or processes.

Paul Daniel Shuttleworth

Social Worker and Social Work Researcher