3rd Edition, May 18th, 2020 Martin Webber

Towards a new community social work

An earlier version of this article was posted on Martin Webber’s blog: It is reproduced here with the permission of the author.

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing us to re-evaluate our lives, our society and our economic system. Nationalism, neo-liberalism and individualism have been found wanting in the face of the global spread of the disease. A different set of values and principles are now needed to address our unfolding societal needs.

Social workers have something to say about this, and a contribution to make. But we need to take the opportunity to reflect on ourselves and our roles to consider what we need to change as well. I have long argued that individual casework needs to be combined with a community development function, but the pandemic has now made this much more vital.

Community organising

Communities and neighbourhoods are self-organising on an unprecedented scale. Mutual aid groups, informal online support networks or neighbours just looking out for each other are all helping to ensure that isolated – or self-isolating – people have their needs met. Social workers are involved in this, but largely where they live, in their own neighbourhoods, and not as part of their job.

Community organising, development or support roles do not feature prominently in statutory social work. Local authorities and NHS Trusts largely employ social workers to attend to individual, rather than community needs. However, we have seen over the last few weeks that meeting individual needs is inextricably connected to community capacity. Communities which are better organised are likely to be better able to meet individuals’ needs. There is a particular role for social workers here – helping to ensure every community and neighbourhood has the infrastructure to ensure people receive the support they require.

Some have said that ‘community’ died with urbanisation and is nothing other than nostalgia from a pre-industrial agrarian age. This is clearly wrong. With the forces of neo-liberalism on hold and the worst excesses of market capitalism being held in check, what is important now is that members of our community have access to food, medicine and shelter. This re-evaluation of our priorities – and a renewed focus on community – should shape our social and economic development once the crisis is over.

If anyone is in doubt about this, they only need to step outside their front door on a Thursday evening. People who do not necessarily know each other, and have nothing in common except for where they live, stand together in solidarity to acknowledge the beating heart of our nation – key workers who look after our health, wellbeing and essential needs. This is a seismic shift from the individualism which has been our organising principle for so long.

This is partly a symptom of our lives becoming hyper-local since the lockdown. But it may point to how we organise ourselves in future. A drop in air pollution, brighter stars at night and a repairing ozone layer may help to convince us that we need to be more home and local-based in future. We need to seize this opportunity to develop, implement and evaluate community models of social work which address inequality (not all neighbourhoods can self-organise) and refocus on the needs of all.

Community social work practice

I developed a module for mental health social workers in their first year of employment following qualification which focuses on effective social work practice with networks and communities. Its aim has been to challenge the individualism within mental health services and to expose practitioners and teams to community models which are effective in improving mental health and social outcomes.

The students have to develop and implement a community project, evaluate it and write it up for their assignment.  This could be bringing mental health service users together who share an interest and supporting them to access community resources to take it forward, for example. Or it could be bringing people together to explore their local community, or creating opportunities to connect people who would not otherwise have met, for example.

When lockdown started most of the current cohort were about to launch their projects but have since had to put them on hold. Some are moving their projects online, but most are waiting until social distancing restrictions are relaxed. This is somewhat frustrating as their work in connecting people to their communities is just what is needed at the moment. As home visits or any face to face work is currently reserved for crises, at no time more than the present people need to know who in their local community they can turn to if they need help beyond their household.

Over the years I have been teaching this module and conducting research in this field, the main barrier I have observed for practitioners to work with communities is organisational resistance. “This isn’t your role” is what they are commonly told. However, local authorities have a responsibility under the Care Act 2014 to promote the wellbeing of all adults, including those who do not have any current care needs. In addition, the Community Mental Health Framework for Adults and Older Adults states that mental health services should become place-based and adopt models which support people to become more active citizens. Services appear resistant to shift away from individual models.

A new community social work 

I am advocating a new community social work which addresses individual need and builds resourceful communities for the benefit of all. With active citizenship at its heart, a new community social work focuses on the contributions that people with social care needs can make as well as mobilising people with no support needs to look out for others. Of course, specialist functions such as assessment, safeguarding and the protection of human rights will be required, but they will be conducted in the context of place-based services which are a part of, and accountable to, their local communities.

The integration of health and social care services has been a policy goal for many years, but now is the time to merge NHS and local authority functions to create community wellbeing hubs within primary care networks. Bringing primary and community-based secondary health care alongside community social work and other local services, and providing a hub for the local community and voluntary sector, community centres can become a focal point for universal services and a gateway for more specialist services.

Specialist knowledge can be retained within regional centres, but local hubs would provide a focal point for child and adult safeguarding, assessment of care and support needs, and the provision of community-based services. However, this is not just another reorganisation. This points to a future when the orientation of practice is broadened from the individual to their local communities (or communities of interest). Practice models need to shift to encompass a whole community perspective so that services can be developed where they are needed – to tackle issues as diverse as loneliness, youth offending or early years child development, for example. As well as sourcing resources to meet individual needs, a goal of practice will be to attend to community wellbeing.

Back to the past or looking to the future?

The Barclay Report (1982) was a key moment in the timeline towards contemporary social work. However, it was a significant missed opportunity which may have led us on a different path, away from the reductionism and individualism of statutory social work we have today.

It was commissioned by the first Thatcher Government to review the roles and tasks of social workers. Most of its committee members advocated a community approach to social work which emphasised community engagement, with social workers working with informal carers and voluntary organisations to support people as citizens:

“The Working Party believes that if social needs of citizens are to be met in the last years of the twentieth century, the personal social services must develop a close working partnership with citizens focusing more closely on the community and its strengths” (p. 198, Barclay Report, 1982).

The report included two minority reports in the chapter on community social work. One of these, ‘An alternative view’ by Robert Pinker, argued for specialisation in social work and cautioned against a community approach which would provide a framework for the mobilisation of local communities into political pressure groups to advocate for an increase in statutory funding. This minority view held sway and the report was largely ignored by Thatcher’s Government.

New mental health and childcare legislation in the 1980s required social workers to become more specialised. While some local authorities briefly introduced ‘patch social work’ where teams were more community-based, most created structures for the specialist services we see today.

I am not suggesting a return to the past, but a negotiated future in which there is Government recognition of the important role which communities play in our lives. Specialism is retained, but community skills become part of the foundation of the profession and services working with the same individuals, families and communities join up to work together.

This may be a utopia, or just a foolish idea. But we need to consider alternative futures to help ensure individuals and communities are not isolated in the face of a pandemic such as this. Let us use this moment as an opportunity to reshape health and social care into a community-based and community-accountable service in which people have a dynamic relationship with their community. We have seen the capacity of many communities to look out for people during this pandemic. Let’s utilise this commonweal to develop new ways of local working which brings together the expertise of communities and practitioners to enhance both individual and community wellbeing.

Martin Webber

Professor of Social Work