Research to Support Some Arguments
Since 2006 I have, in cooperation with my colleagues, had the fortune of running two separate research programmes. The first focuses on child protection in Norway (the last few years also including Sweden) and the other on social services and welfare. The studies have given a unique opportunity to align our own empirical data with the growing international discourse on social work. The services being studied seem to present distinct traits of modernization programmes under the heading of neoliberalism. It is not so much the social work itself that carries the traits of neoliberalism, but the context in which it is performed. Ferguson (2009,
91) refers to Jones drawing similar conclusions: 'at the root of these workers' frustration was not the content of their interactions with their clients, but rather the nature of the agencies within which they worked and the highly procedural forms that their work now took'.
In Norway, social work in smaller communities and to some extent also in cities may have always suffered under the problem of turnover and lack of good social work journals, but with the growing number of clients, more workers, reorganizations which have concerned the geographic areas to be covered as well as changes in the division of labour within services.
The recent welfare reform in Norway (NAV 2006) has user involvement as one of its main goals. One measure to involve users more actively has been the launching of work ability assessments (arbeidsevnevurdering). These assessments are carried out by professional social workers as well as non-professionals. The Labour and Welfare Administration (2007) says of user participation that 'it becomes a reality once change happens as a result of the feedback from the user, and a prerequisite for this is that the user is regarded by the services as a competent and responsible participant in in the processes where they are involved'. Over a period of a few years, our study group did some action research including interviews, observations and reflective discussions on practices. Our research question was to ask whether we are witnessing new bureaucratic procedures or social-work-led processes (Pedersen et al. 2011). Aasback (2011) finds that many experience the work ability assessment as a means of control and a technical formality. Others have been given no explanation about the purpose of the work ability assessment.
The welfare services in Norway have experienced significant pressure to carry out procedures and meet bureaucratic criteria due to the way the welfare reform is monitored, often with no regard to the content of the work carried out. Such a working environment does not represent a constructive match for good social work. On the other hand, we tested out new social work practices focusing on assessment, planning, working and evaluation in the municipal social services. Our action research proved to be very constructive both in organizing social work and involving users as well as in preparing for reflective user participation, but this was not in line with official ideology and was of no interest for the new Labour and welfare offices (Vist et al. 2010).
Nilsen (2010) studied the social services under new conditions after the welfare reform in the city of Trondheim. She concludes that the fragmented social work practices are a result of the purchaser–provider model, which divides responsibility for the clients between different departments. In particular, those with complex needs do not fare well under the new context, because they have to relate to multiple social workers and other helpers. Due to complicated communication, and partly due to using several information systems that are not integrated, vital information of client needs and work schemes does not circulate. This difficulty also causes the need for even more meetings to coordinate work and inform each other. An increasing focus on bureaucratic procedures and monitoring means that the time spent on social work is reduced. Nilsen (2010, 4) calls for a return to closer followup by professional social workers that could reduce the level of bureaucracy, and a need for coordination and information exchange: 'a more continuous interface between the social worker and the clients'.
Skauge (2010) studied to what extent human rights for children were strengthened as far as if their voice were heard in child protection cases. Studying 50 cases before and after the treaty was signed by Norwegian authorities, she found to her surprise that the degree of involving children had been reduced. This seemed to have an explanation similar to what Nilsen found: an increase in bureaucratic procedures, and responsibility for assessments and follow-up divided between different departments. Even though Skauge's work could not produce any clear evidence to explain the phenomenon, her group interviews and discussion with the field seemed to validate the claim.
In our child protection research (Fauske et al. 2009) we interviewed more than 700 families receiving some sort of services from child protection in 12 municipalities scattered around Norway. This was a representative sample of users. Later we followed up on a smaller selection that was identified by
aggregation of what we called symbolic burdens (see Marthinsen 2010). The broader representative group was identified mostly by the aggregation of marginalized positions within the society, often lacking social networks, and low incomes and with a significantly lower participation in the workforce than their peers of same age. There was also a fifth of the client families that did not fit the pattern of poverty, but they had rather a more troubled family life as well as trouble with their teenagers. The class distribution of clients corresponded to different sets of problems as well as different actions by the services (Kojan 2011). A current longitudinal study of long-term clients with the aggregation of burdens revealed traits similar to those we found in other research focusing on how social work is carried out. High turnover and a purchaser–provider split, as well as a lot of outsourcing to private partners, expose child protection practices to faulty communication and fragmentation. As a result, children and families are often left with new workers, a situation that means the time needed to promote change is consumed by the re-establishing of relationships. The communication of differing values between social workers, services and families may be blurred to the extent that the real aims of the work are not clear. User involvement and reflexive dialogues are difficult to accomplish. These problems cannot be blamed on new public management or neoliberalist-imposed changes alone, but to some extent they are a challenge to social work as such. On the other hand, the construction of problems does not seem very individual but rather linked to groups and perhaps also to local culture, involving the perspective of public services surrounding child
protection and child protection itself.
The picture is not only grim, however. There is also resistance to the negative results of social reform (NAV 2006) and the reorganization of social services. We were fortunate to have some very good data by following services closely just before the new welfare reform, and have traced social work practices after re-establishment within the new setting. The close follow-up practices developed in the context of the older social services from the early 1990s seem to have preceded the practices of workfare in their focus on rehabilitation and work as a possible result. The difference between workfare today and social work as it was practiced in these settings seems to be the focus and aim of the practices. Our research indicates that earlier there was more interest in developing respectable ways of meeting and working with marginalized people aiming at supporting their change over the years. With no specific deadlines, many changed into perhaps somewhat better-adjusted citizens driven by experiences of personal victories acclaimed by social workers. About two out of ten people would eventually also manage to stay in the workforce more permanently. Research shows that it is very hard to predict at the initial assessment who may profit the most from such practices – an argument for investing in all rather than the art of skimming (Marthinsen and Skjefstad 2011).
Under the new welfare regime, workfare and work has become paramount to all goals. Success is not only measured by entering the workforce but also what costs are related to the rehabilitation with a maximum of two years, which
is called a qualification programme. These programmes are often outsourced to new market-based companies competing for contracts with the welfare services. The social workers select those who should attend the programmes and monitor the results of the work, but they do not participate themselves in the follow-up. Few social workers seem to work in those programmes where you can find rather a mixture of professionals of different trades as well as non-skilled workers. The local results in a city like Trondheim seem to indicate that many were not fit for the programmes by the time they entered them, many dropped out and the costs escalated without the expected results. The problem of prediction based on assessment has not been improved or solved, and this may have resulted in an increase in the numbers of people ending up with either a disability pension or a return to the financial support of the community. The number of people returning to work has been similar to those measured in earlier social work programmes.
As a conclusion, the earlier social work programmes run by the municipality should be re-established rather than being outsourced. Our finding can be an example of the possibilities for resisting at least some of the negative results of neoliberal policies, but it represents a small amount of the work only, not a major change in service allocation on a national level (Marthinsen and Skjefstad 2011). These research excerpts conducted in Norway illustrate some of the problems discussed initially. To some extent, many of the challenges can stem from the organization of work as well as its management, not only from questions of knowledge and a changing society with new ideas, although these issues may be related. New public management often prioritizes working with bureaucratic targets and the economy over the relational and client interests promoted by social work. A common problem then becomes the personal relationship between worker and client or family which is troubled by changing case workers attending. This also calls for very good internal communication within services in order to prevent chaos and ever returning need for assessments. Another problem is outsourcing to private firms, which often leaves the social worker as a negotiator in the field between the public service and the private, often unskilled, workers. Skjefstad (2013) asks if we are seeing the development of a dominant bureaucratic logic in
social work supported by sanctioning practices.