Social work across boundaries

7 augustus 2014

In the process of transition from welfare state to participation society, the position of social workers is a topic for debate worldwide. Dutch social workers are no different. They need to reposition themselves between the opposing forces of government, market and citizens, while at the same time they need to identify themselves for instance as specialists or generalists. Budgets are limited, yet they need to strengthen their position.

At the request of Movisie, four students at HAN University of Applied Sciences studied a number of countries to see how these issues are dealt with and in what ways social workers strengthen their position abroad. We all ought to look across boundaries to learn from each other. The shift from welfare state to participation society is not unique to the Netherlands, but is taking place in countries all over Europe. The researchers looked at Finland, Flanders (part of Belgium) and the United Kingdom to find out what makes their social workers function. They looked at the legally protected title, the obligatory professional registration of social workers, and the connection to their professional development.

Looking at Flanders

Flemish social workers automatically obtain a legally protected title when they finish their education, but unfortunately this is of little significance. With the exception of medical social workers working for instance in hospital settings, Flemish social workers have no professional association. Professional standards are defined by the organisations providing services, which often creates a tension between the social worker and the organisation because the standards may differ completely from what social workers were taught during their professional education. Due to the lack of professional association or professional code, Flemish social workers have no standards to fall back on. This leads to fragmentation of social work. Research shows that Flemish social workers do feel a need for more unity in social work. A professional association and mandatory registration could contribute to this unity.

Looking at Finland

There is no obligatory professional registration in Finland. Social workers are free to join a professional association, with which they subscribe to the professional code. But non-members are not obliged to observe this professional code. This makes it difficult to deal with conflicting interests of clients and employers. Which of these has priority and how do decisions match their professional ethics? The lack of clear guidelines that social workers should subscribe to adds to the complexity and challenges when defining and holding on to a position. Those challenges would be easier to handle when social workers were to follow an obligatory professional code.

Looking at the United Kingdom

The UK has a head start when it comes to strengthening the position of social work. After graduating, social workers immediately have a legally protected title. New social workers therefore immediately become part of a larger unit. Social workers have to register if they want to use their title, including adopting the professional code, and are obliged to guarantee continued professional development (CPD). Regional Care Councils, state institutes, monitor their compliance with professional standards. Clients and employers are also able to address social workers’ professional conduct through disciplinary rules. This obligatory CPD, adoption of the professional code and disciplinary rules make it possible for social workers to demonstrate their professionalism and increase the recognition of the profession. Drawbacks are the fact that strong state monitoring may lead to the social worker being perceived as an instrument of government. And a high level of regulations, protocols and legislation can restrict social workers, while flexibility and improvisation ought to be the tools of their trade.

Lessons learned

What can we conclude from these experiences abroad? The noncommittal professional registration as it exists in Flanders and Finland does not seem to have any positive impact on the position of social workers. Social workers in these countries do seem to feel a need to become more of a unit as a professional group in order to position themselves better. Governmental intervention such as takes place in the United Kingdom and Finland does strengthen the position of social workers to a certain extent. But the social workers need to guard against being seen as just a government tool.

Ideas and thoughts are welcome

A strong professional identity and a professional association are important to strengthen the position of the social worker and to create support with government, market and citizens. The UK has a clear head start when it comes to strengthening the position of social work. The legally protected title, mandatory professional registration, professional code, disciplinary rules and professional development through ongoing education and training are factors that could contribute to strengthening the position of the social worker in the Netherlands. We welcome ideas and thoughts, also from other countries, to feed into and encourage our thinking about ways to strengthen the position of social workers.

This article is based on the research carried out by  Megghane Heersink, Colin Weeink, Astrid Jansen and Noortje van Venrooij, from HAN University of Applied Sciences.