Hide and Seek: Political Agency of Social Workers in Supporting Families Living in Poverty

Hide and Seek: Political Agency of Social Workers in Supporting Families Living in Poverty Abstract It is argued that recent shifts and changes in welfare paradigms have induced a depolitisation of the problem of poverty, within both society and organisational settings. In this contribution, we adopt the idea that social workers are political actors who co-construct policy in practice rather than passive objects of these developments. While researching their agency, our attempt is to engage in the underexposed question of how front line workers, who are identified as supportive by families in poverty, actively use and shape this discretion in order to develop practices of support that embrace the concerns and life worlds of welfare recipients. From a systemic understanding of social workers’ political agency, we explore their strategies and decision-making processes in dynamic interaction with conditions and strategies at organisational, inter-organisational and governmental levels. Lister’s theoretical framework, which takes into account this interplay between agency and structure, provided inspiration for the analysis. Our findings address how practitioners’ commitments to seek meaningful interventions often remain hidden or risk reinforcing the same processes of depolitisation that are initially contested. We therefore suggest the development of communicative spaces, which reflect a different understanding of accountability and transparency that enables the promotion of welfare rights. Front line social work, discretion, political agency, communicative spaces, welfare rights Introduction Global economic and demographic transitions, rising inequalities and the growing number of people who live in situations of poverty and welfare dependency have nurtured a shift in the understanding of, and responses to, welfare needs (Taylor-Gooby et al., 1999). In different European welfare states, this has been associated with a general tendency in policy making towards early childhood intervention, prevention and investment in human capital (Gray, 2014). ‘Preparing rather than repairing’ and ‘no rights without responsibilities’ have become central tenets (Dwyer, 2004). Critics point out that social work, which is argued to be susceptible to social policy influences (Lorenz, 2004), increasingly tends to be reshaped as an instrument of control and risk management within the contemporary welfare state arrangements (Gray, 2014; Pollack, 2010). In this context, warnings have been raised against a mere disciplinary and constricted focus on the individual behaviour of help seekers that overlooks ‘the connections between structural change and the manifestation of individual problems’ (Marston and McDonald, 2012, p. 1023). At the same time, also increasing managerial demands, stemming from the optimistic belief that ‘better management will resolve a wide range of economic and social problems’ (Tsui and Cheung, 2004, p. 437), have been the subject of heated debates in social work literature and practice. As Jones (2014, p. 489) claims, under the impulse of managerialism, professionals will be further ‘constrained and straight-jacketed by regulation, recording and intrusive information technology as a means of shaping their deployment of time and task’. A growing number of researchers, however, contend that social work is not solely a passive and powerless victim of these contexts and developments (Roose et al., 2012). They argue that it occupies a complex position between, on the one hand, a necessary engagement with the changing historical, social and political realities and, on the other, a role in considering the welfare rights, meaning making and concerns of every citizen in society (Lorenz, 2004). When practitioners are dealing with social problems, which are complex and multidimensional by nature, they use and produce shifting problem definitions while balancing the tension between the state and the individual, between control and emancipation. In the present contribution, we consider this ambiguity as an enduring and essential feature of social work (Jordan and Parton, 2004) and consequently argue that social work too is a political actor that—from its position as an intermediate between the public and the private—can question, carry and create the structures in which it strategically develops (Roose et al., 2012). Whereas this enactment and re-enactment of policy by social work have been widely studied (e.g. Dubois, 2010; Evans and Harris, 2004; Gofen, 2014; Lipsky, 1980), less is known about the dynamic interplay between front line discretion and supportive processes at an organisational, inter-organisational and governmental levels. Based on in-depth interviews with front line professionals from a variety of social work settings, this article therefore aims to explore the conditions that underpin practitioners’ political agency and their strategies to contribute to the realisation of social justice and human dignity while embracing the welfare concerns families in poverty within a shifting socio-political landscape. Yet, before discussing our research methods and results, we will first dig deeper into the understandings of social work as a political actor and reflect on the importance of regarding this agency in relation to systemic conditions. Social work as a political actor Notwithstanding the fact that social work is inextricably linked with social and political developments, it is argued that it cannot be merely understood as a product of the state project or as an instrument for the implementation of a social investment rationale (Lorenz, 2004). As Marston and McDonald (2012, p. 6) assert, ‘social workers are always engaged in policy work, whether as end users, as producers or somewhere in between’. A particularly influential approach in challenging the traditional top-down view on policy processes is Lipsky’s (1980) account of front line practitioners as ‘street-level bureaucrats’. Inspiring in this context is the notion of discretion, which refers to professionals’ relative agency and freedom to make decisions in social work practice, while being confronted with the complexity of concrete processes of intervention (Ellis, 2011; Lipsky, 1980). In this vein, social work plays a vital role in shaping the relationship between the public sphere—with its socio-political objectives—and the diversity of concrete life world processes, while considering the issues and concerns that are at stake in both domains from the perspective of social justice and human dignity (Lorenz, 2004). In the context of our study, this requires that social work practices explore and negotiate a plurality of perspectives and welfare strategies of all actors involved, including people who are living in poverty (Krumer-Nevo, 2016; Roose et al., 2012). As such, social work can be seen as a co-constructor of the social problem definitions that underpin its interventions. At the same time, the acknowledgement of social workers as policy actors has raised the question of which strategies and mechanisms are developed by practitioners to shape and use their professional discretion (Roose and De Bie, 2003). Lipsky (1980) already observed that discretion might be used in various ways, not all of them in favour of service users’ interests (Evans and Harris, 2004). However, in the context of recent socio-political developments, discussions concerning the discretion of front line workers have mainly paid attention to the interaction and possible gap between formal policy statements and the ways they are implemented (Carson et al., 2015)—what Gofen (2014) refers to as street-level divergence. These debates often address an existing tension between increasing policy demands in terms of regulation and registration and the need for practitioners’ initiative and creativity in processes of policy implementation (Evans, 2010). Accordingly, street-level divergence is pictured either ‘as a problem to be solved or as a force to empower’ (Gofen, 2014, p. 477). As Ellis (2011) argues, the focus in this context has been on macro concerns—such as the (de)generalisation of effective and efficient intervention methods—rather than on what happens in the personal encounters between professionals and service users, and in whose interest. A pending question is therefore how concrete practices of support are shaped in the interaction with individuals and families in poverty, while considering the life worlds, meaning making and welfare strategies of the actors involved (Schiettecat et al., 2014). Spratt (2001, p. 952) acknowledges that there is an urgent need ‘to move from surface to depth in how we understand what social workers do, why they do it’ and adds to this the importance of exploring ‘what organisational conditions are required’ if the interests of welfare recipients are a central concern. His comment raises the issue of whether the political agency of social workers should be confined to a matter of front line discretion. Other scholars have recently endorsed this critical question. They point out that, when social workers are recognised as political actors, there has often been given insufficient attention to the dynamic interactions between their individual decision-making processes at the front line level and the organisational, inter-organisational and governmental contexts in which they operate (Ellis, 2011; Evans, 2010; Urban et al., 2012; Weiss-Gal, 2016). Rather than simply considering the decision-making processes of particular front line practitioners as ‘heroic agents’ (Fine and Teram, 2013), it is consequently argued that we have to acquire a more systemic understanding of social workers’ competence and political agency, as it … develops in reciprocal relationships between individuals, teams, institutions and the wider socio-political context. A key feature [of this competent system] is its support for individuals to realize their capability to develop responsible and responsive practices that meet the needs of children and families in ever-changing societal contexts (Urban et al., 2012, p. 516). This dynamic relationship between people’s agency and structural opportunities or constraints has already been conceptualised by Lister (2004), albeit with a different focus; Lister developed a theoretical framework which illuminates the complex ways in which people in poverty themselves try to negotiate their lives in difficult circumstances. Her work nonetheless enables us to explore how agents and structures (re)construct one another and, within this interplay, might constitute (a lack of) welfare practices and experiences. Hence, it offered inspiration for also studying the strategies of front line social workers to increase families’ welfare in relation to the systemic conditions under which their practices unfold. In what follows, we will describe our methodological considerations. Methodology The research data were retrieved from qualitative in-depth interviews with practitioners who have been operating at a front line level of diverse social work practices in Flanders (the Flemish part of Belgium). All respondents were selected based on the former part of the study that included a retrospective biographical research with fourteen parents with young children who experienced financial difficulties over time (see Schiettecat et al., 2017b). Verbal informed consent was obtained from all the parents involved in our research. The two to four open in-depth interviews that were conducted with the parents enabled us to (re)construct their life trajectories and document their interpretations of welfare and support. In this context, we discussed transitions and key incidences in their lives and explored their strategies to make use of social work interventions as a lever. Hence, together with the parents, we selected social work practices that—in one way or the other—have made a significant difference for the families and were considered as supportive. This selection process, however, entails the limitation that we cannot make any comparative comments concerning the strategies of practitioners who were pointed out as less or not supportive. Out of each retrospective life trajectory, we selected up to three social workers to talk to in the context of the second and present part of the research project. After discussing whether written informed consent could be obtained, we were able to recruit thirteen significant practitioners in total. Their professional contexts at the moment of the intervention in the family ranged from Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) and child welfare and protection to income and housing support. By the time the interviews took place, some practitioners were still active in the same social work setting; others had changed their occupation or even decided to quit the field of social work. With each research participant, we conducted an open in-depth interview that lasted one to three hours. It was our purpose to discover, from the perspective of social work practitioners, the rationale and conditions that enable supportive interventions in poverty situations. The research data were analysed by means of a qualitative content analysis. We applied a directed approach, which entails that ‘analysis starts with a theory or relevant research findings as guidance for initial codes’ (Hsieh and Shannon, 2005, p. 1277). As such, the theoretical framework developed by Lister (2004) in combination with existing literature concerning the political agency of social workers offered inspiration to structure and interpret our research findings. More specifically, we identified four categories of welfare strategies deployed by social workers in response to poverty issues. The first category, ‘doing what you can’ refers to practitioners’ survival strategies in order to cope with the complexity and ambiguity of the poverty situations in which they intervene. If these survival strategies fail, they can result in burnouts or in the decision to quit practice (Roose et al., 2012). In order to increase daily survival, practitioners can also decide to develop secret strategies of resistance or to ‘go underground’ (Aronson and Smith, 2010), which align with the second category of ‘hiding what you do’. The other two categories we distinguished both refer to more overt actions (Ferguson and Lavalette, 2004; Fine and Teram, 2013). ‘Seeking for what can be done’ entails that practitioners and their organisation openly interpret and expand the scope of their work. ‘Advocating what should be done’ rather corresponds to collective actions of resistance at an inter-organisational and a policy level (Weiss-Gal and Gal, 2014). The identified categories enabled us to analyse the accounts of social workers who were involved in our study and to identify a range of strategies occurring in the dynamic interaction with conditions at an institutional, inter-institutional and social policy level (Roets et al., 2016). It needs to be noticed that the categories are meant to capture and analyse actions and strategies, not the features of actors (Lister, 2004). Ethics statement The researchers followed the guidelines of the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences’ Ethics Committee. Ethical dilemmas and ambiguities were also thoroughly considered and discussed during the whole research process (Guillemin and Gillam, 2004; Schiettecat et al., 2017a). Research findings Doing what you can Notwithstanding their sharp critiques on the social inequalities and injustices that many service users are faced with, in concrete encounters with people living in deprivation, practitioners might deploy strategies to cope with these social injustices rather than contest them. One front line social worker, who is active in a shelter for homeless people and families, pictured this as an alteration in professionals’ attitudes from ‘seeking for what can be done’ to ‘doing what you can’, under the influence of recent political developments and reforms. In this context, she witnessed how the requested room for negotiation about what’s in the clients’ best interest tends to be reduced by a more stringent administrative culture in social service delivery. With reference to her current contacts with social housing agencies, she commented: You have to deal with lots of administrative procedures until you can offer people the support that they need. Those procedures used to be rather flexible, but nowadays you’re more often confronted with technical professionals whose only concern is whether their paperwork is filled in correctly. They don’t mind the situations behind it or the urgency of our request. They aren’t even social workers anymore! That was totally different at the time I worked with Jimmy and Suzan [respondents of the first part of our study]. Back then, a good argumentation could open doors, but now … . A lot has changed under the influence of movements to the political right: less possibilities in service provision, but plenty of obligations . … We are losing our welfare, but clients are also losing their rights and benefits! … My reaction might be sobering, but nowadays our interventions are largely concerned with disillusionment (Lisa, Homeless shelter). This statement adds to the concern widely expressed in literature that ‘both service user and social worker expectations and behaviours are now understood within performance management discourse, frameworks and a wider neo-liberal context that has to be navigated, despite criticism of this context’ (Lambley, 2010, p. 10). Other practitioners endorsed the conclusion that everyday practices are not only shaped by the mindset of individual social workers and their teams, but largely depend on the broader political setting and organisational culture. In this respect, a social worker at a public welfare service demonstrated how a different board of directors might profoundly influence the room for manoeuvring, with implications for the offered support. She argued: The team might stay the same, the practitioners’ willingness might stay the same, but when the board is not very empathic and refuses every request for support, being socially minded yourself won’t help. You’re stuck! … It must be frustrating. I can imagine that I would even decide to quit my job . … I saw it happen at another service, where the board changed in that direction. However, most practitioners kind of accepted it. It’s a pity, because if they would have kept standing firm, the board would have had to give in. But eventually, when their own income is at stake, people often choose the most secure way (Sarah, Debt mediation). At first sight, these reactions seem to be consistent with literature that highlights the curtailment of professional discretion by the proliferation of rules and the supervisory control over front line practice (Jones, 2014). Some authors in this context conclude that the pressures of managerialism have … produced a culture of following approved or typical processes resulting in defensive forms of social work wholly uncongenial to the development of human qualities likely to promote social workers’ engagement in critique and revision of what counts as best practice (McBeath and Webb, 2002, p. 1016). At the same time, however, practices of support are also shown as delineated by certain combinations between both structural processes and the responses of professionals, which might challenge as well as reproduce the changing discourses (Thomas and Davies, 2005). The complexity of these dynamics, which are consequently considered to be multidirectional in nature (Thomas and Davies, 2005), was further illuminated by examples that vividly expressed the struggles of social workers in dealing with the tensions they experience. Our findings, for instance, recognise that practitioners’ coping strategies are not to be fatalistically regarded in terms of the passive compliance of professionals and organisations in their own self-interest. They might as well be the result of active decision-making processes on behalf of the service users. Some social workers accordingly expressed how they fold to the stifling political procedures they internally contest, in order to maintain their everyday role in the provision of support. Peter, who complained about the overly complex and bureaucratic application processes to get allowances, clarified how he and his colleagues try to put their frustrations aside so that their clients will not have to bear the brunt: In the case of sickness, unemployment, … people have the right to allowances. That’s great! But it’s ridiculously hard to figure out how they can actually benefit from it. The antiquated language of paperwork, the exceptions, the huge differences between cities … . It’s outrageous! Why can’t it be simplified? It really makes me angry! … But we adapt ourselves. What else can we do? The regulators won’t mind if we would refuse to investigate their procedures. It’s the help seeker in front of you, who would lose what he actually deserves … . Sometimes, we also meet clients who could really benefit from a right that they are, strictly speaking, not entitled to. Yet, as frustrating as it is, we decide to stick to the rules, because we don’t want to cause these people even more troubles (Peter, Debt mediation). Further examples demonstrated how individual practitioners as well as their teams and organisations develop methods and strategies to make the best out of the restrictive logics in which they operate. These included the so-called ‘guided transfers’ to other services when the predefined intervention period comes to an end. The framework itself, which sets out these boundaries in the first place, however, is publicly left unchallenged. Hiding what you do In the search to construct meaningful interventions with regard to poverty and social injustices, social workers might also engage in silent, everyday acts of non-compliance that are often framed in literature as ‘micro politics of resistance’. Aronson and Smith (2010, p. 531) found that these covert strategies of disruption are deployed by professionals when confronted with practices and perspectives that are judged as ‘at odds with the interests of clients and communities and with their own commitments to public service and social justice’. Also in the context of our research, various front line workers illustrated how they secretly intruded on the imperatives of organisations and policy makers, while centring on what matters to families. A subtle form of these ‘underground’ practices (Aronson and Smith, 2010) contains the attempt to ‘dress up’ application forms in order to increase the possibility to acquire resources (White, 2009). Sarah, who is active as a social worker in public welfare services of several municipalities, formulated this as ‘a game you have to play’. The profound variations she experiences between the perspectives of the politically tinted advisory boards of the different localities in which she works induces her write and rewrite argumentative letters accordingly. This reflects both critical and practical aspects of disparate accounts (Aronson and Smith, 2010): ‘Ultimately, you have to blend in. If you have learnt by experience that an extensive argumentation with certain bullet points is required to get things done, you will do so, in order to achieve your goal’ (Sarah, Debt mediation). The fact that the apparent compliance with imposed obligations might conceal acts of resistance (White, 2009) becomes even clearer when the directives are directly, but secretly, contradicted. As such, social workers might deploy alternative strategies that escape systemic boundaries, which may hamper the provision of support. Some practitioners in our research accordingly demonstrated how they actively shape and reshape the problem definitions that impinge their interventions, while covertly contesting the regulations. This was again vividly illustrated by Sarah, who provides collective debt mediation. The social worker referred to a case where the advisory council had stressed the service users’ attendance as a measure of engagement, with severe consequences for the provision of financial support. She recalled how the chairman told her: ‘If that client misses the appointment, we will cut off the living wage.’ While recalling her role as a social worker in realising the welfare rights of every citizen in society, the practitioner, however, decided to transform the emphasis on behavioural compliance into a focus on individual people’s meaning making. She consequently made no notice of the client’s absence: Indeed, that lady missed her appointment three times, but for me, she was three times present. … Did I overstep my boundaries? … I think it’s important to do what you stand for. … Plus, there might be a reason why people don’t show up. That could also offer a starting point to provide support. The fact that they don’t get here, often reflects something else (Sarah, Debt mediation). In their attempt to construct meaningful practices of support for individuals and families living in poverty, some front line workers witnessed the growing structural difficulties their clients are faced with. They also testified the limited impact of mere individually focused responses. Lynn, who provides family guidance in contexts of special youth care, illustrated how she subsequently took the initiative to broaden her task and deliver small-scale financial and material support, while at the same time remaining sceptical about the possible impact of charitable actions for families in the long run: I went with a mother to the consultant at juvenile court and noticed that she hadn’t been eating in two days because of a lack of money. So I said to her: ‘Let’s first buy us a sandwich’. It’s at my own expense, but it simply gives her food in her stomach, which may again enable her to achieve something. … Sometimes, I’m also looking for extra funding in charity organizations whose principles I don’t always agree on. But if it allows me to get 300 euro that can support a family to buy something, this 300 euro is all I’m thinking about. … However, we do recognize that these ad hoc interventions won’t suffice to enhance long-term social changes (Lynn, Context support). Whereas these examples indicate efforts of practitioners to creatively address issues of injustice and inequality in concrete contacts with welfare recipients, they also illustrate the limited capacity of these hidden—and thus non-negotiable—approaches to advance structural change. Seeking for what can be done At the same time, several front line workers accentuated the necessity to openly rethink and renegotiate current welfare discourses and provision in a shared forum of discussion. In this context, they stressed the importance of an organisational climate—at different levels of the service—that creates the conditions to do so, whether this climate was presently lacking or not. Interestingly, almost half of the professionals involved in our research mentioned that they work in an organisation that was explicitly profiled by the government to be innovative, to rethink themselves or to introduce new ideas. It was most often, though not exclusively, in these organisations that strategies to get out explicitly came to the forefront. At a minimum but not least important level, some practitioners described how the reinterpretation of general frameworks and quality guidelines are borne or facilitated by their organisations or teams. Lynn, for instance, illustrated how her own rationales in the provision of family support could be freely discussed with her director, even if these suggest a departure from the rationales initially set out by the governmental agency. With regard to the recent imposed standards in frequenting families, she argued: The fixed minimum norm of paying a home visit once a week doesn’t work for me. Some families indeed demand my weekly support, but in other situations I can notice that people don’t require that many meetings. Sometimes people don’t even ask for home visits. Their concern might be ‘please, take care of my child during the week, because I can’t handle the situation anymore’, rather than ‘come and chat with me twice a week’. … I’m fortunate to have always been allowed to choose for myself how to use my time, so that I could be present when and where my support was needed the most. … I’d really like to keep this freedom to set my agenda together with the families involved (Lynn, Context support). Other practitioners described how they explicitly embrace and discuss the inherent uncertainty and ambiguity of daily practice together with their teams. This continuous organisational support in their quest for responsive interventions in complex situations was strongly defended by several social workers. In this context, they mentioned the importance of the uninhibited exchange of insights, the opportunity to develop themselves and the openness to try, to fail and try again. It is stressed that these environments emerge out of the interplay between both structural aspects and personal attitudes. Neither one of these elements in itself appears to be sufficient: It’s so important to get enough space to develop differentiated approaches. And to take that space! But you also need the support of your employer to follow courses that might strengthen you to do so, to consult with each other, to make mistakes, to discover new options, to search (Peter, Debt mediation). Professionals’ efforts to reinterpret and expand the scope of their interventions might also be more systematically integrated in their organisational culture and policy. This might happen in an explicit as well as in a rather implicit manner. Nick, who is active in a service that provides child and family social work, referred to an established strategy in his organisation to prolong intervention periods when considered appropriate, although this practice cannot be registered in official reports for the funding government: The support trajectory has an ending, that’s clear. But parents are still welcome for a sociable chat as well as with the message ‘I’m totally in the shit again’. It occurs that we then restart a short trajectory or that we make some calls to make sure that the right service can provide further support. Toward the funding agency, we can’t register it as work, though. But we still do it, simply because we consider it important (Nick, Child and family social work). In this line, different social workers expressed a tension between, on the one hand, the recognised importance of making their work accountable as a means to enhance their organisations’ employability, credibility and to politically defend its interests and, on the other, their frustrations about the experienced gap between what is ‘counted’ as evidence of professional quality and what actually counts for families in practice (Aronson and Smith, 2010). Organisations might consequently attempt to enlarge the room for manoeuvre to give priority to those activities ‘that matter’, while taking into account the lifeworlds and welfare rights of help seekers. Some services therefore tried to detach themselves from a fixed conception of regulatory frameworks and to pragmatically explore what is in the margins. Advocating what should be done Besides practitioners’ and organisations’ strategies to retain or broaden the scope of their interventions by deconstructing and reconstructing the outlines of support, some social workers also exemplified how support might as well be mediated and negotiated in contact with other services. As such, several practitioners pointed out how their organisation explicitly advocated people’s welfare entitlements and concerns when these appeared at risk of being overshadowed. Nick illustrated: We try to make sure that people can build up their rights. For example, if we know that they are entitled to some kind of benefit but aren’t able to get somewhere, or if a service causes obstructions, we will act as an intermediary. We then stress the fact that they are already involved in our organization and come over three times a week to get support and that sanctioning them for being unemployed might therefore not be the best option. People might rather need some more time, so we can really invest in their family. Probably later on, activation may again come to the forefront (Nick, Child and family social work). When faced with procedures that were commonly framed as absurd and at odds with individual people’s welfare needs, practitioners and organisations might also construct informal co-operatives. In this respect, one of the practitioners, engaged with housing support for youngsters, referred to an inter-organisational relationship that was considered supportive, since it made it possible to translate a formal logic into a responsive practice: We scrutinize the regulations and have a good contact with a local public welfare organization to do so. If we ask these people about the regulations, they can inform us about how to follow them, interpret them and deviate from them. That way, the cooperation works very supportive for us (Jessica, Housing support for youngsters). Findings further suggest that often strategic partnerships are developed with organisations that share a similar vision or that are expected to fit best the welfare interests of particular help seekers in concrete situations. In this sense, different practitioners pointed to the possibility to walk informal pathways in the provision of support. Lisa demonstrated that, because her own organisation tends to tighten the criteria to access housing support, she and her team increasingly decided to immediately contact another service with a similar service provision for the more complex cases. It is argued that, in this respect, they could give them a better chance to get the requested supply. When they come across structural difficulties and inequalities, different social workers also referred to efforts that overtly advance social change. Signalisation is often a common denominator of these actions, although their content and scope might differ. Some practitioners see it as their mission to continuously address the injustices they encounter in practice as an attempt to inspire wider evolutions. In other settings, working groups have been set up to gather the issues, build ideas and construct a strong vision that can lead up to political discussion and change. This could involve meso-politics of resistance, directed at practitioners’ own organisations, as well as macro-politics, where problems are addressed to the government. Also the establishment of separate, so-called ‘signalisation teams’ is a recurrent strategy in the attempt to politically address injustices. However, despite the efforts, a significant number of front line workers tended to downsize their actual own political potential, while expressing their frustrations about their limited impact: A living wage is not the minimum necessary for subsistence. It’s a direct ticket to poverty. Then add the possible erosion of the child allowances …. It’s astonishingly cold. … As a frontline worker you have little impact on these policies, otherwise we should have had a job as a policy maker. But we do have signalization teams, who try to move something at the level of government’ (Lisa, Homeless shelter). We had a signalling function. … There’s always something that is done with our messages, in the sense that, they are passed on. Whether they effectively inspire changes, that’s a different question (Karen, Homeless shelter). Concluding reflections: hide and seek This article considered and analysed various forms of welfare strategies deployed by front line social workers in response to the complicated problem of poverty. A closer examination of practitioners’ efforts to ‘do what you can’, ‘hide what you do’, ‘seek for what can be done’ and ‘advocate what should be done’ revealed that each strategy involves an engagement of social workers to construct, deconstruct or reconstruct practices of support. The rationale behind these dynamics of front line discretion in the ‘inherent messiness and ambiguity of everyday practice’ (Roets et al., 2016, p. 319) implies a concern for the well-being of individuals and families. In this respect, our study affirms the daily commitment of social workers to construct meaningful interventions in very complex circumstances. While practitioners overall seek to provide appropriate practices of support, we also found that their actions sometimes remain hidden. These ‘underground strategies’ (Aronson and Smith, 2010; Roets et al., 2016) tend to be associated with the experienced lack of a safe atmosphere, in contacts with co-workers, organisations or policy makers, to overtly address and discuss perceived injustices. As Fine and Teram (2013, p. 1313) posit, ‘many social workers choose not to address injustices in their place of work’, since this can be complicated and risky. Our findings, however, challenge the assertion that practitioners simply wish to avoid repercussions on their own status and livelihood. Also the fear to act at the expense of individual welfare recipients is shown as a motivation to comply with the dominant discourse and regulations, despite implicit or even nostalgic critical comments on underlying tendencies. The same critical stance may as well induce hidden practices of resistance in order to secretly ‘right perceived organizational wrongs’ (Fine and Teram, 2013, p. 1322). However, a common consequence of such practices of compliance or resistance is that not only these strategies stay under the radar. Also, the underlying motivations, contested injustices and advanced welfare interests are left concealed from public debate (Gofen, 2014). Considering the mandate of social work in shaping the relationship between the private and the public sphere, we therefore argue that small-scale charitable actions and ad hoc solutions, although they may benefit individual welfare recipients, do not suffice to politically redress social disadvantages and defend the welfare rights of families in poverty situations. Despite the perceived restrictions of spaces for open discussion, all practitioners without exception mention that they experience enough freedom to make decisions in their work. Although this freedom, which they mostly associate with micro politics (Aronson and Smith, 2010), is expressed as a necessity to fulfil their task in a supportive manner, we should be careful to assume that it automatically implies a contribution to the well-being of welfare recipients and to the quality of social work. In that sense, our findings interrupt the romantic ideal of front line discretion as being synonymous with meaningful practice. A simplified glorification of bottom-up actions also risks to overrun the acknowledgement of significant conditions and actors with discretion at other levels of the system (Evans, 2016) who may be crucial to enable this decision making in the first place. Likewise, it can be argued that a polarised understanding of the relationship between discretion and political structures could eventually reinforce the same processes of depolitisation that were formerly contested. However, our study also suggests that front line workers find different ways to overtly disrupt dominant rationales in social work that are perceived to be incompatible with its role in realising welfare rights. These strategies are often associated with gathering and transferring messages to social policy makers, ranging from tokenistic to more transformative advocacy work. Nevertheless, such notions of ‘getting organised’ risk to undermine public struggles over power and politics that are essential in constructing rights-based welfare organisations as a process that requires a socially and politically constructed underpinning of rights (see Dean, 2010). As such, ‘the necessary public debate surrounding the social and political features of social work, relating to the part played by social structures and political forces in producing, amongst others, situations of poverty and social inequality, easily disappears’ (Roets et al., 2016, p. 319). Such a notion of ‘getting organised’ might consequently leave front line workers disillusioned and frustrated about their capacity to make a positive and progressive difference (Marston and McDonald, 2012) or lead them towards charity work. A more productive way to advance a social justice agenda, as recognised in ‘getting out’ and in a different understanding of ‘getting organised’, seems to emerge in a climate that induces reflection and public debate on the role of social work. Our research findings revealed communicative spaces—mostly in or between organisations—where transparency and quality appear to be more than about meeting criteria according to notions of pre-structured effectiveness and accountability, which risk keeping the ways in which social problem definitions are constructed in obscurity. These communicative spaces rather reflect an understanding of transparency, which is rooted in dialogic processes of negotiation about the efforts and scope of social work in complex situations in accordance with its commitments to the realisation of welfare rights. Together, the four categories illuminated that the development of social workers’ political agency to deal with the complicated problem of poverty and to develop practices of support is not purely a matter of commitment or discretion of front line workers. Following Urban et al. (2012), we discerned that the organisational environment is equally important to open up the space to overtly engage with the inherent complexity and ambiguity of social problems, to induce ‘critical reflection and offer scope for change’. Yet, especially at an inter-organisational and governmental level, these conditions currently appear as either limited or hidden. We therefore argue that social work needs to both have and create a forum across all levels of the system in which the discussion can be kept going about a plurality of perspectives and welfare concerns of all actors involved, including people who are living in poverty, and where social work’s own role as a co-constructor of problem definitions can be brought into debate. References Aronson J. , Smith K. ( 2010 ) ‘ Managing restructured social services: Expanding the social?’, British Journal of Social Work , 40 ( 2 ), pp. 530 – 47 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Carson E. , Chung D. , Evans T. ( 2015 ) ‘ Complexities of discretion in social services in the third sector’, European Journal of Social Work , 18 ( 2 ), pp. 167 – 84 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Dean H. ( 2010 ) Understanding Human Need , Bristol , The Policy Press . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Dubois V. 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( 2012 ) ‘ Irony and social work: In search of the happy sisyphus’, British Journal of Social Work , 42 ( 8 ), pp. 1592 – 607 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Schiettecat T. , Roets G. , Vandenbroeck M. ( 2014 ) ‘ Do families in poverty need child and family social work?’, European Journal of Social Work , 18 ( 5 ), pp. 647 – 60 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Schiettecat T. , Roets G. , Vandenbroeck M. ( 2017a ) ‘Capturing life histories about movements into and out of poverty: A road with pits and bumps’, Qualitative Social Work Advance Access published January 31, 2017, 10.1177/1473325016674545. Schiettecat T. , Roets G. , Vandenbroeck M. ( 2017b ) ‘What families in poverty consider supportive: Welfare strategies of parents with young children in relation to (child and family) social work’ , Child & Family Social Work , 22 ( 2 ), pp. 689 – 99 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Spratt T. 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All rights reserved. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The British Journal of Social Work Oxford University Press

Hide and Seek: Political Agency of Social Workers in Supporting Families Living in Poverty

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Oxford University Press
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© The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.
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0045-3102
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1468-263X
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Abstract

Abstract It is argued that recent shifts and changes in welfare paradigms have induced a depolitisation of the problem of poverty, within both society and organisational settings. In this contribution, we adopt the idea that social workers are political actors who co-construct policy in practice rather than passive objects of these developments. While researching their agency, our attempt is to engage in the underexposed question of how front line workers, who are identified as supportive by families in poverty, actively use and shape this discretion in order to develop practices of support that embrace the concerns and life worlds of welfare recipients. From a systemic understanding of social workers’ political agency, we explore their strategies and decision-making processes in dynamic interaction with conditions and strategies at organisational, inter-organisational and governmental levels. Lister’s theoretical framework, which takes into account this interplay between agency and structure, provided inspiration for the analysis. Our findings address how practitioners’ commitments to seek meaningful interventions often remain hidden or risk reinforcing the same processes of depolitisation that are initially contested. We therefore suggest the development of communicative spaces, which reflect a different understanding of accountability and transparency that enables the promotion of welfare rights. Front line social work, discretion, political agency, communicative spaces, welfare rights Introduction Global economic and demographic transitions, rising inequalities and the growing number of people who live in situations of poverty and welfare dependency have nurtured a shift in the understanding of, and responses to, welfare needs (Taylor-Gooby et al., 1999). In different European welfare states, this has been associated with a general tendency in policy making towards early childhood intervention, prevention and investment in human capital (Gray, 2014). ‘Preparing rather than repairing’ and ‘no rights without responsibilities’ have become central tenets (Dwyer, 2004). Critics point out that social work, which is argued to be susceptible to social policy influences (Lorenz, 2004), increasingly tends to be reshaped as an instrument of control and risk management within the contemporary welfare state arrangements (Gray, 2014; Pollack, 2010). In this context, warnings have been raised against a mere disciplinary and constricted focus on the individual behaviour of help seekers that overlooks ‘the connections between structural change and the manifestation of individual problems’ (Marston and McDonald, 2012, p. 1023). At the same time, also increasing managerial demands, stemming from the optimistic belief that ‘better management will resolve a wide range of economic and social problems’ (Tsui and Cheung, 2004, p. 437), have been the subject of heated debates in social work literature and practice. As Jones (2014, p. 489) claims, under the impulse of managerialism, professionals will be further ‘constrained and straight-jacketed by regulation, recording and intrusive information technology as a means of shaping their deployment of time and task’. A growing number of researchers, however, contend that social work is not solely a passive and powerless victim of these contexts and developments (Roose et al., 2012). They argue that it occupies a complex position between, on the one hand, a necessary engagement with the changing historical, social and political realities and, on the other, a role in considering the welfare rights, meaning making and concerns of every citizen in society (Lorenz, 2004). When practitioners are dealing with social problems, which are complex and multidimensional by nature, they use and produce shifting problem definitions while balancing the tension between the state and the individual, between control and emancipation. In the present contribution, we consider this ambiguity as an enduring and essential feature of social work (Jordan and Parton, 2004) and consequently argue that social work too is a political actor that—from its position as an intermediate between the public and the private—can question, carry and create the structures in which it strategically develops (Roose et al., 2012). Whereas this enactment and re-enactment of policy by social work have been widely studied (e.g. Dubois, 2010; Evans and Harris, 2004; Gofen, 2014; Lipsky, 1980), less is known about the dynamic interplay between front line discretion and supportive processes at an organisational, inter-organisational and governmental levels. Based on in-depth interviews with front line professionals from a variety of social work settings, this article therefore aims to explore the conditions that underpin practitioners’ political agency and their strategies to contribute to the realisation of social justice and human dignity while embracing the welfare concerns families in poverty within a shifting socio-political landscape. Yet, before discussing our research methods and results, we will first dig deeper into the understandings of social work as a political actor and reflect on the importance of regarding this agency in relation to systemic conditions. Social work as a political actor Notwithstanding the fact that social work is inextricably linked with social and political developments, it is argued that it cannot be merely understood as a product of the state project or as an instrument for the implementation of a social investment rationale (Lorenz, 2004). As Marston and McDonald (2012, p. 6) assert, ‘social workers are always engaged in policy work, whether as end users, as producers or somewhere in between’. A particularly influential approach in challenging the traditional top-down view on policy processes is Lipsky’s (1980) account of front line practitioners as ‘street-level bureaucrats’. Inspiring in this context is the notion of discretion, which refers to professionals’ relative agency and freedom to make decisions in social work practice, while being confronted with the complexity of concrete processes of intervention (Ellis, 2011; Lipsky, 1980). In this vein, social work plays a vital role in shaping the relationship between the public sphere—with its socio-political objectives—and the diversity of concrete life world processes, while considering the issues and concerns that are at stake in both domains from the perspective of social justice and human dignity (Lorenz, 2004). In the context of our study, this requires that social work practices explore and negotiate a plurality of perspectives and welfare strategies of all actors involved, including people who are living in poverty (Krumer-Nevo, 2016; Roose et al., 2012). As such, social work can be seen as a co-constructor of the social problem definitions that underpin its interventions. At the same time, the acknowledgement of social workers as policy actors has raised the question of which strategies and mechanisms are developed by practitioners to shape and use their professional discretion (Roose and De Bie, 2003). Lipsky (1980) already observed that discretion might be used in various ways, not all of them in favour of service users’ interests (Evans and Harris, 2004). However, in the context of recent socio-political developments, discussions concerning the discretion of front line workers have mainly paid attention to the interaction and possible gap between formal policy statements and the ways they are implemented (Carson et al., 2015)—what Gofen (2014) refers to as street-level divergence. These debates often address an existing tension between increasing policy demands in terms of regulation and registration and the need for practitioners’ initiative and creativity in processes of policy implementation (Evans, 2010). Accordingly, street-level divergence is pictured either ‘as a problem to be solved or as a force to empower’ (Gofen, 2014, p. 477). As Ellis (2011) argues, the focus in this context has been on macro concerns—such as the (de)generalisation of effective and efficient intervention methods—rather than on what happens in the personal encounters between professionals and service users, and in whose interest. A pending question is therefore how concrete practices of support are shaped in the interaction with individuals and families in poverty, while considering the life worlds, meaning making and welfare strategies of the actors involved (Schiettecat et al., 2014). Spratt (2001, p. 952) acknowledges that there is an urgent need ‘to move from surface to depth in how we understand what social workers do, why they do it’ and adds to this the importance of exploring ‘what organisational conditions are required’ if the interests of welfare recipients are a central concern. His comment raises the issue of whether the political agency of social workers should be confined to a matter of front line discretion. Other scholars have recently endorsed this critical question. They point out that, when social workers are recognised as political actors, there has often been given insufficient attention to the dynamic interactions between their individual decision-making processes at the front line level and the organisational, inter-organisational and governmental contexts in which they operate (Ellis, 2011; Evans, 2010; Urban et al., 2012; Weiss-Gal, 2016). Rather than simply considering the decision-making processes of particular front line practitioners as ‘heroic agents’ (Fine and Teram, 2013), it is consequently argued that we have to acquire a more systemic understanding of social workers’ competence and political agency, as it … develops in reciprocal relationships between individuals, teams, institutions and the wider socio-political context. A key feature [of this competent system] is its support for individuals to realize their capability to develop responsible and responsive practices that meet the needs of children and families in ever-changing societal contexts (Urban et al., 2012, p. 516). This dynamic relationship between people’s agency and structural opportunities or constraints has already been conceptualised by Lister (2004), albeit with a different focus; Lister developed a theoretical framework which illuminates the complex ways in which people in poverty themselves try to negotiate their lives in difficult circumstances. Her work nonetheless enables us to explore how agents and structures (re)construct one another and, within this interplay, might constitute (a lack of) welfare practices and experiences. Hence, it offered inspiration for also studying the strategies of front line social workers to increase families’ welfare in relation to the systemic conditions under which their practices unfold. In what follows, we will describe our methodological considerations. Methodology The research data were retrieved from qualitative in-depth interviews with practitioners who have been operating at a front line level of diverse social work practices in Flanders (the Flemish part of Belgium). All respondents were selected based on the former part of the study that included a retrospective biographical research with fourteen parents with young children who experienced financial difficulties over time (see Schiettecat et al., 2017b). Verbal informed consent was obtained from all the parents involved in our research. The two to four open in-depth interviews that were conducted with the parents enabled us to (re)construct their life trajectories and document their interpretations of welfare and support. In this context, we discussed transitions and key incidences in their lives and explored their strategies to make use of social work interventions as a lever. Hence, together with the parents, we selected social work practices that—in one way or the other—have made a significant difference for the families and were considered as supportive. This selection process, however, entails the limitation that we cannot make any comparative comments concerning the strategies of practitioners who were pointed out as less or not supportive. Out of each retrospective life trajectory, we selected up to three social workers to talk to in the context of the second and present part of the research project. After discussing whether written informed consent could be obtained, we were able to recruit thirteen significant practitioners in total. Their professional contexts at the moment of the intervention in the family ranged from Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) and child welfare and protection to income and housing support. By the time the interviews took place, some practitioners were still active in the same social work setting; others had changed their occupation or even decided to quit the field of social work. With each research participant, we conducted an open in-depth interview that lasted one to three hours. It was our purpose to discover, from the perspective of social work practitioners, the rationale and conditions that enable supportive interventions in poverty situations. The research data were analysed by means of a qualitative content analysis. We applied a directed approach, which entails that ‘analysis starts with a theory or relevant research findings as guidance for initial codes’ (Hsieh and Shannon, 2005, p. 1277). As such, the theoretical framework developed by Lister (2004) in combination with existing literature concerning the political agency of social workers offered inspiration to structure and interpret our research findings. More specifically, we identified four categories of welfare strategies deployed by social workers in response to poverty issues. The first category, ‘doing what you can’ refers to practitioners’ survival strategies in order to cope with the complexity and ambiguity of the poverty situations in which they intervene. If these survival strategies fail, they can result in burnouts or in the decision to quit practice (Roose et al., 2012). In order to increase daily survival, practitioners can also decide to develop secret strategies of resistance or to ‘go underground’ (Aronson and Smith, 2010), which align with the second category of ‘hiding what you do’. The other two categories we distinguished both refer to more overt actions (Ferguson and Lavalette, 2004; Fine and Teram, 2013). ‘Seeking for what can be done’ entails that practitioners and their organisation openly interpret and expand the scope of their work. ‘Advocating what should be done’ rather corresponds to collective actions of resistance at an inter-organisational and a policy level (Weiss-Gal and Gal, 2014). The identified categories enabled us to analyse the accounts of social workers who were involved in our study and to identify a range of strategies occurring in the dynamic interaction with conditions at an institutional, inter-institutional and social policy level (Roets et al., 2016). It needs to be noticed that the categories are meant to capture and analyse actions and strategies, not the features of actors (Lister, 2004). Ethics statement The researchers followed the guidelines of the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences’ Ethics Committee. Ethical dilemmas and ambiguities were also thoroughly considered and discussed during the whole research process (Guillemin and Gillam, 2004; Schiettecat et al., 2017a). Research findings Doing what you can Notwithstanding their sharp critiques on the social inequalities and injustices that many service users are faced with, in concrete encounters with people living in deprivation, practitioners might deploy strategies to cope with these social injustices rather than contest them. One front line social worker, who is active in a shelter for homeless people and families, pictured this as an alteration in professionals’ attitudes from ‘seeking for what can be done’ to ‘doing what you can’, under the influence of recent political developments and reforms. In this context, she witnessed how the requested room for negotiation about what’s in the clients’ best interest tends to be reduced by a more stringent administrative culture in social service delivery. With reference to her current contacts with social housing agencies, she commented: You have to deal with lots of administrative procedures until you can offer people the support that they need. Those procedures used to be rather flexible, but nowadays you’re more often confronted with technical professionals whose only concern is whether their paperwork is filled in correctly. They don’t mind the situations behind it or the urgency of our request. They aren’t even social workers anymore! That was totally different at the time I worked with Jimmy and Suzan [respondents of the first part of our study]. Back then, a good argumentation could open doors, but now … . A lot has changed under the influence of movements to the political right: less possibilities in service provision, but plenty of obligations . … We are losing our welfare, but clients are also losing their rights and benefits! … My reaction might be sobering, but nowadays our interventions are largely concerned with disillusionment (Lisa, Homeless shelter). This statement adds to the concern widely expressed in literature that ‘both service user and social worker expectations and behaviours are now understood within performance management discourse, frameworks and a wider neo-liberal context that has to be navigated, despite criticism of this context’ (Lambley, 2010, p. 10). Other practitioners endorsed the conclusion that everyday practices are not only shaped by the mindset of individual social workers and their teams, but largely depend on the broader political setting and organisational culture. In this respect, a social worker at a public welfare service demonstrated how a different board of directors might profoundly influence the room for manoeuvring, with implications for the offered support. She argued: The team might stay the same, the practitioners’ willingness might stay the same, but when the board is not very empathic and refuses every request for support, being socially minded yourself won’t help. You’re stuck! … It must be frustrating. I can imagine that I would even decide to quit my job . … I saw it happen at another service, where the board changed in that direction. However, most practitioners kind of accepted it. It’s a pity, because if they would have kept standing firm, the board would have had to give in. But eventually, when their own income is at stake, people often choose the most secure way (Sarah, Debt mediation). At first sight, these reactions seem to be consistent with literature that highlights the curtailment of professional discretion by the proliferation of rules and the supervisory control over front line practice (Jones, 2014). Some authors in this context conclude that the pressures of managerialism have … produced a culture of following approved or typical processes resulting in defensive forms of social work wholly uncongenial to the development of human qualities likely to promote social workers’ engagement in critique and revision of what counts as best practice (McBeath and Webb, 2002, p. 1016). At the same time, however, practices of support are also shown as delineated by certain combinations between both structural processes and the responses of professionals, which might challenge as well as reproduce the changing discourses (Thomas and Davies, 2005). The complexity of these dynamics, which are consequently considered to be multidirectional in nature (Thomas and Davies, 2005), was further illuminated by examples that vividly expressed the struggles of social workers in dealing with the tensions they experience. Our findings, for instance, recognise that practitioners’ coping strategies are not to be fatalistically regarded in terms of the passive compliance of professionals and organisations in their own self-interest. They might as well be the result of active decision-making processes on behalf of the service users. Some social workers accordingly expressed how they fold to the stifling political procedures they internally contest, in order to maintain their everyday role in the provision of support. Peter, who complained about the overly complex and bureaucratic application processes to get allowances, clarified how he and his colleagues try to put their frustrations aside so that their clients will not have to bear the brunt: In the case of sickness, unemployment, … people have the right to allowances. That’s great! But it’s ridiculously hard to figure out how they can actually benefit from it. The antiquated language of paperwork, the exceptions, the huge differences between cities … . It’s outrageous! Why can’t it be simplified? It really makes me angry! … But we adapt ourselves. What else can we do? The regulators won’t mind if we would refuse to investigate their procedures. It’s the help seeker in front of you, who would lose what he actually deserves … . Sometimes, we also meet clients who could really benefit from a right that they are, strictly speaking, not entitled to. Yet, as frustrating as it is, we decide to stick to the rules, because we don’t want to cause these people even more troubles (Peter, Debt mediation). Further examples demonstrated how individual practitioners as well as their teams and organisations develop methods and strategies to make the best out of the restrictive logics in which they operate. These included the so-called ‘guided transfers’ to other services when the predefined intervention period comes to an end. The framework itself, which sets out these boundaries in the first place, however, is publicly left unchallenged. Hiding what you do In the search to construct meaningful interventions with regard to poverty and social injustices, social workers might also engage in silent, everyday acts of non-compliance that are often framed in literature as ‘micro politics of resistance’. Aronson and Smith (2010, p. 531) found that these covert strategies of disruption are deployed by professionals when confronted with practices and perspectives that are judged as ‘at odds with the interests of clients and communities and with their own commitments to public service and social justice’. Also in the context of our research, various front line workers illustrated how they secretly intruded on the imperatives of organisations and policy makers, while centring on what matters to families. A subtle form of these ‘underground’ practices (Aronson and Smith, 2010) contains the attempt to ‘dress up’ application forms in order to increase the possibility to acquire resources (White, 2009). Sarah, who is active as a social worker in public welfare services of several municipalities, formulated this as ‘a game you have to play’. The profound variations she experiences between the perspectives of the politically tinted advisory boards of the different localities in which she works induces her write and rewrite argumentative letters accordingly. This reflects both critical and practical aspects of disparate accounts (Aronson and Smith, 2010): ‘Ultimately, you have to blend in. If you have learnt by experience that an extensive argumentation with certain bullet points is required to get things done, you will do so, in order to achieve your goal’ (Sarah, Debt mediation). The fact that the apparent compliance with imposed obligations might conceal acts of resistance (White, 2009) becomes even clearer when the directives are directly, but secretly, contradicted. As such, social workers might deploy alternative strategies that escape systemic boundaries, which may hamper the provision of support. Some practitioners in our research accordingly demonstrated how they actively shape and reshape the problem definitions that impinge their interventions, while covertly contesting the regulations. This was again vividly illustrated by Sarah, who provides collective debt mediation. The social worker referred to a case where the advisory council had stressed the service users’ attendance as a measure of engagement, with severe consequences for the provision of financial support. She recalled how the chairman told her: ‘If that client misses the appointment, we will cut off the living wage.’ While recalling her role as a social worker in realising the welfare rights of every citizen in society, the practitioner, however, decided to transform the emphasis on behavioural compliance into a focus on individual people’s meaning making. She consequently made no notice of the client’s absence: Indeed, that lady missed her appointment three times, but for me, she was three times present. … Did I overstep my boundaries? … I think it’s important to do what you stand for. … Plus, there might be a reason why people don’t show up. That could also offer a starting point to provide support. The fact that they don’t get here, often reflects something else (Sarah, Debt mediation). In their attempt to construct meaningful practices of support for individuals and families living in poverty, some front line workers witnessed the growing structural difficulties their clients are faced with. They also testified the limited impact of mere individually focused responses. Lynn, who provides family guidance in contexts of special youth care, illustrated how she subsequently took the initiative to broaden her task and deliver small-scale financial and material support, while at the same time remaining sceptical about the possible impact of charitable actions for families in the long run: I went with a mother to the consultant at juvenile court and noticed that she hadn’t been eating in two days because of a lack of money. So I said to her: ‘Let’s first buy us a sandwich’. It’s at my own expense, but it simply gives her food in her stomach, which may again enable her to achieve something. … Sometimes, I’m also looking for extra funding in charity organizations whose principles I don’t always agree on. But if it allows me to get 300 euro that can support a family to buy something, this 300 euro is all I’m thinking about. … However, we do recognize that these ad hoc interventions won’t suffice to enhance long-term social changes (Lynn, Context support). Whereas these examples indicate efforts of practitioners to creatively address issues of injustice and inequality in concrete contacts with welfare recipients, they also illustrate the limited capacity of these hidden—and thus non-negotiable—approaches to advance structural change. Seeking for what can be done At the same time, several front line workers accentuated the necessity to openly rethink and renegotiate current welfare discourses and provision in a shared forum of discussion. In this context, they stressed the importance of an organisational climate—at different levels of the service—that creates the conditions to do so, whether this climate was presently lacking or not. Interestingly, almost half of the professionals involved in our research mentioned that they work in an organisation that was explicitly profiled by the government to be innovative, to rethink themselves or to introduce new ideas. It was most often, though not exclusively, in these organisations that strategies to get out explicitly came to the forefront. At a minimum but not least important level, some practitioners described how the reinterpretation of general frameworks and quality guidelines are borne or facilitated by their organisations or teams. Lynn, for instance, illustrated how her own rationales in the provision of family support could be freely discussed with her director, even if these suggest a departure from the rationales initially set out by the governmental agency. With regard to the recent imposed standards in frequenting families, she argued: The fixed minimum norm of paying a home visit once a week doesn’t work for me. Some families indeed demand my weekly support, but in other situations I can notice that people don’t require that many meetings. Sometimes people don’t even ask for home visits. Their concern might be ‘please, take care of my child during the week, because I can’t handle the situation anymore’, rather than ‘come and chat with me twice a week’. … I’m fortunate to have always been allowed to choose for myself how to use my time, so that I could be present when and where my support was needed the most. … I’d really like to keep this freedom to set my agenda together with the families involved (Lynn, Context support). Other practitioners described how they explicitly embrace and discuss the inherent uncertainty and ambiguity of daily practice together with their teams. This continuous organisational support in their quest for responsive interventions in complex situations was strongly defended by several social workers. In this context, they mentioned the importance of the uninhibited exchange of insights, the opportunity to develop themselves and the openness to try, to fail and try again. It is stressed that these environments emerge out of the interplay between both structural aspects and personal attitudes. Neither one of these elements in itself appears to be sufficient: It’s so important to get enough space to develop differentiated approaches. And to take that space! But you also need the support of your employer to follow courses that might strengthen you to do so, to consult with each other, to make mistakes, to discover new options, to search (Peter, Debt mediation). Professionals’ efforts to reinterpret and expand the scope of their interventions might also be more systematically integrated in their organisational culture and policy. This might happen in an explicit as well as in a rather implicit manner. Nick, who is active in a service that provides child and family social work, referred to an established strategy in his organisation to prolong intervention periods when considered appropriate, although this practice cannot be registered in official reports for the funding government: The support trajectory has an ending, that’s clear. But parents are still welcome for a sociable chat as well as with the message ‘I’m totally in the shit again’. It occurs that we then restart a short trajectory or that we make some calls to make sure that the right service can provide further support. Toward the funding agency, we can’t register it as work, though. But we still do it, simply because we consider it important (Nick, Child and family social work). In this line, different social workers expressed a tension between, on the one hand, the recognised importance of making their work accountable as a means to enhance their organisations’ employability, credibility and to politically defend its interests and, on the other, their frustrations about the experienced gap between what is ‘counted’ as evidence of professional quality and what actually counts for families in practice (Aronson and Smith, 2010). Organisations might consequently attempt to enlarge the room for manoeuvre to give priority to those activities ‘that matter’, while taking into account the lifeworlds and welfare rights of help seekers. Some services therefore tried to detach themselves from a fixed conception of regulatory frameworks and to pragmatically explore what is in the margins. Advocating what should be done Besides practitioners’ and organisations’ strategies to retain or broaden the scope of their interventions by deconstructing and reconstructing the outlines of support, some social workers also exemplified how support might as well be mediated and negotiated in contact with other services. As such, several practitioners pointed out how their organisation explicitly advocated people’s welfare entitlements and concerns when these appeared at risk of being overshadowed. Nick illustrated: We try to make sure that people can build up their rights. For example, if we know that they are entitled to some kind of benefit but aren’t able to get somewhere, or if a service causes obstructions, we will act as an intermediary. We then stress the fact that they are already involved in our organization and come over three times a week to get support and that sanctioning them for being unemployed might therefore not be the best option. People might rather need some more time, so we can really invest in their family. Probably later on, activation may again come to the forefront (Nick, Child and family social work). When faced with procedures that were commonly framed as absurd and at odds with individual people’s welfare needs, practitioners and organisations might also construct informal co-operatives. In this respect, one of the practitioners, engaged with housing support for youngsters, referred to an inter-organisational relationship that was considered supportive, since it made it possible to translate a formal logic into a responsive practice: We scrutinize the regulations and have a good contact with a local public welfare organization to do so. If we ask these people about the regulations, they can inform us about how to follow them, interpret them and deviate from them. That way, the cooperation works very supportive for us (Jessica, Housing support for youngsters). Findings further suggest that often strategic partnerships are developed with organisations that share a similar vision or that are expected to fit best the welfare interests of particular help seekers in concrete situations. In this sense, different practitioners pointed to the possibility to walk informal pathways in the provision of support. Lisa demonstrated that, because her own organisation tends to tighten the criteria to access housing support, she and her team increasingly decided to immediately contact another service with a similar service provision for the more complex cases. It is argued that, in this respect, they could give them a better chance to get the requested supply. When they come across structural difficulties and inequalities, different social workers also referred to efforts that overtly advance social change. Signalisation is often a common denominator of these actions, although their content and scope might differ. Some practitioners see it as their mission to continuously address the injustices they encounter in practice as an attempt to inspire wider evolutions. In other settings, working groups have been set up to gather the issues, build ideas and construct a strong vision that can lead up to political discussion and change. This could involve meso-politics of resistance, directed at practitioners’ own organisations, as well as macro-politics, where problems are addressed to the government. Also the establishment of separate, so-called ‘signalisation teams’ is a recurrent strategy in the attempt to politically address injustices. However, despite the efforts, a significant number of front line workers tended to downsize their actual own political potential, while expressing their frustrations about their limited impact: A living wage is not the minimum necessary for subsistence. It’s a direct ticket to poverty. Then add the possible erosion of the child allowances …. It’s astonishingly cold. … As a frontline worker you have little impact on these policies, otherwise we should have had a job as a policy maker. But we do have signalization teams, who try to move something at the level of government’ (Lisa, Homeless shelter). We had a signalling function. … There’s always something that is done with our messages, in the sense that, they are passed on. Whether they effectively inspire changes, that’s a different question (Karen, Homeless shelter). Concluding reflections: hide and seek This article considered and analysed various forms of welfare strategies deployed by front line social workers in response to the complicated problem of poverty. A closer examination of practitioners’ efforts to ‘do what you can’, ‘hide what you do’, ‘seek for what can be done’ and ‘advocate what should be done’ revealed that each strategy involves an engagement of social workers to construct, deconstruct or reconstruct practices of support. The rationale behind these dynamics of front line discretion in the ‘inherent messiness and ambiguity of everyday practice’ (Roets et al., 2016, p. 319) implies a concern for the well-being of individuals and families. In this respect, our study affirms the daily commitment of social workers to construct meaningful interventions in very complex circumstances. While practitioners overall seek to provide appropriate practices of support, we also found that their actions sometimes remain hidden. These ‘underground strategies’ (Aronson and Smith, 2010; Roets et al., 2016) tend to be associated with the experienced lack of a safe atmosphere, in contacts with co-workers, organisations or policy makers, to overtly address and discuss perceived injustices. As Fine and Teram (2013, p. 1313) posit, ‘many social workers choose not to address injustices in their place of work’, since this can be complicated and risky. Our findings, however, challenge the assertion that practitioners simply wish to avoid repercussions on their own status and livelihood. Also the fear to act at the expense of individual welfare recipients is shown as a motivation to comply with the dominant discourse and regulations, despite implicit or even nostalgic critical comments on underlying tendencies. The same critical stance may as well induce hidden practices of resistance in order to secretly ‘right perceived organizational wrongs’ (Fine and Teram, 2013, p. 1322). However, a common consequence of such practices of compliance or resistance is that not only these strategies stay under the radar. Also, the underlying motivations, contested injustices and advanced welfare interests are left concealed from public debate (Gofen, 2014). Considering the mandate of social work in shaping the relationship between the private and the public sphere, we therefore argue that small-scale charitable actions and ad hoc solutions, although they may benefit individual welfare recipients, do not suffice to politically redress social disadvantages and defend the welfare rights of families in poverty situations. Despite the perceived restrictions of spaces for open discussion, all practitioners without exception mention that they experience enough freedom to make decisions in their work. Although this freedom, which they mostly associate with micro politics (Aronson and Smith, 2010), is expressed as a necessity to fulfil their task in a supportive manner, we should be careful to assume that it automatically implies a contribution to the well-being of welfare recipients and to the quality of social work. In that sense, our findings interrupt the romantic ideal of front line discretion as being synonymous with meaningful practice. A simplified glorification of bottom-up actions also risks to overrun the acknowledgement of significant conditions and actors with discretion at other levels of the system (Evans, 2016) who may be crucial to enable this decision making in the first place. Likewise, it can be argued that a polarised understanding of the relationship between discretion and political structures could eventually reinforce the same processes of depolitisation that were formerly contested. However, our study also suggests that front line workers find different ways to overtly disrupt dominant rationales in social work that are perceived to be incompatible with its role in realising welfare rights. These strategies are often associated with gathering and transferring messages to social policy makers, ranging from tokenistic to more transformative advocacy work. Nevertheless, such notions of ‘getting organised’ risk to undermine public struggles over power and politics that are essential in constructing rights-based welfare organisations as a process that requires a socially and politically constructed underpinning of rights (see Dean, 2010). As such, ‘the necessary public debate surrounding the social and political features of social work, relating to the part played by social structures and political forces in producing, amongst others, situations of poverty and social inequality, easily disappears’ (Roets et al., 2016, p. 319). Such a notion of ‘getting organised’ might consequently leave front line workers disillusioned and frustrated about their capacity to make a positive and progressive difference (Marston and McDonald, 2012) or lead them towards charity work. A more productive way to advance a social justice agenda, as recognised in ‘getting out’ and in a different understanding of ‘getting organised’, seems to emerge in a climate that induces reflection and public debate on the role of social work. Our research findings revealed communicative spaces—mostly in or between organisations—where transparency and quality appear to be more than about meeting criteria according to notions of pre-structured effectiveness and accountability, which risk keeping the ways in which social problem definitions are constructed in obscurity. These communicative spaces rather reflect an understanding of transparency, which is rooted in dialogic processes of negotiation about the efforts and scope of social work in complex situations in accordance with its commitments to the realisation of welfare rights. Together, the four categories illuminated that the development of social workers’ political agency to deal with the complicated problem of poverty and to develop practices of support is not purely a matter of commitment or discretion of front line workers. Following Urban et al. (2012), we discerned that the organisational environment is equally important to open up the space to overtly engage with the inherent complexity and ambiguity of social problems, to induce ‘critical reflection and offer scope for change’. Yet, especially at an inter-organisational and governmental level, these conditions currently appear as either limited or hidden. 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The British Journal of Social WorkOxford University Press

Published: Nov 16, 2017

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