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In the era of structural changes – what’s up with the social work?

The current Finnish social service organizational model is a bureaucratic triangle with the policymakers on top, management in the middle and the practitioners in the bottom. Social workers are often confused because they have to carry a dualistic role, squeezed between the demands of the system and the needs if the clients. They often feel powerless when trying to satisfy both groups. There simply are not enough leadership skills or resources to deal with the ongoing interpersonal and structural changes. Bureaucratic structures are important for the continuity of services and execution on the legislation. But can they be adopted to the demands of the changing political, economic and social environments and how does it affect social work?

The ongoing change

Budget cuts and organizational changes are a big challenge for fixed structures, such as child protection services or social protection that have been functioning within the system for a longer period of time. In the constant changing political and social environment, the uncertainty of what the future might bring, causes feeling of insecurity, which often forces us to oppose the incoming changes.

However, change is not necessarily a bad thing. Today, we are witnessing a clear shift within the social and health service provision system. This development emphasizes the partnerships and mutual planning, not only between the authorities, but also between third and privet sectors. This has directed organizations towards a greater focus on autonomy and independence of service users within the social inclusion framework.

The multi-professional approach brings its own pros and cons into social work profession and leadership. There are concerns whether the new approach will be able to provide equal services nationwide and who will be carrying the responsibility for the client in the end. In Britain, this topic has been heating up debates for a long time. According to Daves and Garett (2004) increased levels of formal multi-professional work offer opportunities for social work to consolidate its position in a more integrated environment. On the other hand, the continued drive to separate assessment of need from provision of services may have an overall impact in fragmenting the pattern of service delivery requiring social work to redefine its core and task in order to survive in different organizational settings. (Hafford-Letchefield 2009.)

The birth of integrated multi-professional networks

For social workers this may mean that in the future, they will no longer be working in an enclosed environment of the social welfare offices. Instead, they will be integrated into a large scale of multi-professional networks that provide different kinds of support services, based on the client’s choice and need. Eventually, the social workers will be gradually moving away from bureaucratic processing of service and their communities towards partnerships in multi-professional environments. How well will they be able to adopt to the new settings will also depend on the structure and culture of the organizations they work in (Hafford-Letchefield 2009; Means et al. 2003).

In Finland, the ongoing social and health reform is aiming to push the multi-professional work onto a new level, by piloting new concepts such as the Family Centre -concept, where most of the basic educational, social and health services will be situated under one roof. This way the services are designed to be connected to the people, not the other way around.

In the new environment, it is also important to emphasize high-quality research, particularly into already working methods, which may have a stabilizing effect on the practical social work. Nevertheless, the question remains: how can social work maintain the basis of its professional competence and at the same open itself up for a truly multi-professional world?

Julia Kuokkanen

Erityisasiantuntija

Julia toimii keskusliitossa erityisasiantuntijana. Hän on ammatiltaan sosiaalityöntekijä ja hänen erityisosaamisensa on Venäjän lastensuojelu. Vapaa-ajalla Julia harrastaa lenkkeilyä ja viettää aikaa perheensä ja ystäviensä kanssa.

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