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Civil Engagement in Social Work: Developing Global Models

Final Report Summary - CIVIL_SW (Civil Engagement in Social Work: Developing Global Models)

The overall aim of the project was to examine the role of social work (SW) and its engagement with civil society in supporting vulnerable members of the community. It seeks to examine this relationship within the context of social welfare reform in response to neoliberal reform and new public management initiatives across ten countries.

The research project obtained ethical approval, as appropriate, and utilised secondary data and analysis in order to achieve its ambitious aims and objectives. The use of secondary data and its availability was challenging across much of the consortium, along with the paucity of published literature in English. For some areas that the project examined this was greater than others. The availability of information published in English may also be a result of the profession being contextually driven (Harris, 2008), with Global North models increasingly promoting individual rather than collective interventions.

Social work as a profession has for some time debated its professional and scientific credibility. The timeliness of the initial project proposal was underlined by the adoption of the UN’s Global Agenda (2012), as well as the revised International Definition of Social Work (IFSW, 2014) both of which have advocated that the profession internationally should develop a greater academic profile, improved research skills, international collaboration and augmented research. The international experience of social work at a global level is not well developed uniformly for many partners. The environment in which social work is practiced, its importance in supporting policy makers, supporting civil society with the changes being experienced in many countries, along with marketization of welfare services, austerity all necessitate the profession developing improved social policy research, analysis and interventions.

For a profession which is often focussed on the micro environment of the individual, the size, complexity and challenges of international social policy comparison, along with challenges analysing international secondary data at a macro level promoted significant debate and the active utilisation of interdisciplinary knowledge. The resulting debates in the team, meant that work needed to be realistic in its achievements with further debate and clarity being required to achieve research objectives. It has also raised the importance of social work educators also needing to consider a wider curriculum with a stronger emphasis on policy development and research skills.

It has been noted that social work training largely prepares social workers to implement policy (Gal & Weiss-Gal, 2014), rather than to be actively engaged in its critique or the development of alternatives. The use of secondary data and comparative published literature has highlighted limitations in existing international social work literature and the availability of this literature in languages that could be used and understood within the research team. English was used as the de facto language for the research team, but the challenges of exploring complex socially constructed philosophies and policy, highlighted the risks and difficulties in international research of this nature. The difficulties in the use of English required an iterative research process of reviewing literature, developing ideas and debate amongst the team, impacting on the time taken to complete tasks. This has been subsequently published in a journal paper on international social work research.
Postgraduate (PG) study for many social work professionals in the participating countries is not an immediate or practice requirement. Funding for doctoral and PG study is often limited and imposition of austerity has reduced opportunities for study. For instance, attempts to recruit full-time eligible ESRs was challenging due to the lack of funds for salaries. This has implications for the profession and challenges academics and the profession in how this underinvestment can be addressed to increase the profile and impact of the profession at a global level.

The achievements of WP1,2, 3 and 4 were presented and explored during the symposium in St Petersburg in February 2015. The reporting of these WPs being delayed to ensure that they were fully completed and to allow the WP teams to meet, report findings and discuss implications in a joint project symposium. In summary, work completed by each of the WPs was reported and the implications for WP5 explored:

• WP1. Data from 10 countries using a project developed research matrix to evaluate OECD “COFOG” secondary data enabled the exploration of groups social work engages with. The data was mapped against project specialist’s knowledge and charting of social welfare services completed. Preliminary results were presented at “Espanet-Italia” (2014), the feedback used to strengthen the WP framework. Final results were presented at the European Conference on Social Work Research in Slovenia in April 2015.
• WP2. Comprised a cross cultural analysis, creating a conceptual map of the significant themes related to social inequalities as well as the welfare state as identified by social workers and academics. The WP studied the role of social workers within society and their relationships between the state, citizenship and users of services of services and organisation’s providing social work services. Paper and publications have sought to disseminate findings. Two members of the original Spanish team developed long-term illnesses and were no longer able to participate in the project, no replacements for them were able to be identified.
• WP3. The completion of this WP was challenging, partly as a result of the austerity crisis in Portugal, problems recruiting early stage researchers and professional differences in theoretical orientations. Added challenges were the WP late start. Comparative analysis was undertaken to explore the drivers, socio-political and economic contexts related to social welfare reform. Data analysis explored the social problems affecting populations well-being, quality of life and citizenship rights which are a concern and relate to the intervention of social workers. Brazilian SW, has clear theoretical and practice differences to models of other project partners, reflecting a strong collective Marxist orientation with intervention models significantly different from other participating countries. Within the context of increased marketization and neoliberal policy reform, these insights created significant debate and resulted in presentations at a Latin America political science and social work conference held in Vitoria in July 2014. Visits to services in Vitoria, supported the conceptual understanding of the complexity of this model in practice and highlighting the differences in approach.
• WP4. This WP mapped and analysed social work structures and configuration across all the partner’s countries. The proposed ESR staffing compliment of this team was adversely impacted staff being unable to travel and while 3 further ESRs were identified at CU to undertake specified work, they withdrew as a result of pressure of work, CU reorganisation, changes in role and employer. The identification of inaccuracies in English publications regarding Brazilian social work were partly due to cultural and socio-political lenses that those authors used to interpret and extrapolate their findings in English. This lead to debates within the SW Professional Council in Brazil and as a consequence a project collaborative paper on the importance of critical reflection, language decoding and professional lenses in social work research was subsequently published in Critical and Radical Social Work.
• WP5. Work was undertaken to synthesise the data from WP1,2,3 and 4 in the final part of the
project, commencing from month 14. The start of this WP was delayed until the symposium in St Petersburg in February 2015, to enable all the WP to report their findings and collectively support the development of the WP5 methodology. The WP was lead jointly by Turkey and India, but as outlined earlier this work was complicated by the removed of Loyola College due to non-contribution and consequently two new Indian partners were included in the project TISS and Roshni Nilaya. Significant delays were experienced in their participant approval with the new partners only being approved late in November 2015, subject to ethical approvals. Whilst efforts were undertaken to identify ESRs from India, no work could commence until final EU approval and when this was given, Roshni were not able to contribute either ER or ESRs to the project. As a result, the capacity of the WP5 team once again diminished and given the late approval and the delays that had been experienced in their approval, it was decided not to commence efforts to remove Roshni from the project.

Debates about the nature of best practice and appropriateness of best practice models proved to be both complex, challenging and that published definitions of the phenomena were amorphous, with debatable scientific validity and implementation. Methodologically, the team were unsure whether best practice models could be used to support practice in other countries, due to the difficulties in cultural, language and socio-political differences. However, despite these caveats regarding support and the need for project outcomes, the WP5 team sort to undertake a review of the concept, developed an analytical framework and then sought views from all the partners on best practice exemplars that illustrated this framework. Additionally, there are a variety of ways to identify and classify best practices, with advocates of quantitative and qualitative methodologies potentially running at odds on this subject (Wang, Chu, Taylor-Besant & Hepburn, 2009). The group explored the use of critical best practice (Fergusson, 2003) in which the use of critical theory can be used as an interpretive framework, alongside the selection of appropriate best practice examples. Within this context the team felt it was important that rather than approaching the review of the profession from a “deficit approach” that models identified within the WP5 framework should also explore alternative models and ideas.
• WP6.
The project was beset with a range of theoretical, practical challenges, including the failure of participation by one partner, the protracted process of their removal, the subsequent recruitment of replacement Indian partners and then the approval process to enable those new partners to particulate at a very late stage of the project. Delivery was also hampered by constraints of long term illness, bereavements, staffing and organisation changes, the impact of the attempted coup in Turkey and the subsequent ongoing problems with are continuing to bedevil the country.
The project website is available at:
• WP7. Dissemination of findings has been an ongoing part of the project.
The presentation of working papers, draft reports and the supporting discussion provided excellent opportunities for cross WP working, sharing of scientific findings, identifying challenges and weaknesses in the work undertaken. The use of symposiums enabled the research team to share ideas, explore methodology, debate perspectives and disseminate findings. Given the low baseline of international research knowledge within social work, all presentations, findings and research skills development meetings were made public to allow students, academics and SW practitioners to attend. Resulting discussions enabled exploration of areas needing further work, differences in perspectives and exploration and agreement about papers or conference proceedings that might emerge from the work undertaken. WP reports (reported separately) were also finalised and discussions undertaken on the delivery of WP5.

The project team, also sought to disseminate key findings by way of publication, conferences and workshops for social work and social welfare students. The latter was aimed at promoting global social work, the development of more critical social work research skills and capacity and encouraging future students into postgraduate study and research. Thus, the team aimed to support future social work students to undertake PhD level study and consider research as a viable career and professional option.

Despite the challenges, the project outcomes have been positive and have had an impact in relation to dissemination of findings, the development of skills and capacity in international social work research and encouraging social workers to engage with policy development as well as consider further PG study and international research careers.