Is community development work the future of social work?

Alex Fox
Alex Fox, Shared Lives Plus
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In a speech to the new College of Social Work, Care Services Minister, Paul Burstow, sought to reassure social workers that they were part of the government's vision for the future of the sector.

The profession could be forgiven for needing some reassurance. Whilst all public services are facing spending cuts, social work is dealing with cuts on top of years of changes, in which perhaps the only thing which has been completely clear to most in the profession is that what they had been doing was not what they would be expected to do in future. Would all social workers be replaced by Personal Assistants as more care was controlled and purchased by people with Direct Payments? Would care planning roles become the domain of 'brokers' based mainly in charities? Would the whole of social care be 'spun out' into social enterprises? Lots of uncertainty, and this is a profession which has never been widely appreciated and valued by the public, who only seem interested in social work when something goes wrong.

So it's not surprising that the Minister sought to reassure the profession about its future, but what was interesting is the form he expects that future to take. The Minister said that the forthcoming White Paper, which most are expecting in May or early June, will set out a future in which social workers move away from care management and "gatekeeping", towards community development roles, in which they would map networks of support in communities and help older and disabled people to connect with a wider range of sources of support, including informal support.

There will have been some who were confused or even disheartened to hear this. When government Ministers start talking about how more support will be gained from 'the community', rather than from the state, cynics will expect more cuts, wrapped up in vague 'Big Society' optimism about 'the community' and armies of volunteers 'stepping up'.

But what the Minister was talking about is one of social work's longest established - if more recently neglected - strengths, and there are areas already taking some brave decisions to make the changes he was talking about, despite the hard economic times. Mention Community Social Work and people who were in the profession in the '70s will often become slightly misty-eyed about a period in which social workers could work with a wider group of people and were encouraged to think holistically, often helping people and communities to develop their own solutions. In recent decades, community development and holistic approaches were edged out by the increasing focus on specialist support and service solutions for particular needs.

In recent years, areas like Leeds, Walsall, Derby and Lambeth have been finding new ways of helping people who use services and their communities to share control of budgets, to design their own solutions and to find alternatives to services for challenges which services can't fix, such as the current epidemic of isolation.

It's tempting to think that everything comes full circle if you wait long enough. But the new take on 'asset-based' community development is not simply a return to the '70s. Community development approaches, open to a wide group of people and drawing on a wide range of community resources, need to sit alongside specialist and highly trained interventions for people who have complex needs, such as people with learning disabilities who have psycho-sexual problems. Those approaches should not be mutually exclusive: people with high support needs might need to access specialist services, but may also have an issue with, say, isolation and exclusion, which such services can't fix, and may even inadvertently exacerbate.

The White Paper will need to help the profession to find its way through these changes, carving out the territory where a social work qualification is essential, without limiting the freedom of choice of people who would prefer to recruit and manage their own staff from non-social care backgrounds, managing their own risks. If the government and the profession can achieve this, the future for social work with adults needn't be gatekeeping statutory services for a diminishing group of the most 'vulnerable'. It could be a role, probably housed in a range of organisations from councils to housing associations to NHS Trusts, which recaptures some of the enablement, empowerment and whole-person thinking which attracted many social workers into the profession in the first place.

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