By Gillian Ruch 

British Journal of Social Work

Review written by: Dr David Wilkins

What question does this study focus on? 

This paper considers how managers in child and family social work can provide reflective and relationship-based management. It does so by drawing on psycho-dynamic concepts, while recognising the “risk-ridden, uncertain and anxiety-provoking context” (p. 1316) of the work.  

How did they study it?

The paper provides a conceptual discussion of management in child and family social work. It does not draw on one specific piece of empirical work; instead, the author provides an expert account based on her experience, and her research and teaching interests in relation to relationship-based and reflective practice.  

What did they find?

The paper argues that ideas from New Public Management, focused on efficiency, effectiveness and economic, have been unhelpfully applied to social work, as a way of managing risk and uncertainty. New Public Management is said to privilege cognition, rationality and predictability, paying less attention to the emotional and irrational aspects of human thought and behaviour. This results in the apparent belief that if only we had the right processes and procedures in place, risk to children could be eliminated. If only social workers did things properly, then children would be kept safe. From this point of view, the priority for managers is to ensure that workers comply with processes and procedures. Hence, the proliferation in many local authorities of auditing, making sure that everything is written down in case notes and measuring outputs (e.g., how many assessments were completed on time this month?) rather than outcomes (e.g., how many families were helped this month?). This approach ignores the messy and emotional realities of actual practice. What we need instead is an informed understanding of how and why people behave in so-called irrational ways, and to recognise the significance of conscious and unconscious dynamics in social work.  

What are the implications? 

The paper proposes a different kind of management model based on reflective capabilities and relationship-based practice. The challenge for managers is to provide for both the technical and relational aspects of their role, without letting either one dominate the other. Managers can achieve this by remaining familiar with the complexities inherent to practice and noticing how relational dynamics between social workers and service users are being mirrored within the manager-worker relationship. Managers also need to provide reflective spaces, for example through supervision, in which workers are enabled to think about the emotional impact of the work and reflect on their own behaviour. Similarly, managers themselves also need access to such spaces.  

Review written by

Dr David Wilkins