Social workers are not, as a general rule, very comfortable with power.
Listen to a group of social workers, or social work students, talking amongst themselves for any period of time, and this will usually become quite apparent. “You know, I wanted to make the big bucks; that’s why I became a social worker!” (facetiously, of course) “They don’t tell me anything; I’m just the social worker!” You get the idea.
The reality, of course, is not only that such self-effacing attitudes are quite self-defeating (more on this later, since I just realized I’ve never written up my whole “power speech” for students!), but also inaccurate.
Social workers have tremendous power. Ask any client who has ever been rejected for services, been made to feel ‘less than’, had her children removed from her home, been required to attend condescending classes, or been scheduled for an appointment at a terribly inconvenient time.
In fact, every day in many ways large and small, WE are what our clients most directly experience as power, and as policy.
And when we deny this, or when we fail to recognize it, we don’t win any points for our martyrdom. We don’t empower anyone by pretending that we have less power than we do. When we fail to adequately account for and ethically employ the power we have, we, instead, fail our profession, our institutions, and, most importantly, those we serve.
This is an often uncomfortable realization for social work students who, after all, got into this business to help people, not to wield power over them. But power, and the way that power works in relationships, is really at the heart of any clinical relationship–how would we, as social workers, ever help anyone to change his/her life if not for the power granted to us by virtue of that mutual relationship? And it’s an integral part of administrative and advocacy practice, too, particularly when it comes to the discretion that social workers at all levels enjoy–to apply eligibility rules, to interpret ambiguous rules, to selectively apply certain incentives or sanctions. The literature and history of our profession recognize this–skim any introductory social work text for “social control and social assistance”–and we know that, if we were honest, our job descriptions would also include words like “gatekeeper”, “rule-maker”, and “policy police”.
This discretion is a core part of what what makes social workers (and other, similar professions) professionals, and it’s a big part of what makes social work a feasible proposition. Think about it: there is no way that an organization could create policies to account for every possibility, and there are dozens of ways, every day, in which policies as enacted are unworkable as implemented.
The challenge for social workers, then, is to acknowledge the policies we make through our decisions, and through our inaction, too. It is to accept the ethical ambiguity of this policymaking and seek consultation and engage in deliberation to approach it with the utmost caution. It is to build mechanisms that incorporate the perspectives of those served in this decision making, and to share power meaningfully so that these clients experience our discretion as a thoughtful exercise of professional authority, not an arbitrary or capricious exercise of personal fiat.
The brief scenarios below come from my own social work practice. I’d love to hear from other social workers grappling with this whole idea of professional discretion and of the iterations of social work policy making within our organizations. How and when have you confronted this realization of your power? As a supervisor, how do you manage discretion for your direct reports? How do you build transparency and accountability into the policies made by your actions, the same way we seek to build these measures into policy we create in other contexts? How do we create a truly empowering relationship with clients, knowing that it is only through an embrace of our own power that we can hope to empower others?
We spend a lot more time talking about how others do policy to us–state legislatures, Congress, federal agencies–than about how we make policy. I think that’s because the latter is a lot more uncomfortable for us; it requires confronting our power and the often ‘sticky’ nature of our policy decisions. We owe it to our clients, though, to do this confronting. We are, for many of them at many points in time, the embodiment of policy’s potential to oppress or to empower, whether we like it or not.