Social workers are required to simultaneously support the policies and practices of our employing organizations and also to advocate on behalf of our clients. Often these two aims are complementary, and we can secure more power and credibility for our organizations as we pursue justice for those with whom we work. Sometimes, though, the policies and practices of our organization are contrary to the needs of our clients, and our employing agencies become the targets for our advocacy.
In theory, this should be our most successful realm of action–we have more power within our own institutions than in most parts of the government, more of the other players are fellow social workers with a similar value base, we have significant expertise that provides us with technical certainty, and we have unparalleled access. In reality, though, social work advocates are often more reluctant to advocate here than with external actors. We fear repercussions for our own careers, or our own clients, if we rub powerful people the wrong way. We worry about endangering our collegial relationships. We sometimes have trouble seeing the problems inherent in our own institutional processes, because we are socialized to see our agencies as ‘the good guys’.
In my classes, students are usually very interested in agency advocacy. Their roles as practicum students give them a unique perspective from which to see the intricacies of how their organizations work yet from the position of ‘outsiders’, which allows them a greater freedom to critique. Yet, despite this initial enthusiasm, they often find agency advocacy highly problematic, for all of the reasons listed above. They are often unsure where to start, and they seldom have substantial support from others within the organization. Below is a link to a lecture that I give in my Advanced Policies and Programs course in the fall about agency policymaking. I find that if students understand how to analyze agency culture, see the imperatives that drive agency functioning, and recognize that there is a process to agency policy change that has much in common with other arenas, they feel more prepared to take on even this most intimate form of social policy advocacy. Not coincidentally, then, in my Advanced Advocacy Practice in the spring, many students take on projects related to their own practicum sites–forming client advisory groups to give participants a greater stake in agency operations, advocating for new Medicaid reimbursement policies, changing agency intake forms, contesting an agency termination policy. In taking on these challenges, students often find that they not only achieve tangible changes but also enhance their organizational status, improve program outcomes, and build skills to help them succeed in other advocacy.