Tag Archives: ethics

Why do lobbyists get such a bad rep?

Guess that quote origin again, folks:

“It is of serious interest to the country that the people at large should have no lobby and be voiceless in these matters, while great bodies of astute men seek to create an artificial opinion, and to overcome the interests of the public for their private profit. It is thoroughly worth the while of the people of this country to take knowledge of this matter. Only public opinion can check and destroy it.”

Serious stuff, hunh? Undoubtedly related to the Jack Abramoff scandal and the recent outrage over the influence of “special interests”?

Or maybe President Obama, speaking about his Administration’s policy to bar lobbyists from working in his White House (which, then, of course, immediately included some exceptions, in the realization that, for example, crafting immigration policy without the insight of Cecilia Muñoz, former lobbyist for National Council of La Raza, would be a bit unnecessarily difficult)?

Or, try, Woodrow Wilson, May 1913, speaking almost 100 years ago about an issue that, certainly, has not abated from the public agenda in the intervening century.

But, as I’ve written at some points in the past, this is something I’m conflicted about.

I mean, to me, the real problem isn’t the influence of lobbyists, who, in many cases, are knowledgeable professionals who play an integral role guiding elected officials through the myriad of complex policy issues on which they must decide (would anyone like to see what policy 90+ new Missouri legislators would come up with this year without someone around who has been there for more than a month?).

The real problem is the oppressive, and distorting, power of money, and the fact that some lobbyists have disproportionate authority not so much because of their own influence but because of the moneyed movers and shakers they represent.

And, so, that’s why I always get nervous with this “anti-lobbyist” talk.

I mean, I called myself a lobbyist for many years, was a registered lobbyist, and believe(d) very strongly that my lobbying was the best way for me to serve my clients, and, indeed, my country. I absolutely influenced legislation, and legislators, and convinced people to take stands that they would not have taken without my efforts. I changed votes, on multiple occasions, and I used every tool I could think of to do so.

Does that make me part of the creation of an “artificial opinion”? Was I distorting the process? Or, in fact, are we misplacing our angers when we take aim at lobbyists instead of those who sometimes hire them? Why do we decry the yeoman’s work of those who monitor legislation, provide counsel to confused or conflicted policymakers, and interpret the policy process for lay men and women in their home constituencies, rather than focus our energies on the campaign finance system that allows vested interests to buy their lobbyists greater access and control?

I know that those who talk about “special interests” don’t necessarily mean low-income communities with nonprofit lobbyist representation. I certainly never had campaign contributions (or free tickets to anything) to throw around. I usually bummed a Diet Coke from a state senator friend of mine. But I did try everything I could, and worked long and hard, to change the outcomes in the legislature, and I was focused on the relatively narrow interests of my target constituency when I did that (believing, of course, that the polity as a whole would benefit, but I bet some of the corporate lobbyists would say that, too!).

That makes me a lobbyist.

But it doesn’t make me ashamed.

The Facebook Effect: Rethinking Productivity

I’ve never been one for chatting.

During my full-time career, I think I went out to lunch with colleagues about three times in seven years.

These days, I tend to view any moment not explicitly tied to production as a minute wasted–60 more seconds that I’m kept away from my awesome kids.

I love to-do lists, and especially crossing them off.

And, yet, one of the quotes from The Facebook Effect that stuck out at me most is this: “understanding people is not a waste of time” (p. 143).

And that has me thinking about what productivity really looks like, and about the kinds of behaviors nonprofit organizations should reward, and about the proper role of social media in the social work workplace.

Because the truth is, of course, that social workers are not immune to the time-wasting potential of social media. We often need to relieve stress, and a few moments spent in idle browsing can turn into…a few more, until we’ve been distracted from our real purpose.

That’s not just poor time management. It’s unethical social work. We have an obligation to use our agency’s resources wisely, and to keep our clients’ needs foremost in our minds. To do less is to violate a core trust, and to abdicate our most sacred responsibility.

But what about social media usage that connects us more deeply to our constituents, helps us to engage with donors, shapes the nature of the conversation about our issues, and gives us insights into how others view our organizations, and our work?

It’s hard to argue that collecting that kind of information, building those relationships, and broadening our scope of influence could ever be a waste of time.

Even beyond “official” agency uses of social media, I think a strong case can be made for individual social workers using their own connections to engage friends, family members, and colleagues in the quest for social justice, and, indeed, to practice their listening and relational skills in this medium.

When I look back, actually, I think about the relationships that I may have shortchanged with my intense focus on accomplishing tasks. Would it have been easier for me to permeate the organizational culture with an emphasis on advocacy, had I engaged in more relational work with colleagues? Did I ever unintentionally send clients the message that they should “get down to business”, and, in so doing, cut off important relationship-building?

Did I ever make people feel that understanding them was a waste of time?

How do you use social media at work? What dangers do you see, and what opportunities? How do you balance collegiality and productivity? How would our work lives look differently if we valued building relationships as much as accomplishing tasks?

When do boundaries become excuses?

This is one of those posts with no real “lesson” to communicate.

Because it relates to a challenge with which I continue to struggle, pretty much daily.

Sorry for the disappointment.

I read Autobiography of an Execution in one stretch, until about 2AM, awhile ago.

I’m lucky that my husband can sleep with a light on.

And while the whole book was pretty gripping, there’s one phrase in particular that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.

The author calls, “there was nothing I could do” the most immoral phrase in history. He makes the further point that, in the realm of capital punishment, “you don’t want your life depending on someone with dinner plans.”

And that got me.

Because, while maybe few of us as social workers are frantically filing paperwork to literally keep our clients alive, well, sometimes our work does involve life and death. Or, at least, something just as important, in the lives of the people we serve.

And, so, does that mean that we’re acting in a morally indefensible way when we put limits on our commitments to our clients, draw boundaries around our work lives, and say, sometimes, that there’s “nothing more we can do”?

Our Code of Ethics would say no.

But what do our consciences say?

What does yours?

What does mine?

I once kept my (now) husband waiting to propose for more than an hour because I was on a crisis phone call. And I interrupted my wedding dress fitting and our engagement dinner to take calls from clients. (You’re sensing a pattern here, no doubt; at least he knew what he was getting into!)

I have an admittedly hard time carving out “me” time.

And, yet, while I can recognize the unhealthiness, at times, of such focus on our work, I can also think of more than a couple examples, as you likely can too, of social workers (and others) who have used the defense of “professional boundaries” to avoid having to do what they really should have, in order to make a difference.

And that’s what I think the author was getting at–I mean, even he took time to play catch with his son and have dinner with his wife: how can we protect ourselves against the reality that “there’s always something that needs done?” without abdicating what is our actual (professional) AND moral responsibility?

When are our boundaries just that–boundaries there to protect ourselves, and our clients, from the destruction that an enmeshed and overworked social worker can wreak–and when are they excuses we hide behind when the messiness of our work intrudes on the rest of our lives?

Off limits? Social work ethics and negative campaigns

The author of The Political Brain alleges, in regards to negative campaigns, or those that are primarily based on personal appeals rather than calculated facts:

“There is no relation between the extent to which an appeal is rational or emotional and the extent to which it is ethical or unethical. Every appeal is ultimately an emotional appeal to voters’ interests–what’s good for them and their families–or their values–what matters to them morally” (p. 14).

I think this whole question is important, not just at election time, but in terms of the ethics of social work advocacy, too, because, really, the kinds of claims that candidates lodge at each other during campaign season are not often that dissimilar than those lobbied (or, in some cases not) by opposing camps in a policy debate.

And it’s not a question that’s easily resolved, at least not for social workers, who have to wrestle with this even a little more than others who adhere to an ethic of honesty and integrity, but not necessarily to the strictures of the NASW Code of Ethics.

But, after spending quite a bit of time reading through our Code, and grappling with the literature (such that it is) on ethics and integrity in social work, I come back to the same place where I started, not too far from this author:

Negative campaigns are not necessarily unethical. They certainly can be, but so can “positive” ones, to the extent to which they are misleading, or unfair, which is certainly not the exclusive purview of “attack” tactics.

Our Code of Ethics requires more than just the factual honesty that is the key dividing line for many, though: we have a responsibility to respect the dignity and worth of every person, including the candidate (or elected official, or opposing advocate) in question, whose denigration might advance our cause.

But because we know that eliciting strong emotions is key to influencing opinion, and because of the stakes involved in the electoral and policy campaigns in which we’re involved, failing to use the most effective tools at our disposal could, in fact, be seen as even more ethically ‘suspect’ than an attack which is carefully constructed so as to be persuasive but not manipulative, powerful but not vindictive, and compelling but not “truthy”.

Obviously, in the electoral and policy arenas, social workers will have to make our own judgment calls about how to make these ethical decisions. But it’s clear that our Code of Ethics doesn’t mean to tie our hands so that we can’t, for example, expose the inconsistencies between a candidate’s voting record and stump speech, or label as racist the stereotypes emanating from the debate over Arizona’s anti-immigrant profiling bill.

There are certainly ample examples of unethical campaigning–unethical by anyone’s standards.

And then there are those, which, while technically true, would not meet social work’s standards, which require us to take into account the humanity of those who would be our adversaries.

And, then, there is the failure of some social workers to boldly speak truth to power, using the Code of Ethics almost as a shield, to save us from the uncomfortable work of going after those who seek to harm the populations our profession has called us to defend.

Now that’s unethical.

Social work ethics and social media

As has I’m sure become obvious, I am quite enthusiastic about the advocacy opportunities of social media for nonprofit organizations–blogs, photo and file sharing, social networking. In my own practice, I’m more connected with my students and better able to share content, solicit feedback, and develop deep relationships thanks to my use of social media. I think the possibilities for nonprofits are immense, in terms of bringing in new donors, connecting in new ways with clients, and raising the profile of their advocacy issues.

BUT, and it’s a significant but, I remain concerned about how social workers will navigate these new technologies without compromising our ethical standards. It’s certainly not the first time that we’ve had to adapt our ethical strictures to new sets of challenges: the advent of videorecording and cellular phones and laptop computers all raised issues about informed consent and confidentiality in slightly different ways than in the past. I am confident that we can find ways to work within these emerging technologies while remaining faithful to our profession’s ethical code, but what concerns me most is that I don’t see much discussion of the real dilemmas here–and we know that, in ethics, what we don’t consciously debate often gets us into trouble.

As with all ethical dilemmas, there are no easy answers (if there were, we wouldn’t have dilemmas, just crises of moral courage!), but here are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself. I’d love to start a dialogue about this with social workers and social media types–how do we strike the right balance? A former student and I had this discussion about a week ago, and she raised some ideas that I hadn’t considered. Social workers out there using social media, how are you staying true to our ethics?

  • Every social media expert advises that success requires an infusion of ‘personality’ in order to connect with one’s followers. I get this–I see that I receive much more response to tweets or Facebook updates, for example, that include some personal tidbit–but it makes me wonder, when does this raise the risk of dual relationships? How much disclosure is too much disclosure? How do we engage with our targets without blurring those boundaries in potentially harmful ways? Should you ever ‘friend’ a client? Now that the opportunity exists, is it harmful to the professional relationship to decline?
  • What about confidentiality? While any ethical social worker would refrain from including personal details about clients in social media interactions, is it ethical to, for example, include some of the outline of a client interaction on a personal blog? Assuming that all identifying information is changed, does that make it okay? What about if the blog receives ad revenue that goes directly to the social worker?
  • Should social workers be allowed to blog or post or tweet about their organizational life, including frustrations with their practice setting? You see employees do this all the time, from “TGIF” Facebook updates on a Friday afternoon to generic “so sick of my boss” comments on different sites, but, given social workers’ obligation to our employers, are we forbidden from engaging in this kind of catharsis?
  • Where do we draw the line between ‘work’ social media use and ‘personal’? If you’re at work updating the agency’s Facebook page and you see that a real-life friend of yours, who’s also a fan of your agency, has posted something about her life that you feel deserves a response, can you respond on ‘company’ time in your official capacity representing the organization, or is that a ‘friend’ activity that needs to happen on your own time?
  • Given the viral and unpredictable nature of social media use, how can we really ever receive informed consent from our clients for their participation? For example, a client gives permission for a photo to be posted on the agency’s blog, but then the blog gets tracked back by several other blogs, and someone tweets the post…and this is exactly what your organization wants, in terms of the response from the community, but now many more people have seen it, and in different contexts, and probably with adding their own commentary…and that’s not what you told the client when you asked permission.

    Those are the dilemmas I have wrestled with so far. What do you think? What am I missing? What guidance can we expect from our Code of Ethics in these areas of continual evolution? What should be our guide when the Code is inadequate?

  • I guess this means I need a new phone?

    I have smart phone envy, I’ll admit. My husband has an iPhone that I openly covet, trying to come up with excuses for why I need to borrow it. And my best friend just got one; when she sends me emails from it, I usually respond with “you suck” (and then an actual response–she is still my best friend).

    What appeals to me so much about these smart phones is the idea that you really can do whatever you need to do with your computer, but from wherever you are, whatever else you’re doing. Yes, I know that there’s a danger of “iPhone orphans”, and I’ve heard the ‘crackberry’ jokes, too, but, seriously, is the idea of always thinking about your work, no matter what else you’re doing, really anything new for social workers?

    What doesn’t appeal to me about these phones is the pretty steep cost for the monthly service agreements; an unrestricted data plan like my husband has, combined with relatively basic mobile service, costs more than $70/month (his company pays for it; I’d have to pay for it myself, hence–no iPhone for me).

    So, when I saw this awesome (as usual) Heather Mansfield post about mobile technology and nonprofit organizations, it jumpstarted my smart phone envy again, but it also made me think about what this move to mobile technology will mean for social workers and social welfare agencies.

    I don’t have the answers (I mean, I don’t even have the phone!), but here are my questions:

  • How will social service nonprofits make allocation decisions about who gets access to mobile technologies like these, in an era of perennially-scarce resources? Will we see the CEOs sporting iPhones and the case workers not? Will we rotate these kinds of devices among staff members, in an ‘on-call’ type of system? Or will organizations make an investment in mobile technology as the next wave of ‘must have’ for everyone (the way that a computer essentially is now)? In which case, I’ll have to go back to work full-time to get one (smile).
  • What will this mean for confidentiality? And for boundaries? And for social workers’ work loads? And for worker productivity? There is so much new territory here: workers using their smart phones for non-work uses (with an unlimited plan, not really a problem, except when you account for time); others potentially seeing emails, texts, or other communications from/about clients; workers feeling that they can’t ‘escape’ work at all, given their ubiquitious ‘availability; clients’ expectations of social workers’ availability…really, these are just escalations of the same kinds of questions we’ve been asking for a few years now, albeit with a mobile spin.
  • And, finally, since more and more of our clients have these smart phones now, what does this potentially mean for using mobile technology to connect with clients, and even to provide social services? We’re already seeing some grassroots advocacy organizations do a lot with texting (the type of communication that traditionally yields the very quickest response)–what about social workers who are reminding clients of an appointment, following up on something from a previous interaction, or requesting information? How can we use these technologies to work better with our clients, while not depending on them to the extent that we harm other aspects of our relationship?

    Is your organization fully mobile? Or on its way? How has it changed your work? For the better? Or not? And do you have an extra iPhone laying around that you just want to give me (joke)?

  • Ethics and Advocacy

    In class recently, we had a long discussion about how many social work students (and, I would argue, practitioners) are relatively unfamiliar with the obligations of our Code of Ethics. We may know the Code well enough to stay out of trouble, but our incomplete understanding often fails us when we face those difficult, ‘gray’ areas that predominate in macro practice, where the Code is much less explicit and ethical dilemmas abound. Here are some of the questions, none of which have clear-cut answers, that I often ask my students as we grapple with these real-life challenges. Donna Hardina and other social work authors have done some excellent work exploring ethical decision-making models with relevance for advocacy practice. A research interest of mine relates to how social workers navigate the ethical differences in macro vs. direct micro practice, and also how social work advocates encounter ethical dilemmas differently than the non-social work advocates and organizers with whom they most often work. I have included some of the ethical dilemmas, all drawn from real practice, that I ask my students to consider. Tell me, what would you do in these cases? How do you make ethical decisions in advocacy practice? How would you revise the NASW Code of Ethics (if at all) to make it more helpful to macro practitioners?

    The NASW Code of Ethics includes some specific mandates to engage in advocacy—‘challenge social injustice’, ‘advocate within and outside their agencies for adequate resources to meet clients’ needs (3.07a), ‘ advocate for living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs and should promote social, economic, political, and cultural values and institutions that are compatible with the realization of social justice’ (6.01), ‘engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully’ (6.04a).
    There are also implicit requirements to engage in advocacy, as it is necessary in order to ‘promote the well-being of their clients’ (1.01), and to fulfill the social work mission statement (given that the status quo creates and perpetuates social problems and human need).
    What does it mean to fulfill our ethical obligation to fight oppression and discrimination, given that many of us, as privileged members of society with higher education and professional careers, have in some ways benefited from the status quo? How can we practice social work ethically without engaging in radical practice?
    How do we fulfill these mandates (given limited time and resources) and our other social work obligations simultaneously (like commitment to clients, supervision, recording)?

    A. Means vs. Ends
    1. Does our ethical obligation to respect the dignity of all persons mean that adversarial tactics that could harm opponents must never be utilized by community/advocacy practitioners? What does this mean for promoting clients’ interests, if these are the best/surest way to win?
    2. What does cultural competency mean in terms of adopting strategies that may be comfortable for one community but not for another?
    3. Given that ethical dilemmas really only exist when there are legitimate, available alternative actions, and that macro practitioners are often highly limited in their options, should ‘unethical’ means be employed when they are the only ones available? Are there some actions which are inherently unethical, always, or are ethics in community/advocacy practice by definition situational ethics? If the latter, what guides us?

    B. Informed consent, paternalism, self-determination
    1. How does one obtain informed consent on behalf of a large class of potential beneficiaries?
    2. How do social work advocates reconcile the pursuit of the most expedient/effective means with the obligation to ensure that ‘clients’ (question about exactly who this is in advocacy/community practice) self determine the course of action? Again, what about in the context of our ethical obligations to advocate and to advance client interests (especially when the Code allows for advocacy ‘on behalf of’ rather than ‘with’)?
    3. If one gives testimony or media interviews or other public communication ‘on behalf of’ an affected community, is this indefensible paternalism?
    4. What should social workers do if community members’ self-determined goals are contrary to social work values?
    5. Given that so much of the advocacy process is impossible to predict, how can a participant ever really give truly informed consent? (we can never say what the effects or outcomes will be, either on individuals or in terms of results)

    C. Competency
    1. Given that few social work schools adequately prepare practitioners to engage in community/advocacy practice (because, indeed, it is difficult to do so in an academic context), is it unethical for macro practitioners to ‘learn on the job’ if doing so means that they are practicing before being completely competent?
    2. How is competency to be judged, given that there is no uniform opinion about what makes good advocacy practice and that so much of the success of macro practice depends on external variables (and on context)? There’s no universal standard for competency, and the environment changes so rapidly that we’re trying to ‘stand on shifting sands’.

    D. Tensions between clients’ needs and those of the employing agency (or general society)
    1. Is it unethical to carve out one group of beneficiaries in order to increase the likelihood of legislative passage (if all need the solution)? If no, how are we ever to work on incremental policies when a complete overhaul is what’s needed (which is almost always the case)?
    2. Is it unethical to represent, as an organizer, the needs of one community over another? If not, how do we build solidarity and group identity?
    3. What should an ethical community practitioner do when the employing organization’s policies or interests are opposed to those of the client/community (given that social workers have an obligation to both)? Is this different when an organization is trying to develop?

    E. Integrity (related to means and ends, but also somewhat distinct b/c social workers have a specific obligation to act with integrity that is not present in all professional codes of ethics)
    1. Is it unethical to work in coalition with organizations that have behaved in ways contrary to the NASW Code of Ethics? How far back should we look? What about blemishes in our own organizational history?
    2. Is it unethical to lead decision makers to believe that a problem is more severe than we can prove it is (even if we really believe it to be so)?
    3. Is it unethical to lead policy makers to believe that a solution is surer than we can prove it is (even if we really believe it to be so)? This isn’t necessarily misrepresentation, but there are questions regarding the level of certainly required.

    F. Privacy and Confidentiality
    1. How can macro practitioners ‘put a human face’ on community/policy problems without compromising client confidentiality?
    2. How can clients be spokespersons for the issues on which they’re working without (in addition to their voluntary disclosure about their situations) also disclosing that they are working with the social worker/agency?

    Limitations of the NASW Code of Ethics for Advocacy/Community Practice
    • Definition of ‘client’ as primarily individually focused
    • Dual relationship prohibitions/cautions presume more ‘traditional’ clinician role rather than one of community practitioners—this does NOT mean no boundaries, but the boundaries and roles are different in community practice
    • Nature of social work relationship different—mutual impact assumed, and more reciprocal relationship for community practitioners than clinicians
    • Conflict of interest more fluid, given that many organizers come from the same communities where they are working
    • Given that some macro practitioners engage in advocacy on their ‘own time’, unclear how NASW Code of Ethics applies to this volunteer practice