Why social workers must be allowed to use discretion in practice
21 September 2021
Senior lecturer in social work, Dr Ciaran Murphy’s research and teaching looks into why official social work process and procedures don’t always meet the needs of the service-user. Ciaran sat down with use to tell us more…
What first sparked your interest in social work and your specialist area?
As my parents were social workers, I originally thought there would be no way that I would also be a social worker (just because I thought I would do something different to my parents). However, after my undergraduate degree, I worked in the area of social care and realised that being a social worker meant that I could have a more meaningful impact upon the families I was working with. So, I went back to university and did a Masters in Social Work.
When I was qualifying, the Munro Review of Child Protection was published. There was something within that review that really resonated with me. Something which moves beyond just child protection. It was the notion that to offer the most service-user focused practice, in which we, as social workers, can be innovative, flexible and meet the needs of our service users, then we need to be free to use our discretion. In social work terms, this refers to professional practitioners often being constrained by process and procedures which many would argue has manifested in social work practice that has become more defensive and bureaucratised. The ability to use discretion, however, offers practitioners more freedom to make decisions based on what is actually in the best interests of the individual.
What is social worker discretion and discretionary space?
Discretion is an allusive term. Often, people use the term, but they don’t define what it is or what they mean by it. I am specifically interested in structural discretion which is the space and freedom for decision making and action taking free from the oversight and interference of others. This is what we mean by ‘discretionary space’.
Why is discretion within social work important?
To realise the importance of discretion within social work, we need to consider the question raised by Munro: why do children keep dying despite all the efforts to improve the social work system? The discretionary approach argues that this is because procedures cannot cater for all individual needs and unusual circumstances. For instance, due to the set processes and procedures that must be followed, social workers are often constrained in the level of help and support that they can provide. However, when it comes to dealing with children or individuals whose requirements do not fit neatly within the pre-defined cohorts, these processes and procedures cannot necessarily cater for their specific needs and/or situation. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of tragedies occurring and really highlights the need for, and importance of, discretionary space. Ultimately, people are unpredictable and as social work is a people-focussed profession, social workers need to be able to use discretion to be able to provide the best level of care and support. If social workers were to rely on procedures alone, there is a high risk that many service users won’t have their unique needs met. This shows that there is a definite urgency in needing to move towards freeing up social workers. But, how do we achieve this? And when we encounter discretionary space, how do we make sure it is utilised effectively?
How can students engage with these themes on a Social Work degree at Edge Hill?
Themes around discretion and opportunities to make decisions that are in the best interest of a service-user permeate throughout the degree. For example, in both the first year module Social Work Law, Policy and Practice and the third year module Specialist Social Work with Children, Young People and Families, we explore what the law says should be done in certain situations and contrast this with unusual scenarios, looking at how simple compliance might be counter to the needs of a service user at the time. For example, in a situation where a social worker makes a home visit and sees through a window that a child is in a dangerous situation, the law states that the social worker cannot enter the house without either being invited in by the homeowner or without having police assistance. However, if the situation becomes so dangerously extreme, could the social worker justify not entering the house to protect the child? These considerations, comparing what the law says with the actual realities of practice, really challenge students to think about the decisions they’d have to make. At Edge Hill, we believe it is not just about getting our students a social work qualification. It is about readying them for practice and aligning their values with the type of practitioner they want to be. We are focused on looking at the realities of social work practice and preparing all of our students in the best way possible for that.
Top tips for your application…
As part of the recruitment process for our social work course, before being accepted onto the course, applicants must take part in an interview with our academic staff. In preparation for the interview and for the start of their degree, we want students to convey an understanding around the realities of social work practice. What I would recommend is to do some wider reading and consider key questions like, what are the challenges and advantages around social work? What is it like to be a social worker at the moment? This should ensure that you will then be confident with your knowledge of what social work is and what it isn’t, which is very important.