Short end of the stick for social work

Making registration mandatory is important, but it is not sufficient on its own to strengthen social work, writes the University of Auckland's Liz Beddoe

Minister Anne Tolley’s announcement that registration for social workers will become mandatory has met mixed reactions from social workers. Many say it's about time we had protection of title to stop people with no qualifications claiming to be social workers. However, there is also a vigorous degree of cynicism about the difference this will make for the workers themselves.

It’s not as if the profession itself hasn't called for this for many years – a formal 2011 consultation clearly supported mandatory registration and protection of title. We understand a proposal went to cabinet in 2012, but was blocked for financial reasons, so we are pleased to see some action at last.

Social workers want real assurances about government support for critical development, like proper induction programmes for the newly qualified, to stem worryingly high levels of attrition. We need properly resourced clinical supervision and professional development for practitioners at all levels. We need a workforce that is supported to undertake practice-focused research. Similar professions like nursing and teaching professions have these vital elements in place to ensure new graduates thrive, not merely survive, and stay the distance to become future leaders in the field. That’s what a healthy profession needs. As a social work educator, I want to hear new graduates say they relish their first year of practice, not that they feel overwhelmed.

Social workers’ reactions are not helped by Tolley’s punitive and negative framing of mandatory registration as weeding out the unqualified: “It was time all social workers met the same type of standards as other skilled professions” she said on RNZ. She failed to tell the public that registration is already mandatory for social workers in government social work, including Oranga Tamariki, in district health boards and in many services delivered by non-government organisations under contract to government.

Tolley glosses over the fact that more than 6000 social workers are registered, have degree level qualifications and meet registration board competency standards. We are looking for much more detail from the minister about what will actually change to achieve the improvements she wants. She’s keen on the tough, disciplinarian tone but very lightweight when it comes to detail. As with the roll-out of the shiny new Oranga Tamariki, the spin is to the forefront but social workers want to see the plan, and the money that must accompany it.

What’s more, if Tolley wants to build “the mana” of social work it would be great if she would sit down and talk to social workers, not just in Oranga Tamariki, but with the other 4000 odd social workers who are registered. It is time she behaved as if she understood social work is an international profession that contributes across multiple sectors: health, justice and corrections, education, disability, family violence and more, working with citizens across the human lifespan.

We have had high hopes before. Way back in 2003 when voluntary registration was introduced, Steve Maharey, then Minister of Social Development, said "This government wants the social work profession to be in the driving seat determining its own professional standards. After all, you’re more qualified”.  Sadly for social work, Maharey's hopes have never been fully realised and social workers have continued to face unrelentingly stressful and understaffed working conditions with a registration board that seems focused on policing rather than enhancing the profession.

Social work aspirations to drive the development of the profession have thus lost traction. Worse, our hopes have been actively undermined by this government, which has repeatedly destabilised and demoralised the workforce with constant disparagement.

Making registration mandatory is important, but it is not sufficient on its own to strengthen social work. And how it is implemented is critical. The trouble is, registration can be used in at least two ways: to recognise and promote the ethical standards, knowledge and good practice developed by the social work profession in New Zealand over many years; or to regulate, control, de-professionalise and make social workers nothing more than foot soldiers of government policy.

Government statements about the new legislation do not inspire confidence. Rather than highlighting the strengths of the 6000 skilled and experienced registered social workers, they highlight the need to “clamp down” on the unregulated workforce with new “performance standards”.  Rather than focus on what positive programmes can contribute to strengthen the profession, they focus on the negatives.

Of course we need a regulatory body that protects the public, but we also need one that connects with social work values. The social work profession has a long standing commitment to social justice and human rights, and a history of working alongside people to support them and to press for their rights.

In order to do their job properly, social workers must be educated and supported to advocate and, at times, act as a thorn in the side of government – pressing ministers to respond to social issues like abuse of children in state care, child poverty or homelessness; commenting on gaps in services for disabled people, or people with mental health problems.

It is absolutely critical, in a democratic society, that government resists the temptation to use regulation to dilute this role and make social workers nothing other than compliant servants of government policy. New Zealanders deserve social workers who are competent and capable. They also deserve social workers who retain the freedom to robustly critique government policy when it fails the people we serve.

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