Mechanisms of Managerialism in a Risk Society

Recently I have become re-inspired by sociology.  Despite studying a Masters of Social Work, I have not explicitly sought to read sociological theory since my undergrad finished in 2014. However, currently I am researching for my Child Safety field placement in Queensland, and have stumbled across, and become fascinated by, sociologist Ulrich Beck’s theorizing on reflexive modernity and the emergence of a risk society.

According to Beck, anxiety and fear have become ubiquitous in society as a consequence of “experts [using] the knowledge of social science and science … to help engineer a sense of heightened or ‘hyper’ reality, especially over what is risky and dangerous in society.”4 For example, processes of risk-illumination can be illustrated by public inquiries into government child protection departments. Child abuse inquiries are mechanisms by which failures of the department can become catastrophized via media discourse, creating a hitherto non-existent fear of risk and uncertainty, despite that, according to Beck, little evidence exists that life is more risky now than in previous eras.2, 6 Child deaths as a result of abuse and neglect have always occurred throughout history, however, as society loses faith in the ability of professionals to solve social problems, the public paradoxically urges inquiries into departmental processes in order to discover better ways of saving children at risk of abuse and neglect, and so rises an increased awareness of, anxiety about, and aversion to risk.Munro highlights the similarity between Beck and sociologist Anthony Giddens’ analysis that the phenomenon of increased anxiety regarding risk is a reaction to a loss of confidence in science in light of large-scale disasters occurring either as a result of, or despite, scientific advancements (think Chernobyl, for example); Beck describes such a process as the transition from modernism to ‘reflexive modernism’, while Giddens describes a new era of ‘high modernity’.6

Importantly, a consequence of the pervasiveness of risk discourse is that in order to counter the perceived omnipresence of risk, “techniques of management” in human service organizations have become characterized by increased surveillance over workers to make sure they are doing their jobs well.4 Techniques of management are evident in the introduction of the Structured Decision Making (SDM) tools into the Department of Child Safety in Queensland in 2004 following the Crime and Misconduct Commission into the abuse of children in foster care in Queensland in 2003. A recommendation emerged from the inquiry that the Department of Child Safety must improve its capacity to safeguard children at risk of abuse and neglect by developing a “risk assessment framework and methodology” in order to “regulate, standardize and record frontline decisions” made by Child Safety Officers (CSOs), thus introducting a system of regulating social workers’ activities which had not existed prior to the inquiry.3 As a transition directly following a public inquiry which had increased an awareness of risk associated with abuse and neglect, the introduction of the tools have allowed management to closely scrutinize CSOs’ work.

During my current child safety prac in Queensland, I observe that because administering the tools consists of CSOs choosing from static, pre-defined descriptors that best match a family’s situation, the tool becomes the expert, not the CSO. As the necessity of the social worker’s expertise is minimized, there is a risk of de-professionalization, an outcome of managerialism that is widely lamented within the landscape of human services.7 In addition, because CSOs must submit the completed tools to their team leader for ‘approval’ before any real decisions are made, the tools are a “technique of management” enacting surveillance over CSOs.4 This aligns with the axiom of managerialism that effective managers overseeing organizational processes are integral for organizational effectiveness, reducing social workers to employees requiring approval rather than experts making informed decisions.7, 8

Analyzing the nature of change brought on by the SDM tools highlights a debate in the literature regarding the effects of managerialism upon the role of social workers: does managerialism hinder the capacity of professionals to exercise discretion in their assessment and interventions? The impact of risk discourses upon child protection policy has arguably led to the “bureaucratization of social work,” as ‘good practice’ is now reliant upon following rigid procedures under management supervision, thus ensuring accountability.2 In tandem with managerialism, Howe states that bureaucracy is not simply an ideology, but also a process by which organizations come to be increasingly intricately structured and regulated by tiered management structures in order to ensure efficient and accountable service delivery, an analysis which echoes Max Weber’s conceptualization of the modern organization.3 Regarding whether or not bureaucratization and managerialism hinder professional discretion, Evans and Harris,1 argue that while Lipsky sees street-level bureaucracy as inherently discretionary and members of the curtailment camp see discretion as under attack by technologies of managerialism, a nuanced analysis does not see discretion as either existent or non-existent, but rather “the degree of freedom professionals have at specific conjunctures should be evaluated on a situation-by-situation basis.” Such a proposition implies that while the SDM tools may impose certain restrictions, there still exists contextualized opportunities for a social worker’s analysis and discretion to reign.

Similar to Lipsky’sposition that street-level bureaucrats utilize discretion daily in their administering of legislation, I observe numerous opportunities for CSOs to use their expertise and influence decisions. To sidestep managerial domination and de-professionalization, I believe social workers need to build a reputation for being knowledgeable and competent so that others will trust our capability, and managers will collaborate with us when possible, rather than dictate. To illustrate, I have seen some CSOs take leadership and run their own meetings while the team leader watches, or discuss their assessment with the team leader prior to decision making, entering into a process of collaboration. However, I have also observed some CSOs quietly follow direction or allow the team leader to speak for them in meetings, which is evident in managerialism, whereby a manager’s decisions are often implemented without question.8 I argue that if a CSO confidently vocalizes and articulates their knowledge and expertise, it is likely that they will uphold their credibility as an esteemed professional. I see the issue as a matter of how the role of a social worker is enacted within the context of managerial organizational structures.

Social workers in a contemporary, risk-dominated, managerial landscape must maintain efforts to be knowledgeable, confident and competent, lest their professional integrity and influence be compromised.

  1. Evans, T. & Harris, J. (2004). Street-Level bureaucracy, social work and the (exaggerated) death   of discretion. British Journal of Social Work, 34(6), 871-895.
  2. Ferguson, H. (1997). Protecting children in new times: Child protection and the risk society.Child and Family Social Work, 2, 221-234.
  3. Gillingham, P. (2014). Driving child protection reform: Evidence or ideology? Australian Social Work, 67(3), 377-389.
  4. Hughes, M. & Wearing, M. (2013). Organizations and management in social work (2nd ed.). Sage, London.
  5. Lipsky, M. (2010). Street-level bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the individual in public services (Updated ed.). New York, New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  6. Munro, E. (1999). Protecting children in an anxious society. Health, Risk & Society, 1(1), 117-
  7. O’Connor, I., Wilson, J., Setterlund, D. & Hughes, M. (2008). Social work and human service practice (5th ed.). French Forest, N.S.W.: Pearson Education Australia.
  8. Tsui, M. S. & Cheung, F. C. H. (2004). Gone with the wind: The impacts of managerialism on human services. British Journal of Social Work, 34(3), 437-442.
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