THE BASIC AND NECESSARY SKILLS AND PROCEDURES IN SOCIAL WORK
By: Vito Flaker
My contribution will be based on the work being done on the Catalogue of the Task of the Centers for Social Work in Slovenia, intending to systematize not only tasks but also
basic skills needed to perform them and basic procedures contained
in those. We have started by drawing the general map of social
work and proceeded with extracting the cross-section of basic
and necessary skills for social work, these being interviewing,
negotiating, enabling access to resources, recording and reporting,
organizational skills, professional discipline, avoiding the
traps of professionalism, and humor. On the basis of
interaction between the social work theory, context, tasks
and values we have pinpointed five major organizing methodical
principles: dialogue, probability, proactive stance, reflectivity
and the right to make mistakes. The basic elements of
these skills will be presented, discussed and experienced
needed for social work practice will be explored: establishing
the contact and working relationship, exploring the life world
of the users and planning the access to resources, risk analysis
and reduction, outreach work, power analysis and empowerment.
This will be done in the framework of interaction between
the advocate and guardian roles of a social
worker and interplay of the actual and virtual
identities of the users.
orient and direct
procedures into logical
and meaningful wholes
the organizational framework and immediate
-to respect and value differences and variety
-self-determination, free choice, control over one’s
-to be (actively) against discrimination
-right to (social) security
care and self-determination are in principle abstract concepts
Social work as
science of doing and operating in the world of people has
to overcome this contradiction all the time and does it—being
concrete and in dialogue.
is the basic tool of social work.
is not so much why things are, or how they can be explained…
What to do, how
is the machine working?
Theories in actual
work on one hand serve the following objectives: being informed,
developing sensitivity, articulating hypotheses; on the other
hand they contribute to evaluating our deeds, testing the
assumptions, accounting and understanding what we have done.
Social work is
the profession that operates outside of the solid institutional
-Law has court
direct and dictate the relationships and interactions between
people who are there.
Social work does
not have such a special space:
-It works among people.
-It uses speech and logic that is similar to ordinary logic.
-It is spatially diffuse and reflective by necessity.
therefore, is not a profession that would have pre-coded methods,
but is inventing them over and over again and adapting them
to the concrete situation at hand.
work is a profession operating in unforeseen and unforeseeable
situations, where innovation and a creative resolution of
the circumstances is needed. Social work is not useful where
the procedures are standard and routine.
Social work methods
are determined by the task. Grouping the tasks according to
the groups of people that social workers work with might be
suitable to understand the logic, but this produces the same
effects as the stigmatisation process—substantiating
the task and using the metonymy as the primary operation.
Perhaps we should consider the categories of situations in
which something needs to be done:
-People who find
themselves in complex and problematic situations;
-Crises (financial, psychological, existential—withdrawal,
life events, identity crises);
-People who need organized and continuous care;
-Those discharged from institutions;
-Difficulties with housing and dwelling;
-Precarious social networks;
-Difficulties in contacts with people;
-Conflicts with environment (school, family, workplace);
-Stigmatisation and discrimination;
-Lack of appropriate social roles or difficulties entering
Skills are the
technical base of social work.
They enable it.
Since social work has to regard the context and the task at
hand to assure over and over that different alternatives stay
opened in order to develop solutions, which is in fact the
skill of social work.
It has to adapt its repertoire to the concrete situation.
Knowing how to handle unpredictable situations is just one
of the most important social work skills.
FOR SOCIAL WORK
-Conducting a conversation
-Listening (actively, empathically)
-Exploring, reflecting and problematising
-Developing new interpretations
-Making agreements, creating solutions and concrete deeds
-Working in networks
-Creativity, openness, being connective
skill of realistic description of people, situations and events
(without value judgments and with reflection of one’s
-Knowing how to make reports, records, profiles, plans and
-Leading and cooperating
-Planning (of projects, of work)
-Organization and evaluation of professional help
-Coordination and connecting
-Protection of personal data
-Clear acceptance of responsibility
Particular (to social work)
partnership and collaboration with users
-Commitment to the users’ welfare
-Reflectivity and critical stance
-Knowing one’s values, prejudices, capabilities and
-Clarity and negotiation of one’s mandate
-Not doubting what users say
-Continuous dialogue between the doctrine and experience,
confronting the concepts and practice.
-Clear communication of one’s distress
Social work is
a reflective profession. The method of inductive analysis
has been interwoven into it. Over and over again, we have
to go back to the starting hypotheses and check them, reformulate
In this, social work is similar to everyday life. It is also
And one of the features of the everyday interaction in that
exchanges are reflecting and referring to each other.
Without the reflection
we could not observe ourselves in everyday life, in its cultural
historical and political context. It is a necessity of the
Social work does
not know beforehand what is right and what is wrong. For this,
dialogue and reflection are needed.
Criteria for the deeds are immanent to the situation, not
illogical consequences of the transcendental imperatives.
to make mistakes
are necessary consequences of the social work method.
Social work is a deviation from the cult of the mistake and
It acknowledges them not only as a necessity, but also as
a product of creative functioning.
We learn from them by trial and error, but also with systematic
reflection and dialogue—sometimes also with polemics.
-Right to make mistakes
the dialogue are: love, hope, critical consciousness and readiness
live in the virtual world of certainty.
-Social work lives in the actual world of probability.
-To assess probability that something would happen.
-To ponder the risk and the profit of the users.
-To diminish the risk to a reasonable degree without dispossessing
the person of risk and profit
-Taking risks is one of the constitutive principles of modern
Social work is
not just a reaction to people in distress.
Proactive methods promote thinking in advance, create a vision
and strategy, and determine tactics. They set up a benchmark,
indicator and compass that we come back to see if we have
been advancing or regressing.
are not the central person in the life of our users, just
somebody that he or she accidentally meets;
-No user will realize the plans we have made for them;
-No matter how good professionals we are, our methods will
not be good enough to create a man;
-Social work is the task of Sisyphus and pissing against the
wind—at the end everything turns against us;
-Users are human, as are professionals; we both have feelings,
which we will never lose, no matter how hard we try.
The point of departure
of professional work is that a professional is clever and
knows a bit more than the lay person.
At the beginning this is all right; the problem arises if
the professional perseveres in that.
Only then can the user really tell him or her what he thinks
or wants and what they can do—together.
Stupidity is an important skill.
Humor might not
be a necessary ingredient of social work. We cannot expect
social workers to laugh at the tragic destinies of their user;
however, we can welcome it, since it enables distance and
creativity and discourages tragic problematization in favor
of merry learning through mistakes (one’s own and others’).
The best social workers, after all, were Pipi Longstocking,
good soldier Schweik, McMurphy and Winnie the Pooh.
Methods and procedures of social work within the framework
of public mandate
There are instances
where the state takes a prerogative of intervening, or is
expected so, in people’s life through social work. Sometimes
without their request, sometimes even without their consent.
Sometimes being requested so but against what is considered
usual state of member of the society
This are instances
where people’s existence is threatened, be it material,
psychological or social existence, e.g. as in social benefits,
family interventions, guardianship, compulsory admissions,
criminal offences of children and adolescents, post-penal
on such intervention social work is faced with two major
- Which identity
of people involve are we addressing; and
- What is the relationship with the legal procedures
One of permanent
features of these procedures is the interplay between the
actual and virtual identity of a person, the interplay between
what a person is supposed to be (to be perceived by others
as a valid citizen and contractual individual) and between
what he or she actually is. This is the question of the stigma
(Goffman, 1963*) and of the status, and at the same time also
the question of power, advocacy and being able to control
ones own life.
is what the person according to his social status, role, in
the interaction is supposed to be. Actual identity is what
the person actually in a given moment and at a given place
is. There is a great deal of concordance between the two,
but there is also tension and opposition. We do not fill and
fulfil our roles and positions all the time, we distance ourselves
from them, lose ourselves, if just for a moment. In everyday
interactions we give explanations, apologies, and as a rule
people tend to oversee them. The difficulties begin when we
do not occupy the roles or positions we would have supposed
to, or when we perform them too precariously and get, on account
of that marked by the society and even outcasted. The discrepancy
between the two identities is the basis of the process of
Actual identity, in the eyes of others discredits the
virtual and the person either in the informal interactions
or formally loses the status he or she was supposed to have.
These can be individual activities (i.e. functional incapacity)
or certain roles (employment, parent role, interact ional
roles) or even general contractual capacity (loss of legal
capacity or citizenship). Virtual reality of the relationships
between people consists of rules, scenarios, expectations,
actual of events, deed, features.
provide social work when executing the public mandate with
a framework of deciding on specific measures in specific time
and in a specific order of steps undertaken. The public mandate
binds social workers to intervene and the legal procedures
determine the task to be followed when intervening in people’s
lives. Legal procedure at the same times ensures the protection
of people’s rights. Social work and legal procedures
are therefore not in opposition because it only states the
procedures to be followed in order to ensure protection of
rights. They in turn do not foresee the way of doing
it (just steps), the way being generic to social work.
This framework is essentially different from other possible
frameworks of social work (e.g. counselling, or support etc.).
In those instances the frame is more open, proceedings less
determined and goal less defined.
When we enact
public mandate we witness at least two processes of social
work: processes of deciding on the intervention and
process of getting to know and creating a working relationship
among the participants of the situation. Processes are interwoven.
It is not about the solving a mathematical or chess problem,
but resolving the issues that exist among people or for the
people and need to be resolved together with them. Into collecting
of information, setting of the hypotheses and pondering of
the arguments everybody is included and involved, utmost those
who define themselves or are defined as users. The decision
is defined by the logic or the argument, but also with the
logic of the situation and is a consequence of the relationships
between the participants, negotiating on the issue. The decision
The decree at the conclusion consists of two basic product
of consideration – the assessment and the plan. Namely,
the process is not about a binary decision (e.g. shall we
remove the child or not, shall we send someone to an institution
or not, etc.) but we are producing a vast array of possible
decisions which include circumstances and conditions of decisions
and the measure: how this will happen, who will participate,
how long it is going to last, what is the goal etc.
The basic assessment to be done is the risk assessment because
the essence of the public mandate is to intervene when somebody
is at risk. In almost all the cases it is necessary to come
to a conclusion about how much somebody is exposed to the
risk (e.g. in protecting a child or an adolescent) or how
much he or she poses a threat to him or herself or the others
(e.g. in removing the legal capacity, admitting into an institution,
removing the child, regulating the contacts of a parent and
child etc.). We can be sure to say that this is one of the
essential procedures in this part of social work. The assessment
without the harm or risk minimisation or reduction plan would
be prostituting social work.
Important and frequent is the assessment of life world and
resources available to the user. Resources are not assessed
only in connection to the benefit but also in other procedures
because it is not only about the money. Resources are an important
issue when planning help, risk assessment and other moments
of assessment and planning. Therefore a methodology that is
more complex and sensitive than means testing must be applied.
The need of assessment of power and plan of empowerment is
not needed only as the common denominator of the majority
of social work users is that they lack social power but also
because there is a substantial risk that they will, being
involved with social work, lose the power they have got or
that it will diminish.
Last but the least of four pairs of assessments and plans
is to do with our relationship with the client. The mandate,
both from client and the public has to be negotiated and clearly
established, working relationship constructed and a project
The use of the role of the social worker
The expected role
of the social worker is mostly of an advocate, meaning
that a social worker will be acting to protect and implement
the rights of the users, his actual desires, needs, aspirations
in all proceedings. In terms of methods this means to be acting
in alliance if not conspiracy, exclusively with the person,
her or his consent, knowledge and mandate. However, in actual
life social worker does find themselves in a plethora of situations
where they cannot do that, while the role can be in many cases
a guardianship or o patronising role. That means
that a social worker would work towards virtual interests
of a user (e.g. permitting the marriage of a person of a minor
age, designing a guardian etc.), therefore for the welfare
that a person should have if it was capable of expressing
it or if she had the status to express it. Practically this
means acting on behalf of somebody (not necessarily together
with him or her) and maybe even against the actual will of
In these proceedings the decree at the conclusion of the process
may be in principle against the actual will of a person or
a group. Therefore this position or the role might be in opposition
with the advocate role. There is a possibility that the social
worker may be even in the proceedings where he or she is acting
predominantly as an advocate that he or she will have to step
on the side that is not the side of the user (e.g. giving
an expertise and having to act on the ground of professional
However, acting solely from a guardian role is simply is not
social work. Social worker must be connected to the user’s
actuality. Above all it is not the tasks of social worker
to pass the judgement; he or she is not a judge close in the
ivory tower far away from the people but is lively and concretely
connected to them. Regardless how much we have to perform
the guardian role in social work it must be complemented by
the advocacy role, the social worker must put forward the
point of view of the user.
or an advocate
in the human professions (medicine, health care, education,
social work) is historically based on the pledge of the feudal
masters to take care and protect his subjects, to be their
patron and protector. It is the basic relationship of the
feudal society. The bourgeois society in turn is based on
the sovereign, autonomous, independent individuals forming
contractual relations. For those who are not capable of doing
this or are not acknowledged as such, a special institute
is needed which insures them a place in the social process.
This gap is filled to certain extent by the philanthropic
professions who have taken on the guardian (patron, protective)
role for the people lacking in contractual power. Basic characteristics
of this role are that on the grounds of presupposed knowing
somebody takes care for the virtual interest of an individual,
to stress security and care, to obtain the mandate from the
society based on the deficiency of the individual and that
he is treating the person as a child or a stranger.
Advocate role is based on the tradition of the struggle
for social emancipation of marginal groups (workers, women,
ethnic minorities…). In principle it is intended to
present the interests of the people who have lost their word;
it intends to recreate the people as fully invested members
of the society or to make up for the deficiencies and lacks
for obtaining such a position. It is a professional stance
that takes into account the perspective of power and is striving
to strengthen the social position of the individual. Basic
characteristic of this role are to take off from the actual
interests and desires of an individual, to create the knowledge
on the basis of analysis of the reality, to stress rights
and preventing injustice, to get the mandate from the individual
or a concrete social group, to be concentrate on the irregularities
and injustice in the society and to treat the person on the
grounds of handicap i.e. to gain the advantage lost by a person
and to do this on the principle of exchangeability of the
roles (Prince and the pauper)
the general society
individual, concrete group
||In the social
of the user
Prince and the pauper
general roles and stances should not be confused with the
concrete roles of an advocate or a guardian.
between guardian and advocate roles is resolvable in different
ways. All are legitimate and useful regarding the circumstances
of the procedure and the situation itself. First is the way
to separate roles. There can be different team members with
different roles, following different logics. Separation of
this sort can be done so that different users have different
workers in the same procedure (somebody can be an advocate
of the parents and another person of children, somebody of
a husband, and somebody of a wife). The separation can be
between those in charge with the legal procedure and those
who are more in charge of helping the person and have more
of a working, counselling or advocate role.
The second way
is for a social worker to renounce the guardianship role of
deciding of the welfare of the user. Such a solution is appropriate
in the cases when another service or instance is in charge
of the procedure, e.g. court. In those cases it is often so
that the judge expects from the social worker the decision,
or seeks in his or her expertise (report, assessment) an alibi
for his decision. In young offenders’ court it is expected
that social worker will suggest a measure to the court. However,
having in mind the available resources and the actual situation
of the young person the only suggestion of the social worker
could be to send his user to an institution. This could be
against the expectations of the young person in question and
not only will such a suggestion spoil the relationship but
also the social worker might think that this is not an appropriate
solution. In this case it would reasonable for the social
worker to abstain from the suggestion. In some procedures
this of course is not possible since it is the social worker
or the social service that has to issue the decree. And in
many cases it could be harmful not to intervene (domestic
violence, child abuse etc.).
the separation and abstinence are reasonable and productive
in some situations the defect of this is that the social worker
is giving up the power invested in this mandate, which could
also be used for the solution desired by the user. We need
to stress the possibility for dialectic synthesis of the both
roles. Synthesis is possible if we follow both roles, continuously
negotiating about our mandate and about the possible outcomes
and have in mind the interests and benefits of all the actors
involved, especially of the user. In this case we need to
employ a progressive scale of restriction and test them from
the least to the most restrictive measures and, together with
the users strive to reach the optimal solution. If we take
the issue of removing a child we can imagine the procedure
as being twofold. We could be moving in the direction of the
removing the child but at the same time check the possibilities
that would prove the removal unnecessary. It would be optimal
if could create and alliance, showing that the worker is also
on the side of the parents and that he can together with parents
walk the path of trying the possibilities that the child will
stay with them to the potential realisation that the child
cannot stay with them and to the (temporary) removal.
In this it is of vital importance that the decision making
is experiential. It may seem to the social worker that the
goal set by the user is not attainable and that it will be
impossible for him to attain it. However, we must state that
we as the social workers are not the advocates of reality;
reality is strong enough to speak for itself. We, together
with user have to test it. The experience will tell us what
is possible and what is not. Social worker need not know in
advance what is “real” and what is not and needs
not to be patronising.
of this synthesis is that social work is not only about assessing
the risk and deciding on the measures based on this assessment
that will be carried out after that. From the beginning it
is also the process of help. It is about the concrete actions
which transcend only assessment since they also change it.
Social work is proactive. Already during the process of assessment
the situation may change (the young offender get a job, finishes
the school, father changes communication patterns with children).
Even more important being that the assessment is closely related
with the concrete plans for future actions. In these plans
it is possible to foresee concretely and decisively how to
avoid some risks or how to diminish them to a reasonable degree
and to balance it with the benefits for all actors in the
situation. Radical and for the users unwanted measures are
not needed if we can plan with certain certainty actions and
things, which will diminish possibility of the risk. It is
not the task of social services to find out who is guilty
but to reduce the harm.
capability, i.e. with the possibility to sort out and change
something social work not only transcends the contradiction
between guardian and advocate role but also steps into the
role of the commissioning. Plans are also commissions and
a social worker is somebody who can commission, order resources
and services that will essentially improve user’s life
situation. This power can be delegated to the user and enters
into a role very different to the pair of guardian and advocate
is not conversation between two people. Prefix dia- does not
mean two but through (as in diaprojector). Dialogue is a speech
that goes through, that penetrates. It has to be understood
in purely freirean terms as the coming together of two subjects
to know the common object—the world in which they live—to
change it in the concrete.
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