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 through exercises.


Basic procedures 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.


Values and ethics Intone, orient and direct  
Theories Inform and explain Methods of
Social Work
Skills Enable
Organize procedures into logical
and meaningful wholes
Contexts and tasks Give the organizational framework and immediate



-to respect and value differences and variety
-self-determination, free choice, control over one’s life
-to be (actively) against discrimination
-no stigmatization
-right to (social) security

Imperatives of care and self-determination are in principle abstract concepts in opposition.

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.

Dialogue1 is the basic tool of social work.



The question is not so much why things are, or how they can be explained…

But rather

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 space.

-Law has court
-Medicine, hospital
-Pedagogy, school

Spaces automatically 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.

Social work, 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.

Social 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 them.



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.




Talking and listening

-Conducting a conversation
-Listening (actively, empathically)
-Exploring, reflecting and problematising
-Developing new interpretations
-Making agreements, creating solutions and concrete deeds


-Conflict resolution

Making resources available

-Information on resources
-Working in networks
-Being communicative
-Creativity, openness, being connective

Recording and reporting

-Basic skill of realistic description of people, situations and events (without value judgments and with reflection of one’s partiality)
-Knowing how to make reports, records, profiles, plans and projects
-Operational plans


-Leading and cooperating in teams
-Planning (of projects, of work)
-Group dynamics
-Organization and evaluation of professional help
-Coordination and connecting

Professional discipline


-Protection of personal data
-Clear acceptance of responsibility

Particular (to social work)

-Creating equal partnership and collaboration with users
-Commitment to the users’ welfare
-Reflectivity and critical stance
-Knowing one’s values, prejudices, capabilities and limits
-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 them.

In this, social work is similar to everyday life. It is also interactive.
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 dialogue.


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.


Right to make mistakes


Therefore, mistakes are necessary consequences of the social work method.
Social work is a deviation from the cult of the mistake and the sin.
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.


Methodical principles

-Right to make mistakes



Conditions of the dialogue are: love, hope, critical consciousness and readiness for action.


-Classic professions 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 man



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.


Pygmalion Complex

-We 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.

Mystifying the profession

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 care etc.


When embarking on such intervention social work is faced with two major questions:

- 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.


Virtual and actual


Virtual identity 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 stigmatisation.

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.


Legal procedures 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 is reflective.

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 set up.

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 the person.


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 autonomy).


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.


Guardian or an advocate


Guardian role 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)


  Guardian Advocate
Interests Virtual Actual
Knowledge Beforehand, prior After, situation based
Mandate From the general society From the individual, concrete group
Deficiency Inside the individual In the social order
Figure of the user Stranger, child Absent individual, Prince and the pauper


N.B.: These general roles and stances should not be confused with the concrete roles of an advocate or a guardian.


Contradiction 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.).


Regardless that 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.


Favourable feature 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.


With operative 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 role.

Dialogue1 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.




Back to Top

Copyright for the I.U.C. Journal of Social Work Theory and Practice is owned by the Social Work Program, Department of Social Relations and Services, Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minnesota, USA. One copy may be made (printed) for personal use; teachers may make multiple copies for student use if the copies are made available to students without charge. Permission must be secured from the editors for sale of any copies of articles or for any commercial use of the material published in the Journal.
2001 Copyright BSU/IUC Journal of Social Work Theory & Practice