Designing, shaping and judging social work services

Peter Erath
University of Ingolstat-Eichstaett

  1. Starting point: the dilemma structure of social work

  2. Social work services in Germany today are not only in a tricky theoretical situation but also in a tricky practical situation. The reason for this is that social work has difficulties in presenting its own capabilities, knowledge and successes within the context of the present historical-social challenges (e.g. modernization, globalization, economic influences, etc.) either within its own discourse or for the public (Erath 2002). Whilst the economic system is gaining more and more influence in society, 'the social' (including 'social work') seems to be becoming more and more negatively stigmatized.

    The reasons for the present situation can be found in a general lack of ability to properly handle and communicate the inherent dilemmas of social work. These dilemmas are:

    • Lack of means: Social work usually has no means with which to change conditions. It has no money to create jobs, to support the poor, etc.
    • Lack of integrative power: Social work within a modern society is no longer integrative. It can only solve problems within part-systems of society. Consequently, social work has to concentrate on basic work more and more and it is impossible to make fundamental structural changes through social work (Luhmann 1973; 1997).
    • Lack of resources: Social work cannot help everybody. Because of a lack of sufficient means it is necessary for social work to concentrate help on certain cases, where social work organizations have the expertise to help. As a consequence, social work has to exclude those it cannot help (Baecker 1994).
    • Technological deficit: Social work is very much dependent on the client's will to take part in the helping process. If this process is successful, it is not possible to furnish evidence that it was social work that was the provider of the help given (Luhmann 1992).

    Social work managers and practitioners are often aware of these deficits and feel uncomfortable about them. However, only the acceptance of these dilemmas can help them to fully understand and communicate the possibilities and limitations of any social work interventions within intra- and intersystemic argumentations.

  3. Theoretical plausibility and empirical evidence as main aspects of social work concepts

  4. The most general consequences of the aforementioned knowledge for social work managers and practitoners are:

    1. Each social work practice has to be embedded in concepts which are theory-based, innovative and demonstrably excellent and thus able to demonstrate theoretical 'plausibility'.
    2. Theoretical plausibility is important but not sufficient. All outcomes of social work services should, in relation to the theoretical concepts, be clearly defined and measured in order to create valid data feedback (or research results), which in turn may lead to improved processes and refined targets, etc.

    Processes have to be created, differentiated and organized (based on social work theories and principles, reference theories, etc.) in a way that the probability is increased that aims can be reached and successes achieved.

    A basic concept of (good) social work services is shown in the following illustration:

    A framework for social work service quality

    Aims and results have to be highly differentiated because a simple rough outcome or orientation ('clients will be able to live an independent life') would be too naïve. Hence, concepts have to differentiate aims into general aims and sub-aims. The more aims and processes that are clearly and highly differentiated and identified, the more documentation and evaluation procedures can be specified and lead to clear results (at least, in part).

    All aspects of quality have to be communicated and discussed with staff, service users/clients, tax payers, local administration officers, etc. and constantly reconsidered. The big theoretical question is: Is it possible to create a general framework of quality criteria which identifies the main aspects which influence quality in social work services and thus allow judgement of the quality concerning different grades (insufficient/sufficient, good/excellent, etc.)?

  5. Case example: Working with girls with individual and social problems

  6. The concept of Ajuto e.V.

    Ajuto e.V. is a social work service in Freiburg/Baden (Germany) for girls aged between 12 and 17 years who have antisocial behaviour problems and lots of other different problems, e.g. severe problems with parents and school (violent behaviour, aggressiveness, truancy, suspicion of sexual abuse, etc.), or health problems such as anorexia nervosa, attempted suicide, self-inflicted wounding, etc.

    The innovative idea behind the concept of Ajuto e.V. is to offer girls not just guidance, advice and group communication, which alone would not be sufficient to motivate them to come to meetings regularly. There is additional 'horse work' that most of them will not only be attracted to but which will also provide another opportunity (i.e. parallel to the group work) for reinforcing their personal, social and emotional competences, etc.

    The service encompasses three elements:

    • Weekly group meetings
    • Weekly horse riding activities
    • Individual counselling, guidance and short-term therapy if needed.

    The overall aims

    Girls are able and normally willing to fulfil all social responsibilities within family, school, social environment, etc., which encompasses aims that they

    • take part regularly in all group and horse work meetings
    • increasingly take over more and more tasks autonomously and are responsible themselves
    • increasingly take part in planning and organizing group activities
    • develop social, emotional and other competences (according to their age and personality).
    • are increasingly able to recognize and accept their individual and social problems, to work on them and to conduct their lives in a social and self-responsible way.

    Processes and services within Ajuto e.V.

    Group work

    • group discussion
    • subject-focused discussion
    • games
    • leisure activities
    • education/training
    • exercises


    • counselling
    • guiding
    • discussion with parents, teachers, etc.
    • connecting with other services
    • crisis intervention


    • solution-focused short-term therapy

    Equestrian activities

    • planning
    • security checks
    • stable work
    • grooming horses
      • work on the ground
      • riding on a lunge rein
      • riding independently in an arena
      • trekking in the countryside
      • feedback

    Holiday activities

    • excursions
    • camping
    • outward bound courses

    Theoretical construction/sub-aims

    The aforementioned overall aims cannot always be achieved in total due to the complexity of the girls' psychosocial situations. To be able to show the 'effectiveness' of the services it is necessary to divide the overall aims into sub-aims. Thus, for example, Ajuto e.V. uses Goleman's theory of 'emotional intelligence', which aims at helping young people to master their life better by learning basic emotional and cognitive competences (Goleman, 2005).

    All processes, especially those relating to the equestrian activities, are designated to help the girls to develop competence, as shown in the following illustration:

    Emotional competences

    To recognize and name feelings

    To express and deal with feelings

    To create and deal with positive feelings

    To overcome stress and negative feelings, etc.

    Cognitive competences

    To recognize the origins and impact of different behaviour

    To acknowledge one's own and unknown parties' part in a conflict/have a responsible relationship

    To make decisions

    To reflect on one's own thinking and recognize the possible consequences

    To understand, accept and tolerate the views of others

    To be aware of oneself, etc.
    Social competences

    Social competences

    To show verbal competence: Express interests and thinking React properly
    Give feedback

    To cooperate:
    Lead a group
    Accept leadership by others
    Be able to resolve conflicts, etc.

    Core process

    In all aspects of the helping process girls are regularly observed concerning the sub-aims, they are involved in conferences and in meetings with parents, social workers and the local youth office to constantly shape the helping process and to adapt and reach the desired aims.

    Data feedback

    Even if the services from Ajuto e.V. are a little more expensive than other 'normal' services, such as group work or guidance (but not as expensive as foster homes or other homes, etc.), the results of the service are excellent:

    • Over three years, not one girl has left the group.
    • All girls regularly attend equestrian activities and group work and apologize if they are not able to be present.
    • 90% of the girls achieve the final aims and are able to lead their life without additional help.
    • All girls succeed in improving their personal, social, cognitive, and emotional competence, etc. during their collaboration with Ajuto e.V.
    • Ajuto e.V. is the most efficient and cost-effective service for such girls in the local area of Freiburg/Baden.

  7. Conclusions

  8. Especially in Germany, where social work services are very individually tailored in accordance with the leading social principle (subsidiarity), the huge variety of service providers and the full responsibility of the different local authorities (usually the city councils), social work managers have to strengthen their concepts through theoretical argumentations and empirical data. Therefore general methodological statements, such as 'group work', 'group training', 'case work', and 'community work' are no longer sufficient to characterize the peculiarity of a given service with this specific logic, applied theories and used methods.

    The Ajuto e.V. concept is an exemplary illustration of ways in which social work managers are not only challenged to go beyond the traditional notions and to construct their services in a highly creative manner, but also to use all kind of theories to work out process and outcome items which are distinct and measurable. Hopefully, in the long run this will lead to self-confident social work which is more and more capable of opening its 'black box' of processes and effects to public observation and empirical research.

    In order to achieve these aims social work students and professionals (and especially those who will manage services in the future) should open themselves to embrace theory and research and recognize themselves as 'scientific professionals', who are able - against the background of time and (professional) knowledge - to construct and deconstruct social work services out of and into parts of theories, items, data, etc. The more social work is able to accept insecurity, the more it may be accepted within society as a serious enterprise worthy of helping individuals and groups, not for its own sake but for that of its clients.


    Baecker,D.(1994): Soziale Hilfe als Funktionssystem der Gesellschaft. In: Zeitschrift für Soziologie 23, S. 93-110.

    Bommes, M. & Scherr, A. (2000) Soziologie der Sozialen Arbeit. Eine Einführung in Formen und Funktonen organisierter Hilfe. Weinheim, München: Juventa.

    Erath, P. (2002): Sozialarbeit als gute Tat und effiziente Praxis. Perspektiven einer zukunftsfähigen Theorie der Sozialarbeit. Sozialmagazin 27, 30-36.

    Goleman, D. (2005) Emotionale Intelligenz. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag.

    Luhmann, N. (1973) Formen des Helfens im Wandel der gesellschaftlichen Bedingungen. In: Otto, H.U. & Schneider, S. (Hrsg.) Gesellschaftliche Perspektiven der Sozialarbeit, 21-43. Darmstadt: Luchterhand.

    Luhmann, N. (1992) System und Absicht der Erziehung. In: Luhmann,N., Schorr, K.E. (Eds.) Zwischen Absicht und Person. Fragen an die Pädagogik. 102-124. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp Verlag.



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