This study is an overview of current government proposals for the “Big Society” within community social work. In July 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron launched a project called the Big Society. It is considered by Mr Cameron that communities deserve to be empowered to have more of a say in what happens in their local area. The belief is that by doing this, many of the local services provided by the government can be taken over and run by community and voluntary groups, with Mr Cameron describing the project as a “big advance for people power” (www.bbc.co.uk/news, accessed: 30/10/2010).
The theory base of community social work from a historical and modern perspective will be presented and evaluated.
The study will provide a literature review of community projects in both neighbouring UK countries and Inner City London; examining their effectiveness in creating community empowerment to enable the possible resolution of social depravation. Particular attention will be paid to the differences that each geographical location possesses in terms of economy, culture and class diversity when considering each project and how this relates to its success. A maximum of four projects will be chosen to compare and evaluate and the study will conclude with lessons learnt for future social work in community work practice with the inclusion of messages from the Social Work Reform Board.
The ‘Big Society’ Debate
However, Cameron’s notion of the Big Society has come under much criticism. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland has written a stinging attack on Mr Cameron’s proposals and his article posted
What is Community Social Work?
The idea behind community social work is the belief that peoples problems can be countered by liaising with the people within their social network. This may include friends and relatives, and neighbours. Social workers need to seek and reinforce such support networks for service users and aim to facilitate their growth where it has become apparent that such has lapsed. The work should be seen as both a protective and preventative strategy and is now considered to be the “Par excellence of intervention strategy for promoting social inclusion.” (Walker and Beckett, 2005, pg93).
Therefore, community social work is effectively a method of promoting the social inclusion of individuals and their families by empowering them to seek and create the interventions they require. Walker and Beckett (2005) inform that social work is at the ‘cutting edge’ of individuals, families or communities attempts to manage life challenges that have been influenced by both economic and social policy, welfare systems and the way they are made up internally. However, there are differing views on the concept of empowering people and using socially inclusive methods within social work.
The first view is that the empowerment of service users may be considered to be ‘self-evident’ if the worker sees the problems people are facing as products of the an unfair economic system that, “Disenfranchises the weak, vulnerable, disabled or poor from equal participation and access to the resources produced by society.” (Walker and Beckett, 2005, pg93). The aim of social work here would be to attempt to get service users involved and try to empower them to find a way of accessing the services that are available to them. Payne (1995) suggests of this issue that although public policy statements do aim to prove the value of community participation and user empowerment, community work may indeed, “Draw attention to inequalities in service provision and in power which lie behind severe deprivation” and therefore also become part of the struggles “between people in powerless positions against the powerful.” (Payne, 1995, pg165-166).
The second view on the empowerment of service users is that it can give them (service users) an increased expectation of what can be available to them. It is believed that in this case, social workers may think that the correct thing to do would be to reduce the expectations of service users, forcing them to accept the situations they find themselves in and that they may become socially excluded just because ‘that is the way it is’. If this does become the case, social workers may fail to assist in the delivery of services that are available to service users, instead just seeking to help service users to ‘manage’ with what they believe is available to them.
Perhaps the best way to consider empowerment for service users is to use Trevithick’s (2000) model of when practising social work you are either (a) doing things to service users, (b) doing things for social workers, or (c) doing things with service users.
Community social work first came into being following critiques of community work after identifying that such was considered to be a completely different activity to that of social work. These critiques found that community workers and outreach workers were becoming marginalised from their colleagues within ‘proper’ social work agencies. In order to prevent this from happening further, there was what was deemed a positive movement to embrace some of the principles and practices of community work within social work. Coulshed and Orme (1998) inform us that although independent community action has continued throughout history by being supported by ‘dedicated’ community workers, policy developments that incorporated both the language of community and the work involved began to inform the actions of statutory social work as of the late 1970s. Despite this being the case, it is thought that such movements towards community care initiatives were not what social workers had necessarily thought to be correct.
The above moves were initiated via the Seebohm Report (1968). An article by Eileen Munro said of the actions brought about by the report, “The division between (varying) social work was seen as the problem, so social services departments were created to offer a joined-up service.” (www.guardian.co.uk/society, accessed: 9/10/2010). These actions included the creation of social services departments that would have smaller administrative units with area teams serving their own geographical localities. It was believed that such would improve access to service provision for those placed within each locality and a wider sense of identification with the local area for social workers. Decisions could be made dependent on the person and their local need as opposed to the generic, centralised decisions that took place previously.
Seebohm’s report also stated that each area-based organisation should change the relationship that social workers held within the relative catchment areas that the workers were operating. The report said of this that the departments should, “Encourage, support and promote voluntary effort and engage in assisting and encouraging the development of community identity.” (Seebohm, 1968, paragraph 477). Despite this change in the arrangements for which social services were delivered, Seebohm’s report did not properly address what it was community workers, or indeed social workers working with communities were actually supposed to be doing. Although the Seebohm report had considered the basic notions of community social working, the terms and principles of such were not defined fully until this was done by the Barclay Committee and published in a report in 1982. This definition was as follows:
Community social work is, “Formal social work which, starting from the problems affecting an individual or group and the responsibilities and resources of social services departments and voluntary organisations, seeks to tap into, support, enable and underpin the local networks of formal and informal relationships which constitute our basic definition of community, and also the strength of a client’s communities of interest.” (Barclay, 1982, p xvii).
The emphasis on the role of the community within society continued following the Barclay Committee’s report and re-emerged towards the end of the 1980s. In more recent times, the Griffiths Report of 1998 looked at ‘care in the community’ and was based around an aim of closer partnerships between statutory services and local communities as part of a larger welfare spectrum. The National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 too pushed towards an emphasis on community work although Adams et al (1998) questions whether the theory was actually put into practice. Adams et al also speculate as to the difficulty that community social work continues to face as a result of continuing changes to social policy.
In modern social work, it is considered by Beckett (2006) that it is beneficial to work with groups or families as opposed to working with individuals. Therefore it seems sensible that such an approach would naturally – in some respects at least – lead towards working within communities. Community social work is generally considered to be a similar activity to that of group work. This is because community work interventions usually involve the worker attempting to encourage the development of groups. However, community work is aimed more along the lines of self-help or social action in consideration of the group work spectrum. Community social work does not allow for the worker to ‘do things for people’, be that for individuals or indeed groups, but wishes to promote “The development of organised activity by the community itself” (Beckett, 2006, pg94) through either the self-creation of resources to meet its needs or even by joining forces to campaign against the authorities for not providing the necessary facilities. Henderson (2000, pg72) says of such an approach that “At the core of the methods and skills is the idea of organising: helping people to come together to form an autonomous group.”
The above shows that in this context, the community worker is considered to be something of an enabler rather than the fixer within community projects. Despite this, it is also believed that community workers – although being employed by the state and therefore still considered as an ‘outsider’ within the community with which they are working – take on a degree of benevolent paternalism as opposed to developing the necessary collective community action. Popple (1994, pg24) says of this, “Historically community work has developed from two distinct roots: benevolent paternalism and collective community action.”
With the above in mind it is important to remember that the term ‘community’ is still rather vague. It is borne from the notion that a complete neighbourhood can function as its own entity as opposed to acknowledging that neighbourhoods consist of many differing communities. Individual interest, ethnic communities, geography, familial extensions and workplaces all form part of communities, yet will often extend far beyond the neighbourhood in which they are formed.
Community social work is according to Smale et al “About the processes the workers engage in, the relationships they make and how they maintain and change them.” adding “These processes generate the specific aims and objectives of the workers and those they share the work with.” (1988, pg23). The most important things that must be recognised by any community worker is the type of community that they are working with or indeed the type of community that they are assisting to help build.
Evaluating Community Projects
The Study So Far