How do social workers take decisions?

18 May 2017

A new study into professional decision-making

It is important to millions of clients and citizens that social workers make the right choices when offering them their support and services. In the Netherlands however, not much was known about their professional decision-making processes. A new study by Movisie shows that, although social workers take many decisions, they hardly stop to think about the underlying considerations. Their organisations do not facilitate opportunities for shared decision making by their professionals. The Dutch trend towards more self-management of teams is not likely to improve this situation.

Four teams studied

The study offers an insight into the way of working of social professionals and the ways to improve the quality of professional decision making. Four different social teams and individual social professionals in those teams were followed. They varied in approach and in target audiences, from a social community team working with neighbourhood residents, a team focusing on activation and participation, a team working with clients in debt resolution procedures, and a team working with people with mental problems according to strict guidelines.

Harsh conclusions

It seems that social professionals experience decision making as a ‘search’ that takes place primarily on the basis of feelings and intuition. Knowledge, argumentation and assessment do play an important role, but often only implicitly. To improve the quality of interpretation and deliberation – the core of professionalism – and to promote a broader basis for decision making, the route towards decisions should be a standard and obvious topic of interprofessional consultation. What are the factors that impact on the many day-to-day decisions on the work floor? Professional social workers use interventions, tools and techniques that are integrated in their work. They do not spend much time trying to understand what works, what are productive mechanisms or effective interventions. The researchers think that a lot can be gained in this respect. Their report concludes with an accessible decision-making model for social works to use.

Put heart and soul into solutions

The practical experiences of the teams presented in the study also show that professionals work with all their heart to solve complex social problems. Movisie project leader Peter Rensen: 'This often happens under extremely complicated circumstances. They work with a strong focus on the specific desires of the client or citizen and show quite a lot of creativity in their work. It is great to see that during the study the four teams under observation became increasingly conscious of how decisions came into being. During the study a number of team members kept diaries on important decisions. A number of them said they would continue to do this. And that they would use the diaries to engage in conversations with their colleagues, their team leaders and their management. They feel that professional decision-making could become an important part of internal and external accountability.'

The publication 'Visie en vakbekwaamheid maken het verschil' (Vision and professionality create the difference) is available in Dutch only. It can be downloaded here. The infographic of the decision-making process has been translated in English.

For more information please contact Peter Rensen: p.rensen@movisie.nl or +31 307892264.

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