Social Work Management in an Era of Diminishing Federal Responsibility

Article excerpt

One needs only to look at recent presidential and congressional election results to see a growing public unhappiness with government. In 1992 Texas billionaire Ross Perot ran for president as a third-party protest candidate and received nearly 20 percent of the vote, the largest number of votes cast for a third-party candidate in a U.S. presidential election (NBC News, 1993). During the 1994 midterm elections, the Republican party gained control of both houses of Congress as well as many state legislatures, ending nearly four decades of control by the Democratic party. With their new majorities, Republicans quickly worked to implement provisions of the Contract with America (Gingrich, Armey, and the House Republicans, 1994), which emphasized shifting many federal government responsibilities to state and local governments.

There is also a growing disaffection with what is broadly termed "welfare" and the associated public and nonprofit social work and human services organizations. Although welfare, as reflected by Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), is a small proportion of the total public expenditure, it nonetheless symbolizes the perceived failure of government to deal effectively with social realities. "Welfare bashing" is a frequent topic of radio and television talk shows. Although such popular discourse may be valuable in a democracy, it places social work professionals and managers in a defensive posture. These realities make the social work manager's job more difficult.

In the near future the changing political realities and their social and cultural context will bring additional challenges to the social work profession and to those who manage social work and human services organizations. Leaders from both political parties are responding to a common set of economic and social forces and assumptions - even though they disagree on specifics - that are driving them to seek solutions to the federal budget deficit, rampant increases in expenditures for various entitlement programs, and decades of growth in federal regulations that affect almost every aspect of Americans' lives.

It is almost certain that what is termed the "devolution revolution" (Nathan, 1995) will continue regardless of the November 1996 election outcome. Budget controls, selective tax reductions, caps on entitlement spending, and means-tested benefits tied to socially "responsible" behavior are currently being implemented. In addition, block grants with reduced funding levels and regulations and the increased use of purchase-of-service (POS) agreements and other means to draw a wide range of nonprofit and for-profit organizations into service provision will further complicate and disaggregate an already dizzying arena within which social work managers must function.

This article discusses the management challenges facing social work, including changes in the U.S. economic and social structure, changes in public policy that have greatly increased the diversity and competitiveness of social services providers, and the development of a growing public discontent with government organizations. This article reviews two management approaches - total quality management and reengineering - and considers the implications for social work management.

Historic Policies Affecting Social Work Management

Although it may be tempting to see these new realities as a current political and partisan phenomenon, there is a larger, historical reality underlying the developments changing social welfare.

Progressive Movement and the New Deal

The progressive movement emerged in the United States during the late 19th century (Reid, 1995). Progressives promoted a rational, public, social sciences-based government response to social problems that emphasized economic regulation, meritocracy, social insurance, and other protections, as well as the "professionalization" of services. Progressives were optimistic and humane, and they promoted an environmental view of human behavior that was in contrast to the 19th-century view of individual character and will as explanations of the shortcomings of society. …

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