Academic journal article Social Work

Client Participation in Managing Social Work Service-An Unfinished Quest

Academic journal article Social Work

Client Participation in Managing Social Work Service-An Unfinished Quest

Article excerpt

Client participation" or "user involvement" is a popular ideal and object of rhetorical commitment in social work service. In recent decades, consumerist thinking in public-sector reforms has given the client-participation agenda a new managerial impetus. Meanwhile, clients' presence in the service-planning process does not guarantee their influence on organizational decision making (Linhorst, Hamilton, Young, & Eckert, 2002) .As long as service providers are able to retain control of the agenda and the deliberation process (Newman, 2001; Petersen & Piel, 1998), the usual asymmetrical relationship between welfare service providers and users survives. Instead of fostering genuine cooperative inquiry with service users, flourishing user-involvement initiatives are largely, skeptics perceive, "playing the user card" in organizational micropolitics (Barnes, Harrison, Mort, & Shardlow, 1999; Croft & Beresford, 1996; Harrison & Mort, 1998). Hence, user involvement in managing social work service remains a slogan, a concept with unrealized potential, which requires careful and critical scrutiny.

On the basis of the democratic notion of cooperative inquiry with welfare service users, this article draws on a study of organizational channels for client participation in the Hong Kong welfare sector. The study conceived of welfare service users as important actors in the social work process, and it identified differences in the institutional structure of client-participation initiatives and their social dynamics between service units targeting elderly people or people with disabilities and those targeting a clientele with supposed moral or psychosocial failures. The study findings provide a basis for discussion of ways to enhance the influence of service users in the making of service-related decisions.


Client participation in decision making is consistent with the long-held social work value of promoting client self-determination (Linhorst, Eckert, & Hamilton, 2005; NASW, 2009; Social Workers Registration Board, 2009). At the same time, client participation is imperative to the social work production process. Provision of information by clients on the difficulties they encounter is necessary for service planning; and clients' reactions to social workers' interventions in the interactive service-delivery process alter the content and quality of interventions themselves. Clients' own selves are important production elements, affecting the quantity and quality of the services they receive. Brudney and England (1983) labeled this interdependency between the organization of service production and the positive actions of the service users as coproduction.

Postmodern thinking has also provided impetus for client-participation initiatives. From the postmodern perspective, most of the human risks for social workers involve "artistic and situated judgment" instead of"scientific evaluation in any quantified or probabilistic sense" (Parton, 1998, p. 23). In light of increased numbers of choices and an expanded amount of risk, clients with direct experience of a particular life condition have a better claim to knowledge about their own needs and interests than do their professional counterparts (Tower, 1994; Wilson & Beresford, 2000). A nontechnical process of social interaction and communication with service users thus becomes more important than does instrumental rationality that focuses on means-end calculation (Cooper, 2001; Ferguson, 2001; Gowdy, 1994; Habermas, 1986; Harmon, 1995; Jun & Rivera, 2000; Parton, 1996; Reed, 1992; Schon, 1983; Taylor, 1996). Welfare service users' involvement in the service-planning and -delivery process is an absolute necessity given their role as important agents and actors driving long-lasting change (Castelloe, Watson, & White, 2002; Engel, Flosser, & Gensink, 1998).

Although self-determination and user involvement in individual care planning have been normative in direct social work practice, the participation of welfare service users in organizational management and planning is a relatively recent phenomenon. …

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