Forum [Invited Papers]: NEOLIBERALISM, COMPETENCIES, AND THE DEVALUING OF SOCIAL WORK PRACTICE

By Rossiter, Amy; Heron, Barbara | Canadian Social Work Review, July 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Forum [Invited Papers]: NEOLIBERALISM, COMPETENCIES, AND THE DEVALUING OF SOCIAL WORK PRACTICE


Rossiter, Amy, Heron, Barbara, Canadian Social Work Review


In THE SPRING OF 2011, the Canadian Council of Social Work Regulators (CCSWR) invited feedback on its project to identify and define "social work competencies," with the aim of establishing a "social work competency profile." The initiative comes as no surprise to social workers in Canada (Rossiter, 2002; Westhues, 2001; Campbell, 2002). In January, 2001, the social work sector study entitled "In Critical Demand: Social Work in Canada" (Stephenson, et al, 2001) was released. This document was funded by Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) as a labour force study. However, its aims were guided by the need for the federal government to comply with the Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT) which is a post- NAFTA agreement to end barriers to labour mobility between provinces. Crudely put, the language in trade agreements such as the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS) insists on redefining all descriptors of professions in terms of "competencies' in order to facilitate me labour mobility agreements. Thus, the entire project of competencies arises not as an effort to improve professional accountability but as a mechanism for operationalizing trade agreements.

The labour mobility provisions of the AIT tended overnight to rearrange power and control over the profession in Canada. The Canadian Association of Social Work Education (CASWE), formerly the Canadian Schools of Social Work Education, accredits Schools of Social Work using standards that are democratically developed and debated. Registration of social workers depends on graduation from accredited Schools of Social Work. With implementation of the AJT, provincial regulatory bodies were quiedy given the authority to determine recognition of social workers via competencies. They were asked to develop national competency standards for social work in Canada. These standards are intended to facilitate labour mobility of social workers in Canada.

The birth of competencies in social work is yoked to the rise of neoliberalism in liberal democracies. Here, we understand neoliberalism as the push towards free market economic policies, deregulation, reduction of social programs, indifference to the environment, and the insistence on individual entrepreneurealism. Neoliberalism is not bounded by the specific concern for markets; it extends into all aspects of society and individuals. Wendy Brown (2005) points out the impact of neoliberalism when she says "...neoliberalism entails the erosion of oppositional political, moral, or subjective claims located outside capitalist rationality yet inside liberal democratic society, drat is, the erosion of institutions, venues and values organized by nonmarket rationalities in democracies" (Brown, 2005, p. 45).

We believe it is necessary to understand competency profiles as neoliberal in character and effect. Competencies are an example of how the nonmarket values of social work- justice, self determination, equality, to name a few - are eroded by market forces, here, explicitly expressed through trade agreements and their outcome of competencies.

Consequently, we offer comment on the overall implications of the competency profile project. We argue that competency profiles are not just neutral descriptors of "what is," as trade agreements tend to imply. Indeed, the social work competency profile under development by the CCSWR stands to fundamentally alter the profession through the logic imposed by the form of competencies themselves. The language of Article VI of the GATS spells out die requirements for descriptions of professions: "a) based on objective and transparent criteria, such as competence and the ability to supply the services: b) not more burdensome than necessary to ensure the quality of the service; c) in the case of licensing procedures, not in themselves a restriction on the supply of the service." Defining social work in such terms jeopardizes the possibility of representing what is most important about social work. …

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