RPP 17 1 Adrian Adams Opportunities and constraints to practitioner research in the personal social services

Research Policy and Planning: The journal of the Social Services Research Group – Vol 17 (1) 1999

Opportunities and constraints to practitioner research in the personal social services

Adrian Adams, Philip Heasman and Lester Gilbert, Canterbury Christ Church College

Abstract

Currently there exists a renewed interest in research activity in local authority social services departments. This interest, promoted nationally through the 1994 Department of Health Paper: ‘A Wider Strategy for Research and Development Relating to Personal Social Services’, the Dartington Social Research Unit and the Centre for Evidence Based Social Services at the University of Exeter and locally by initiatives such as the Kent Research Strategy Group (KRSG), has highlighted the needfor social work practitioners to undertake research based activity as part of their professional education, practice and development. The results of this study into the extent, nature and relative value placed upon practitioner research within Kent Social Services Department, reflect the ever increasing influence of ideological and organisational factors on both professional social work practice and research studies (National Institute of Social Work Briefing, 1996). The findings of the study have implications not only for Kent but for other local authorities planning a response to the Department of Health 1994 publication.

Introduction

Current interest in research activity within the personal social services reflects the contemporary re-evaluation of the nature and function of health and social welfare (Simic, 1997). Understandings of social work are subject to re-construction through emergent global debates on the nature and form of welfare in society; the occupational status of social work in relation to the state and the legislative and organisational framework which authorises its practice; the educational basis of the profession and its claim to conferring expert status to social work practitioners; and the moral or ethical principles that are claimed to underpin the profession (Carnilleri, 1996),

Accordingly contemporary social work practice is being re-constructed and re-evaluated in the context of its activities and outcomes that relate to both caring for people (i.e. the provision of caring services) and caring about people (i.e. the managing and allocation of resources).

The changing role of social work practitioners in social services departments

The professional status and the role and function of social work practitioners is increasingly subject to monitoring, scrutiny and questioning. Whilst uncertainty about the essential nature of social work and its relative value is not new, the introduction and development of market-led approaches to the delivery of care, the expansion of multi-disciplinary teams and the adoption of the care management approach in particular, has thrown into stark relief the questions of what distinguishes social workers from other professional/occupational groups and what is their distinctive role within social welfare agencies.

Social work can no longer count on a preeminent role in social care, and this has been reflected in the employment and use of individuals who are not social workers, in roles which were formally undertaken by social workers. Social work clearly has to justify its place amongst other groups performing care managerial roles. (Sheppard, 1995:13)

Sheppard argues that the source of social work’s failure to defend itself from the reduction of its control over the traditional areas of its work and its incapacity to resist the currently prevailing powerful ideologies of managerialism and consumerism, can be traced back to the profession’s historical failure to establish both a sufficiently robust and unique body of theoretical knowledge and a range of effective specialist skills to manage social problems. This has in turn given rise to the current re- framing of social care/work as an area more subject to everyday concerns and economic activity, than to one characterised by skilled, professional interventions.

The nature of social work knowledge

Debates over the knowledge base and credibility of social work and the role of education and training in establishing its credentials are well documented. (e.g. Green, 1978; Miller and Rose, 1988; Sibeon, 1989; Rodger, 1991; Tsang, 1991; Strom and Gingerich, 1993 and Cannan, 1994). Current definitions and standards of competence as applied to professional social work practice can be seen as having emerged from an on-going debate over the essential nature of social work and the different positions and perspectives taken regarding what constitutes knowledge and understanding, prescription and judgement, process and outcomes and effectiveness and quality in social work theory and practice.

The Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work (CCETSW) continuum of training has adopted a ‘competence based’ approach and methodology linked to the Higher Education and Training Credit Accumulation and Transfer System (CATS). This has formulated discrete ‘competence requirements’ that social workers are now expected to develop and demonstrate over time in their work at qualifying, post qualifying and advanced levels. CCETSW Papers 30 and 31 provide both general practice competence statements and levels of academic achievement to be demonstrated at each level of the continuum and those relating specifically to research activity. These competences reflect the cultural shift within local authority social services departments arising from the community care reforms and reflect the changing role of social workers by giving greater emphasis to organisational factors, quality assurance and providing value for money, alongside more traditional forms of professional actions and direct work with clients.

The nature of social work research

Debates on the nature and relevance of social work practice and its knowledge base have been mirrored by a similar debate over the nature and relative value of approaches to social work research. (e.g. Sheldon, 1983; Raynor, 1984; Sheldon, 1984; Challis and Chesterman, 1985; Sheldon, 1987; Smith, 1987; Sheldon, 1986; Rojek, 1986;Thyer, 1989; Whittaker and Archer, 1990; Biehal and Sainsbury, 1991; Sheldon and Macdonald, 1993; Taylor, 1993; Swigonski, 1993 and Parton, 1994).

The problem is we cannot evaluate according to any absolute standard of progress. While trying to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable practices and positions we must recognise that this is always necessarily contentious and incomplete. (Parton, 1994: 10)

One unresolved question within the debate over what constitutes appropriate methodological approaches and areas of inquiry in social work research is the extent to which social work should adopt a naturalistic or ‘scientific’ approach to its research (Lupton, 1993). This approach presumes ‘the autonomy of the individual from a social and cultural context’ (Lock and Gordon, 1988) and is closely associated with the biomedical discourse, adopting a position in which human behaviour can be explained by natural science. This perspective has been developed over the last five years within the National Health Service (NHS) Research and Development Strategy through the Evidence Based Practice and Clinical Effectiveness Initiatives (DoH, 1995 & NHSE, 1996).

However Gray (1995) and Dominelli (1996) argue that such an approach is epistemological ly antithetical to social work because social work is concerned with social and moral order, i.e. relationships between individuals, groups and institutions, in both formal and informal contexts. As such it is concerned with cultural ‘man’, the human as distinct from the animal, recognising the ‘mind’ and the ‘spirit’, behaviour and understandings, emotion, morality and judgement. They argue for a model of social work research in which the individual is part of and understood through their social context.

Social Services research must concern itself with both science and society if it is to understand outcomes affecting human individuals with all their inconsistencies and unpredictability. (Schneider, 1994:3)

One model that has become increasingly popular as an alternative to the limits of positivism and one that is more compatible with the aims, context and values associated with social work practice is Action Research. This mode of inquiry, situated within what Reason and Rowan (198 1) have termed ‘new paradigm research’, emphasises collaboration between participants in the research process and validates awareness raising, empowerment and utility as legitimate forms of knowledge over and above the discovery of universal laws of human behaviour.

Although action research is not necessarily the’ optimum choice in all settings, it is particularly appropriate where problem-solving and improvement are on the agenda. Moreover, the combination of enquiry, intervention and evaluation which empowers the action research cycle mirrors the iterative processes employed by professional staff in assessing the needs of vulnerable people, responding to them and reviewing progress. (Hart and Bond, 1995:346)

The context of the study in Kent

Kent covers a large geographical area largely of a rural nature and seaside towns, but also with several cities and some areas high on the scale of urban deprivation. Over the period 1971-9 1, the population grew by 8.9%. Policy based projections show a further increase of 7.9% over the period 1991-2001. Of the 1.5m population: 250,000 are over 65 years of age; 2,500 have severe learning disabilities; 200,000 have some degree of physical disability, 1,700 have severe mental health problems. Annually, some 30,000 people will have contact with the social services department. (Kent Social Services, 1996/97).

Kent Social Services Department epitomises many of the characteristics associated with the growing tendency of the UK welfare regime to return to liberal values and social policies in a mixed economy approach. The role and function of the agency has become one of enabling and promoting rather than directly providing for the needs of vulnerable members of its population. This approach has led to both a re-structuring of the social services department, which increasingly operates as an assessor and purchaser of care, working to predetermined cash limits within market orientated principles, and to a re-consideration of, and considerable debate about, the function, role and value of professionalg working within it.

At the time of this study the department had a divisional structure with operational management responsibilities given over to five Areas, with strategic management carried out from a central headquarters. A three year medium term planning cycle was in operation and Community Care Plans and business plans are published annually. Targets and individual action plans are set and performance measured within a performance related pay scheme. Shortly following this study, Kent County Council experienced a major financial crisis, requiring that Social Services Department to find savings totalling £21.01m. This, coupled with the creation of a new unitary authority in the County, has led to a subsequent major re-structuring of the authority and its departments and major reductions in both purchasing and direct provision of services.

The introduction of care management in Kent

Social workers’ practice is mediated on the premise that individuals have troubles which warrant intervention. For social workers the taskat-hand is that something (resources, resolution, placation etc.) has to be done with some individuals, groups or communities. Social workers see as problematic not their practice but the organisation or resources available to them as well as their clients. (Camilleri, 1996:89).

Kent’s Community Care Scheme began in the early 1980s targeted on elderly people who were identified as being able to remain in their own homes, rather than move into residential care, if domicillary support services were provided. With the advent of care management as enshrined in the White Paper, Caringfor People (1989) and subsequently legislation, National Health Service and Community Care Act (NHS&CCA 1990), Home Care Organisers became care managers thereby leading the way in what has become a fundamental shift for SSDs across the country, that of moving from service providers to service enablers.

Kent’s social services department implemented care management prior to the legislation thereby giving Kent a leading edge in implementing the Act. Kent’s style and culture is one of innovation and change. Managerial and structural changes occurred rapidly in response to government legislation and ideology. The political environment surrounding the legislative imperatives within which Local Authority Social Service Departments (LASSD) were having to work was wholeheartedly welcomed by Kent County Council who supported the government’s ideology and who were at the time seen as the Tory party’s flagship.

Kent’s Home Care Scheme was the subject of a major research project carried out by the University of Kent’s Personal Social Services Research Unit (PSSRU, 1990) which was later referred to in guidance on Care Management and Assessment (1991) issued to LASSDs by the Department of Health and Social Services Inspectorate in the lead up to full implementation of the NHS and Community Care Act. As such Kent was in a unique position to develop and learn from the research findings of these pilot projects (Challis and Chesterman, 1985). However many of the key recommendations of this research, particularly in relation to the qualities, training and experience of practitioners necessary for the successful implementation of care management were ignored. (Fisher, 1991 and Sheldon and Macdonald, 1993).

On implementation, the recommendations of research concerning effective practice in case management were rejected in favour, of the then prevailing ideology of “managerialism” with its associated distrust of professional social work. (Brewster, 1991 and Carman, 1994). As a consequence, by 1992 when a policy decision was taken to (re-) establish a professionally qualified workforce in Kent; over 220 of the 450 care managers employed in Kent were unqualified.

The introduction and timing of the 1992 policy, although laudable in its intention to re-establish professional credibility for care management services, was highly problematic. The introduction of this policy in effect disenfranchised a large number of unqualified care managers. The development of a BTEC programme intended to serve as a ‘local qualification’ for care managers, which was introduced as an interim solution to this problem, required additional funding at a time of diminishing resources. The programme received a mixed response from Area managers, many of whom were still closely allied to the managerial approach and all of whom sought greater autonomy, largely resisting direction from the centre. Additionally the policy was introduced at a time when care management services in Kent were subject to burgeoning administrative procedures, worsening eligibility criteria and tightening financial charging arrangements for service users. (Wadey, 1994)

The model that Kent has chosen runs along specialist links, i.e. separate teams for elderly, disability, mental health and children and families. The care management model used in Kent fits broadly within an empirically tested model put forward by Rothman (1991). Although the care management approach has now been implemented across services to all client groups, Kent’s policies on care management are still not absolutely clear (Heptinstall, 1997). The model of care management now practised evolved from a model designed for elderly people and while procedures, guide-lines and eligibility criteria specific to other client groups have now been developed, wide variation exists between operational teams across the county. Additionally budgets are not allocated to individual care managers and reviews and monitoring of services provided are not regularly carried out.

The needs of service users and carers are not fully being met, partly, it could be argued, because of the inability of care managers “to ensure services are provided to meet individual needs”. Without doubt, this was the main criteria used by all to determine the success of care management and unless steps are taken to address this issue, success, as determined by care managers, service users and carers, is not likely to be achieved. If those delivering and receiving the service do not consider it to be successful, the organisation cannot be deemed to be successflil either. (Johnson, 1993:91)

The workforce and services in Kent Social Services

Across the county there are 300 care managers for older people. By the end of 1997/98, a projected total of 20,874 older people will have received a care managed service, extensive day care services are provided, mainly by Age Concern for a projected 6000 older people, over 700 contracted residential and nursing home will provide an expected 4,500 places and 35 KCC linked service centres provide a range of day care, permanent and respite residential care.

There are 140 care managers for people with a disability. A projected total of 2,600 people with a learning disability and 2, 900 people with a physical disability will have received a care management service by the end of 1997/98. KCC operates 16 Social Education Centres and will have provided 2,900 residential places for people requiring short-stay, respite or rehabilitation and 1,254 longer-term residential or nursing home care places. Additionally the ‘ County operates a Deaf Services Bureau which received 1135 referrals in 1996/97, an Occupational Therapy Bureau that received 17,118 referrals in 1996/97 and has an agreement with the Kent Association for the Blind that received 11,584 referrals in 1996/97.

Kent employs 350 social workers for children and families including workers in 5 Young Offenders Teams. Currently Kent is responsible for 825 in care, 632 accommodated, 29 in KCC residential care, 96 in independent residential care and 759 children on the child protection register.

There are 160 social workers for people with mental health problems responding to an estimated 1250 statutory interventions. Planned residential and nursing home care is provided for 175 people, with day and community services provided by voluntary organisations.

Research initiatives in Kent

Kent Social Services Department regularly commissions consumer research through MORI as a method for improving its understanding of the public’s perception of services and identifying its priorities for service delivery. However the Department does not have a dedicated research section or general arrangements for commissioning, co-ordinating or disseminating research activity and findings across the county.

In February 1994 the Departmental Management Team (DMT) of Kent Social Services Department (KSSD) approved a recommendation for developing a departmental research strategy. In order to progress the strategy the Kent Social Services Research Strategy Group (KRSG) was established with representatives from the five SSD Areas and Headquarters, The Kent Consortium for Education and Training & the South East Institute of Public Health. The KRSG meets regularly to focus on its key tasks, namely to:

  • spread information about research;
  • support staff carrying out research projects;
  • develop a data base of research carried out by staff in, and commissioned by the Department;
  • work closely with other local authorities in the south east to co-ordinate research activities; identify research activities to be commissioned by DMT;
  • report regularly to DMT.

The RSG has in pursuit of these tasks developed a number of initiatives, these include:

  • establishing Area Research Groups;
  • the production and circulation of The Researchers’ Guide to the Galaxy, which includes practical advice to assist people interested in undertaking research;
  • publication of The Kent Journal of Practice Research;
  • liaison with the Departmental Library at SSD Headquarters to support research enquiries;
  • subscribing to the NISW Information Service (N1SWIS);
  • providing a series of Research Skills Workshops;
  • organising Research in Practice Seminars;
  • joining The Social Work Research Association.

In December 1995 the KRSG commissioned a study of the impact of these initiatives on practitioner research within the Dep~ent. The findings of this study provide a ‘snapshot’ of the extent to which each of the KRSG. initiatives had impacted upon a random sample group from the workforce one-year after implementation and considers the key opportunities and constraints perceived by the sample group with regard to the DNIT’s key concerns to spread information about research and to support staff carrying out research projects. The results of the study are also considered in the context of the Executive Summary of the June 1994 Department of Health publication, A Wider Strategy for Research & Development Relating to Personal Social Services.

Description of the study

The.study consisted of a survey conducted by use of a postal questionnaire. As is the case in many local authority SSDs, precise information on the numbers, designation and location of individual members of the workforce was not available. Additionally the recent separation of the purchasing and providing functions of the department added to the uncertainty as to whom the questionnaire should be circulated. Central records indicate that, as of April 1997, Kent Social Services employs, 141 ‘managers’, 2540 ‘professional’ and 887 ‘support, technical and administrative staff.

As the commissioner of the study the KRSG decided that distribution would be undertaken by KRSG members from each SSD Area / Headquarters using the standard departmental internal e-mail and circulation lists. Respondents were asked to return the completed questionnaires within two weeks of receipt. However this was extended for a further two weeks after it become apparent that not all of questionnaires had reached the intended participants. In the event, of the total 300 questions distributed through the internal systems, 90 responses were received and these have formed the basis of the data for analysis. The questionnaire sought monitoring data on respondents in respect of their:

  • age, sex, ethnic origin and disability;
  • post, classified as either social workers and care managers, occupational therapists, senior practitioners, group and team leaders or managerial, support and administrative posts;
  • location, classified as either Canterbury and Thanet Area, Dartford and Gravsharn Area, Medway Swale Area, Mid Kent Area, South East Kent Area or Springfield / Headquarters;
  • user group, classified as either mental health, children and families, elders or disability; area of practice, classified as either field workers or others.

Responses were sought under three main headings:

  • respondents’ knowledge and value of each of the 8 KRSG initiatives;
  • respondents’ perceived opportunities and constraints for engaging in research activity;
  • respondents’ research interests and activity.

Cross tabulation

For the purpose of analysis systematic cross-tabulation of responses to the rating of each RSG initiative, the opportunities and constraints to research and respondents’ research interests was made against the respondents’ post, location, user group, and area of practice. A framework for analysis of the data was thus established that would provide an indication not only of the general impact to date of the KRSG initiatives and the perceived opportunities and constraints to practitioner research experienced amongst the workforce; but also any significant variations across the county in respect of respondents’ location, post, user group or area of practice. Cross tabulation with respect to sex, race/ethnicity, disability etc. was not undertaken. This is primarily because of the limited variation and response numbers in these personal profile characteristics.

Results

Knowledge, utilisation and value of KRSG initiatives

Respondents were asked to comment both on their knowledge and utilisation, and the value, of each of the KRSG initiatives. Respondents were first asked to indicate whether they were unaware or aware of each initiative. Those that were aware were then asked to indicate whether they: did not use, occasionally used or regularly used the service. Respondents were then asked to indicate whether they considered each initiative to be of little, occasional or direct value to them. Overall findings in respect of knowledge, occasional and regular use and direct value of each initiative are illustrated in Tables 1 and 2.

Table 1: Knowledge and -application of each KI1SG initiative

RSG initiative Unaware Aware regular use Aware occasional use Aware not used no. of respondents
Library 13 21 25 28 87
NISWIS 34 8 20 23 85
Research Skills Workshops 32 8 15 30 85
Kent Journal of Practice Research 36 5 20 25 87
Research in Practice Seminars 55 4 14 13 86
Area Research Group 35 3 7 40 85
Researchers Guide to the Galaxy 40 1 8 35 84
Social Work Research Association 58 1 5 22 86

Table 2: Value of each KRSG initiative

RSG Initiative Direct value occasional value little value respondents
Library 39 17 9 63
NISWIS 26 13 19 58
Research Skills Workshop 22 13 17 52
Kent Journal of Practice Research 17 18 17 52
Research in Practice Seminars 13 15 18 46
Area Research Group 10 19 18 47
Researchers Guide to the Galaxy 9 21 15 45
Social Work Research Association 7 10 25 42

Opportunities and constraints to undertaking and applying research

Responses were sought to five questions regarding opportunities and five questions regarding constraints to practitioner research activities. The responses to the questions were cross-tabulated with the four key areas used throughout this report: location, user group, post andpractice setting. Tables 3 and 4 record the overall responses to questions in the assessment instrument about the opportunities and constraints on respondents applying research findings and undertaking research.

Research interests

Responses were sought regarding respondents’ interest in: gaining greater knowledge of research findings, undertaking research themselves and previous or current involvement in’ research activity.

From the wide range of replies to an open question, the responses were classified into eleven categories representing aspects of the both the ‘process’ of work and service delivery, e.g. assessment, planning, implementation and evaluation and issues relating to effective and ethical practice, e.g.: equality, inter-agency work, eliciting users’ views and matters relating to the organisation, training and professional development. Table 5 illustrates the overall picture of responses to questions about research interests and activity.

Discussion

Practitioner motivation to engage in and utilise research

Much could be achieved if there were a greater appreciation of practice skills, better understanding of the pressures on the time of practitioners, and if the approach could be less top-down and more bottom-up. Practitioners need to own research; they must be involved in setting the research agenda, participating in its implementation and cooperating in evaluation and development …. Without some sense of involvement with research, without a sense of ownership, a practitioner is less likely to accept research findings as an aid to problem solving. (DOH, 1994:17)

Table 3: Overall responses to opportunities for undertaking and applying research

Question Yes Some No Total
Are opportunities given to attend workshops, seminars or conferences on research in your area? 59 7 18 84
Are you encouraged by your line manager or supervisor.to relate research findings to your decision making and practice? 46 11 26 83
Are journals and reports giving research findings on your area of practice easily accessible? 32 20 33 85
Are you encouraged by your line manager or supervisor to conduct research? 29 8 45 82
Are research issues and findings regularly discussed in supervision or team meetings? 21 25 40 86

Table 4: Overall constraints to undertaking and applying research

Question Yes Some No Total
Is there a lack of time to conduct research? 75 3 6 84
Is there a lack of time to consider and apply research findings? 64 6 11 81
Is there a lack of information or literature on research findings? 30 10 38 78
Is there a lack of interest by line managers, supervisors, colleagues in discussing research findings? 10 7 67 84
Is there a lack of support from your line manager for you to conduct research? 5 3 68 76

Table 5: Research Interests

Interested in further knowledge of research Interested in undertaking research Involved in research
Implementation 53 39 10
Planning 46 27 13
Monitoring/Evaluation 10 11 6
Assessment 9 2 1
Inter-Agency 8 3 3
Equality 7 5 4
Organisational Structure 7 0 6
Criteria 4 5 1
User views 4 3 2
Professional Development 1 1 5
Training 1 0 0
Total 149 99 51

The results of this study indicate that such initiatives as the KRSG suggest an implicit acknowledgement of the value of practitioner research within the social services department. However, the organisational context and operational demands on practitioners and managers are the key determinants in shaping a working environment that is compatible with achieving a research minded and active workforce.

In addition to opportunities for engaging in research activity, the motivation of the workforce must equally be considered. Motivation to engage in research activity depends on the extent to which managers and practitioners perceive the agency as both sharing the value base which underpins their work and values the work they undertake on its behalf. Without operational practices and resources to support staff engaged in research activity policy statements and initiatives are unlikely to impact significantly upon the workforce.

Practitioner research highlights the organisational tension within social services departments over the control of the decision-making processes regarding choice of methods of intervention. Hasenfield argues that human service organisations present an essential contradiction to their workforce which he describes as a battle between service managers and practitioners over control of ‘service trajectories’:

The agency, in effect, controls the decision making process of its workers by constraining the type of information they will process, by limiting the range of alternatives available to them, and by specifying the decision rules for choosing among the alternatives… Technologies ascend in importance as they gain greater legitimacy in the institutional environment. They do so through their demonstrated capacity to reinforce important values and norms. That is, they can demonstrate effectiveness and efficiency as defined by the institutional environment and practised in the technological environment. (Hasenfeld, 1992:261)

Pahl has also highlighted these tensions as they apply to research in social work and social welfare:

The current emphasis on researching the views of service users sounds good when research is planned, but when the results are critical of current provision managers may disown what they originally welcomed. (PahI, 1992:218)

She identifies two approaches that the researcher may adopt. Either ‘swimming with the policy stream’, where the researcher works within the policy framework, or ‘diverting the stream’, where the researcher challenges the policy framework of the day and is witness to the failings of policy makers and service providers (see also Rein, 1976).

The findings from this study suggest that the research agenda in Kent is primarily driven by planners and managers with little recognition of the concerns of and time constraints on practitioners. In Kent the social services department’s preoccupation with survival and the constant round of re-structuring and rationalisation has generated a culture within the workforce which Hadley and Clough argue characterises social work departments nationally:

People are working in a growing atmosphere of conformity and secrecy, and are afraid to speak out about what is happening.” (1996:33)

They claim that service managers’ overriding concern with survival leads to a prioritising of presentation over quality of information and an increasing mistrust of information and statistics amongst the workforce.

Clearly, this situation is not conducive to a working environment that is receptive to research activity.

Research ‘mindedness’

Research literacy should be a component of professional and managerial training: “An even flow of research consciousness through training into practice would not only help develop professional strength and pride but encourage effective dissemination of research findings.” (DoH, 1994:23)

This study indicates that the principle constraint to promoting ‘research-mindedness’ amongst practitioners is the emphasis placed upon ‘achieving targets and undertaking task centred work within a climate of increased caseloads. This approach to practice is problematic in seeking a shift:

away from a dichotomous model and towards a more reciprocal, participatory model within which the practitioner is much more active in making connections between existing research and their own research and practice. (Barn and Harrison, 1995: 10)

Hart and Bond’s typology and its distinguishing criteria in respect of an action research model provides an approach that seeks to integrate research with practitioner concerns. In Kent, Heasman has presented a useful approach to the notion of professional competence that outlines the relationship between practice, reflection and research. (Heasman, 1996)

The findings of the study suggests that most research in Kent has been completed or is being undertaken in the areas of planning and implementation by respondents based at headquarters. Amongst field workers, ‘training’ and ‘professional development’ were the least rated areas of interest. Responses from two Areas indicated a lack of awareness of the KMG research skills workshops. 87% of respondents working with older people reported that they did not know of this initiative and 62% of mental health workers rated this initiative as being of little value. The apparent lack of interest and activity relating to users’ views is a significant feature in all the replies. These findings indicate the need for comprehensive and appropriate research training across the department.

Resourcing research

Existing research must be collated and made easily accessible: ‘Vell stocked libraries are of little value if staff have no opportunity to use them.” (DoH, 1994:17)

A key issue arising from this study is the lack of available of time for practitioners to develop and utilise practice research skills as part of their everyday practice. The findings suggests that for practitioners and managers conducting research activities within the context of education and training programmes the initiatives of the KRSG were of considerable value. However for staff who were not engaged in formal arrangements for continuing professional development, the everyday pressures of the. working environment prevented their engaging in research activity. The availability of the’ range of resources provided through the KRSG initiatives proved to be of little value where managers and practitioners were too busy to access and utilise them.

Responses to the questions, ‘Is there a lack of time to consider and apply research findings?’ and ‘Is there a lack of time to conduct research?’ reveal a high level of support to undertake research. However this clearly has not been translated into the allocation of time to either conduct or to consider and apply research findings. In all, findings suggest that research activity was not considered an integral part of routine work.

Routine practice and research

The purpose of (this) research is to inform both policy and practice in order to improve the lives of clients through the quality and delivery of the services they receive. (DoH, 1994:7)

The importance of gathering information on the outcomes of service interventions in community care, particularly in relation to their impacts on service users, has been noted by the Social Services Research Group Conference, Outcomes in Community Care. A scoping study undertaken for the DoH by the University of York Social Policy Research Unit concluded:

Despite a general interest in outcomes, there are many organisational, professional and technical obstacles to be overcome before outcomes could be examined in the course of routine practice. (Nocon and Qureshi, 1996:5)

Our findings suggest that, in order to promote an organisational culture that is conducive to practitioner research activity, a mutually agreed research agenda between service policy makers, managers and professionals and users is a prerequisite to the adoption of a model of professional practice that included research awareness and subsequent allocation of appropriate resources and support mechanisms to resource the research activity.

Additionally there remains the issue of accessing, collating and dissemination of data to:

inform management decision making. abou possible causal process and appropriate interventions. (Challis, 1996:1)

One such approach, the Performance Indicator Analytic Framework (P1AF), to identifying a suite of performance indicators: needs – supply – practice process – service process – outcomes for the care of older people has been implemented in Cheshire SSI). This goes some way towards addressing the need to acquire, analyse, disseminate and apply relevant and current data as part of the routine practice of social services staff. An approach has not as yet been developed in Kent that ensures that:

..the right information is routinely presented to the right people at the right time, and that they do something with it. (Whyte, 1996:2)

Conclusion

Research activity relating to social work practice is doubly problematic. Firstly social work research, by its very nature, it is not an activity that fits easily within a scientific/empirical paradigm or methodology (Bames, 1994). Secondly, it is increasingly constrained and directed by agency priorities that seek to objectify needs, problems, procedures and subsequent interventions and that question the centrality of social work practice as the key professional discipline within the personal social services.

This study indicates that the Kent RSG initiatives have provided a limited resource and limited incentive to some practitioners. However, as confirmed in an earlier study of the care management service in Kent (Adams, 1995), many practitioners still do not consider research findings or undertake research activities as part of their normal working practice. The lack of research awareness and activity amongst care managers relative to other posts is a significant finding, particularly given the general trend towards adopting this approach to all client groups.

This study further indicates that unresolved dilemmas about the nature of social work and competing organisational, financial and professional agendas within the personal social services, are undermining agreement about the role for practitioner research.

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