This paper presents the methodology and findings of a systematic review of the available evidence relating to social workers experience of bureaucracy in practice. The study is international, and includes English Language papers published in peer reviewed journals between 1990 and 2020.
Initially the research question in the paper is a little vague, posing the question to social workers ‘what should be prioritised in the delivery of social services?” (p.513) however it does clarify this, with the stated the aim of the review being to “shine a light upon its [bureaucracy] effect on social work practice by synthesing social workers experiences…as presented in published qualitative studies.” (p.514) The link with practice and the impact of paperwork on practice is the key theme for both questions, and the researchers consider them both in their synthesis.
From an initial search of the key databases, using a clear search strategy of keyword Boolean searches, a total of 1,137 citations were identified, this was reduced to 509 once duplicates were removed. The researchers applied inclusion and exclusion criteria to reduce the papers down to the most relevant. This was not based on quality of the research, using something like the CASP qualitative study tool for example (CASP, 2023), but focused on relevance of the findings to the social work experience of bureaucracy in practice.
In total 39 papers were included, covering a range of practice areas, including child protection, schools, palliative care, mental health, criminal justice and physical disability. Several countries were included, these were the UK (17 papers), Europe (9 papers), Middle East (4), Asia, Australasia, transnational studies, and North America (2), and 1 paper from South Africa. The researchers note that there was an increase in published studies from 2006 onwards and this is reflected in the included papers, with 15 (38.5%) being published since 2016.
From the 39 papers included, the researchers identified themes and sub-themes which were included in the paper’s findings and analysis, four out of the five were viewed as negative impacts of bureaucratic systems, these included:
- Negative effects of bureaucracy on the social worker & profession.
- Bureaucratic demands increased through technology.
- Deskilling the workforce, particularly in relation to the function and importance of supervision.
- Job insecurity – which here in the UK is fuelled by an increase in staff turnover (Skills for Care, 2023), ever increasing use of the locum market and skyrocketing bullying and harassment allegations (BASW 2023) which contribute to this instability.
- Impact on well-being and heightened frustration – particularly where the system is seen as conflicting with their social work values.
- Risk to service users – perceived as resulting from:
- Losing sight of the client and their needs.
- Shifting ethos from effectiveness to efficiency.
- Service users unable to navigate systems.
- Resistance to bureaucracy
- Narratives of resistance are common – with regulation being seen as control rather than required systems with social workers commonly demanding more time and greater autonomy. This suggests that the profession does not accept a managerial approach despite seemingly complying with its requirements on a routine basis.
- Specific acts of resistance – passive resistance by manipulation of criteria or access requirements appears to be a commonly employed strategy for navigating difficult systems.
- Coping & accommodation strategies – these included focusing on other issues (for example lack of resources) and the value of peer support in practice to work through concerns and anxieties as they occur.
- Positive perceptions of bureaucracy – whilst highlighted as a theme, the discussion of these factors is limited.
All factors that warrant consideration and which anecdotally social workers talk about (with the exception of theme 5 which while noted, is not explored with any depth).
The conclusion of this synthesis is that bureaucracy is having a negative impact on the profession across several countries, a conclusion that I’m sure many practitioners would agree with. Munro (2004; 2011) is cited, with opposing views on the use of professional discretion forming much of the discussion. The researchers present their synthesis as supporting the view that bureaucracy is negative and is impacting both on practitioner and service user experiences of social care and social work services.
Strengths & Limitations
The methodology presented by the authors of this paper is clear and on first glance appears robust, however digging a little deeper into the results, findings and subsequent interpretations, there are a number of areas where potential bias is identified (some of which the authors acknowledge and some of which they don’t).
Some of the things that occurred to me, as I was reading the paper down by the campfire, included that the search strategy outlined by the researcher isn’t wholly without bias; despite stating that they tried to minimise this. For example, increased recording is also associated with increased governance and assurance in practice, but this does not appear to be represented in the search terms used. It may be that a wider strategy, including more neutral terms such as recording, assurance, governance, accountability, regulation, evidencing, for example, may have resulted in the initial pool including more of those that experience the systems as helpful rather than hindering the process (I’m not sure that’s the case, I haven’t actually looked, however what the paper does not do is either present that balance, or point out there is one to be had in the first place). While not discounted, the themes that the researchers frame as positive implications (e.g., certainty and shared accountability), are not fully explored and this leaves the paper somewhat unbalanced in terms of the attention being paid to different sets of results.
International studies are compared side-by-side and used as comparators, which does show that the issue is a common one across several continents but does not consider the role of Social Work its historical development or current purpose and function in each of these territories. In some countries Social Work is a protected profession (as in the UK), in others it is a civil servant or a charity-based service, to what extent do the functions and expectations of the role in its context have on how social workers feel about the paperwork? As a bit of a nerd on these types of things I think it is an interesting area to consider and gives rise to many questions that I don’t think we know the answer to; For example – how much is too much paperwork? What do we actually need to record in order to assure that services are safe and doing what they are supposed to? How much time is the person in need of care and support losing to what is conceptualized as a mountain of paperwork? Is the social worker actually doing that paperwork in any case? (it is harsh to say I know, but SARs, Inquiries, Fitness to Practice and a raft of other measures often highlight record keeping as a gap in practice, if everyone was doing all their admin all the time surely this wouldn’t be a thing?) What do we mean when we say it’s all admin and IT? And to what extent do issues such as digital literacy across the profession impact on this time? Is it all consuming or do we not know how to do it?
There is also little acknowledgement of the changing context of practice between 1990 – 2020, which I think is a key to this discussion. The world has changed dramatically over the 30-year timeline, as has the role of social work within it, for example increased regulation and statutory frameworks across the public sector in the UK, changing and flexing over time and over different political administrations. The studies that the researchers include in this synthesis, whilst definitely part of the picture, occur in context which is not fully considered.
There is no doubt bureaucracy impacts on social work roles, functions and expectations, but it would be helpful to both consider and define what the term means in each country in the time and political context in which it occurred to understand the experiences of those involved and be able to make meaningful comparisons between the various study groups.
Implications for Practice
The authors of the paper set out what they have identified as implications within the presentation of their research, and these including a range of factors which impact on practitioner wellbeing, for example stress, workload pressures and ethical stress, all of which are perceived as part of the system in which social work operates. These do reflect the reality in many social work teams, however what it does not do is offer any real solutions.
Debates about professional opinion and discretion is a live discussion for social workers in the UK, with different contexts imposing different levels of control, but in all practice settings, what is needed is some form of governance and assurance. Without rules and expectations people go ‘native’ and make up their own rules, that’s how closed environments prosper (see PICH, 2023 for example). The days of being able to say ‘In my professional opinion…’ are long gone, with some really good reasons, and the resistance this paper highlights is a real worry. Resistance is a negative way to navigate and influence systems, however factors such as use of disclosure, working around systems and delaying sanctions are all identified as ‘creative’ opportunities for small scale acts to disrupt bureaucracy and improve outcomes. Whilst I agree with the researchers on how people experience the systems they work in, I am not convinced that it is all negative, or that encouraging passive resistance is a good thing.
Social Workers in the UK are ultimately both an agent of the state and advocate of the individual, and this duality of role needs both assurance and governance as well as professional responsibility – there are many inquiries that point to what happens when people ignore the rules, or where the rules are not clear or upheld. There are things to learn from this study without a doubt – that social workers resent paperwork and admin being the key one (no great surprise there), but more importantly that we are using resistance rather than challenge and influence to attempt to make changes, with burn-out a common experience across several continents. These are important points as they speak to the common experience of social work and where it is positioned in different societies. How we feel as professionals impacts on what we do, and social workers it appears are feeling overwhelmed and burnt-out by ever increasing regulation. Surely there has to be a middle ground somewhere, a system that can provide assurance while still supporting professional, evidence-informed, decision making?
Conflicts of Interest
Pascoe, K.M., Waterhouse-Bradley, B., & McGinn, T. (2023) “Social Workers’ Experience of Bureaucracy: A Systemic Synthesis of Qualitative Studies.” British Journal of Social Work, 53, 513-533.
To listen to Dr Pascoe discussing her paper with Dr Martin Webber following early access release of the article in October 2022 – Musings of a Social Work Academic – Episode 40
BASW (2023) BASW Annual Survey of membership highlights investment needed for social work “ [Online], Accessed 22/10/2023. Available at: BASW Annual Survey of membership highlights investment needed for social work | BASW
CASP (2018) CASP Qualitative Checklist. [Online], Accessed 21/10/2023, Available at: CASP-Qualitative-Checklist-2018_fillable_form.pdf (casp-uk.net)
Munro E (2004) “The Impact of Audit of Social Work Practice.” British Journal of Social Work, 34 (8), 1075 – 1095.
Munro E (2011) The Munro review of Child Protection: Final Report. London: DfE
Partners in Care & Health (2023) Safeguarding roles and responsibilities: Safeguarding is everybody’s business.” LGA [Online] Accessed 22/10/2023. Available at: Safeguarding roles and responsibilities: Safeguarding is everybody’s business | Local Government Association
Skills for Care (2023) “The state of the adult social care sector and workforce in England” [Online], Accessed 22/10/2023. Available at: The state of the adult social care sector and workforce in England (skillsforcare.org.uk)