Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching

The context of assessment: Organisational issues

There are plenty of examples in the foregoing sections to make it clear that assessment does not take place in a vacuum. It is driven, enabled and constrained by a number of factors, and one of them is the social worker’s organisation. Social work in the UK is typically carried out in organisational employment. It is through organisations, large and small, that policies are interpreted or formulated, resources, including staff, are secured and skills and other services are deployed. Accordingly, professional values, objectives and decision-making are pursued in an organisational context.

This intersection of the organisational and the professional is clearly manifest in the national occupational standards (NOS) for social work (TOPSS UK Partnership, 2004). To paraphrase, the NOS expect social workers to:

These expectations and objectives may generally be accepted by social workers but tensions can arise when some injunctions are followed. For instance, working within the risk procedures of the organisation may not always be compatible with the expectation from service users and carers (also stated in the NOS) that social workers should support appropriate risk-taking and be willing to challenge their employing organisation. This example draws attention to the politics of organisational employment of social workers.

Politics are prone to surface particularly around issues of resources and service standards, which have a key bearing on assessment, and are implicitly recognised in the NOS themselves. Take, for example, the monitoring of effectiveness in meeting need. Social workers should have access to organisational systems required by the employers’ national codes to enable them to report inadequate resources or operational difficulties (TOPSS UK Partnership, 2004, p 7). As a further resort, social workers who find that national service standards are not being met are expected to seek advice from professional organisations about appropriate courses of action (TOPSS UK Partnership, 2004, Key role 5 15.2.d).

The examples and significance of organisational pervasiveness in assessment and in questions of resources suggest that organisational matters should have a central place in learning about assessment. It appears, however, that discussion of organisational dimensions is not widespread in the textbooks reviewed, although some authors do pay particular attention to organisational constraints on the scope and number of assessments (Middleton in Crisp et al, 2005, pp 147–51).

The assessment frameworks deal with organisational dimensions patchily. The children and families framework includes two chapters on organisational arrangements to support effective assessment of children in need as well as roles and responsibilities in inter-agency assessment (Crisp et al, 2005, p 170). The framework for older people anticipates development of practical resources like assessment tools and refers briefly to the organisational implications of shared assessment and inter-agency working (p 185).

It is paradoxical to speak of the way that assessment frameworks address organisational matters when they are organisational artefacts themselves. The same is true particularly of locally developed assessment tools and procedures. For some social work students making client assessments in agency-based practice placement and using local assessment tools, the tools are for that moment, in a sense, the organisation. This experience provides opportunities for learning about the relationship of organisations and assessment at the same time as examining the pros and cons of standard assessment tools.

Questions for educators

  • Do the learning materials used pay attention to the nature of organisational employment of social workers and the implications for assessment?
  • Are there opportunities to explore the politics of assessment that can surface between social worker and organisation when there are differences over goals, standards, resources or procedures?

Next: Collaborative assessment with other professions and agencies