Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching

The nature of assessment: The purposes of assessment

At first sight, the answer to the question of the purpose of social work assessment seems self-evident. It is the assessment of need, isn’t it? Or is it a judgement about eligibility? No, it’s a calculation of the match between need and available resources. But then there is the evaluation of risk and of urgency. And so the debate may go on, dispelling any sense that the purpose of assessment is self-evident. It is not surprising that the review of the literature by Crisp and colleagues found that social workers undertake assessments for a range of purposes and that there is no consensus on what those purposes are (Crisp et al, 2003).

The response to the question of purpose will vary according to the level at which purpose is being analysed. The examples given above, about need, eligibility and so on, tend to imply person-centred encounters between the social worker and, say, an individual or family. If the focus shifts from this inter-personal level to the wider societal level and endeavours to link the two, different concepts come on to the agenda. It becomes possible to see assessment as a small but significant operational step multiplied hundreds and thousand of times across agencies in the service of groups of policies or more general social, economic and political goals.

For example, assessments are shaped by policies to protect vulnerable children and adults, to integrate people who are socially excluded and to prolong or improve independence and the ability to work. These care-focused social objectives connect with other, control-oriented goals that are also part of the influence on assessment and condition its purpose, especially in the statutory sector and among the agencies the sector commissions: for instance, control of abusers, management and reform of offenders, rationing of demand and containment of public sector costs.

Looked at in this way, assessment becomes not only multi-faceted but multi-layered in ways that are seldom visible in the assessment encounters of individuals. The wide reach of assessment is demonstrated in the view that assessment has for many years been ‘an important tool for policy makers to achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness’ in services (Clarkson et al, 2006). The importance and distinctiveness of the assessment encounters of individuals are not diminished by the wider analysis. Assessment is one of the key arenas in which, influenced by service and policy objectives, particular versions of ‘clienthood’ are constructed or revised (Hall et al, 2003). Individual assessments may be made on the basis of ‘professional judgement’ or a set of independent, agency criteria, but both are carriers of judgements and priorities formulated outside the assessment situation.

It is evident that assessment does not have a purpose but purposes. One way to explore the picture further is to ask, ‘for whom or what is assessment being undertaken?’ and to concentrate on where the main emphasis is found. This approach embodies the idea that assessment takes place in the service of particular interests and, far from being a singular and fixed entity, will shift as those interests pull it in different directions. Five kinds of purpose are distinguished in Fig. 1 and the text that follows. Each ‘purpose’ is represented by the assessor acting as agent of a set of interests or goals and being cast in a corresponding role.

Fig. 1 Five purposes of assessment

Purpose: interests or goals for which the assessor is agent

Assessor role

1 Individual and public protection

Risk assessor

2 Service user and carer needs

‘traditional’ professional

3 Service user and carer representation


4 Agency function, policy and priorities

Agency representative

5 Other professions or agencies


Risk assessor

All four assessment frameworks reviewed by Crisp and colleagues (2005) were centrally concerned with protection and risk, supporting the view that concern with risk is a significant element of social care services. The purpose is the protection of individual service users and carers, other members of the public and staff. In a different sense, the aim is also protection of the agency from liability and reputational risk (Whittington, 2006).

National codes of practice for care workers emphasise the role of risk assessor and protector of service users (CCW, 2002; GSCC, 2002; NISCC, 2002). The related concern of wider public protection and safety (Ritchie et al, 1994; Francis et al, 2006) is a duty of care services across the UK, driving efforts at cooperation between departments and appearing explicitly in the title of some responsible departments, such as the Northern Ireland Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

‘Traditional’ professional

In this typically person-centred manifestation, the purpose of assessment focuses on needs and expectations, problems and solutions, and weaknesses and strengths, mediated by the social worker’s professional judgement. The level of involvement of the service user may vary from recipient through contributor to active partner. In some cases the worker is a facilitator whose enabling role, as outlined in the NOS, helps users and carers themselves to assess ‘their needs, circumstances, risks, preferred options and resources’ and to make informed decisions about them (TOPSS UK Partnership, 2004, Key roles 1, 2.4).


Key role 3 of the NOS introduces the idea that social workers must assess the kind of role they are needed to play in a given case and to judge whether, for instance, they should act as advocate. This statement adds weight to the contention here that the assessment process not only constructs the role of client, as indicated earlier, but also of worker. The role of advocate connects with a set of expectations recorded from consultations with representatives of service users for the NOS (TOPSS UK Partnership, 2004). According to the consultation, social workers are expected to help others to represent themselves, advise on and involve independent advocacy, challenge lack of access to services and challenge their own organisation on behalf of others, seeking new service options where they are needed (TOPSS UK Partnership, 2004; Crisp et al, 2003, pp 1–2).

Agency representative

This role is characterised by the task of implementing agency policy and priorities. It may conceivably incorporate any of the other roles and purposes discussed here but its main characteristic is that the worker’s primary reference point is what the agency requires and is there to do, sometimes called ‘agency function’. The agency’s function and related resources and duties are empowering to workers and their assessment role. However, functions and resources are also defined and given boundaries. Assessment may contribute to that boundary-keeping by determining eligibility, distinguishing priorities and rationing services. Assessment also commonly plays a key part in defining the element of social control that should be part of any intervention, again deriving its authority from the agency function. It is not hard to see the potential for tension between service-providing and rationing and between care and control, or for conflict with the other roles and purposes described in this section.

Assessor as proxy

The clearest example of this purpose is when the social worker is engaged in assessment to provide information to facilitate the decision-making of others, such as the law courts (Crisp et al, 2003). A second example is found in the care councils’ codes of practice, which expect the social care worker to advise other professions and agencies of risk assessment findings (CCW, 2002; GSCC, 2002; NISCC, 2002). A third but weaker example concerns participation in multi-disciplinary assessments. The example is weaker because the social worker is only partially the agent of the other disciplines (and sometimes not at all), owing a duty in the process to one or more of the other roles and purposes described here.

The five categories of purpose and agent have been described separately but in the real world of practice they are found in various combinations. Their relationship is dynamic. One purpose may tend to predominate in a particular assessment or type of employing agency with other purposes coming into play and even competing as the assessment process unfolds.

Questions for educators

  • Do students have the opportunity to study the multiple purposes and interests that assessment may serve and the implications for their role?
  • Are there opportunities to consider the purposes of particular kinds of assessment and to practise the explanation and negotiation of purpose with service users and carers?
  • Are students able to explore the potentially dynamic relationship between purposes, the potential contradictions between them and the scope for resolving contradictions?

Next: Who is being assessed?