Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching

Service users and carers: Involvement of service users and carers in assessment

There is growing understanding of the factors that help to make user involvement work (Beresford and Branfield, 2006). A central factor is to have user knowledge taken seriously by professionals and policy-makers. Where this has happened, service users and carers have become regarded increasingly as key participants in the assessment process, an expectation that service user and carer interests made clear in the consultations for the NOS (TOPSS UK Partnership, 2004). Service user involvement has arisen as a direct or implicit challenge to earlier assumptions and practices. For example, the trend towards involvement has been supported by the emergence of solutions-focused and strengths-based models of practice (Parton and O’Byrne, 2000; Morgan, 2004). These models question approaches that focus assessment on problems and weaknesses and seek to build on the knowledge, abilities and past successes of the service user.

Some of the textbooks reviewed by Crisp and colleagues (2005) stress the critical nature of involvement. No longer confined to the role of respondents in the social worker’s gathering of information, service users and carers are active contributors at the centre of assessment. A further approach sets out the respective expertise of service users and social workers, describing them in a collaborative exchange. Assessment and what follows depends on the reciprocal contribution of the service user’s special knowledge of themselves and their situation and the social worker’s skills in exploring problems, negotiating solutions and accessing resources. Other texts similarly recognised the importance of service user and carer views but drew attention to the statutory duties of many social workers and their obligation to make professional judgements about care and control.

Similar considerations affect frameworks. Partnership with service users and carers is valued but it is recognised that in some assessments a collaborative approach cannot be sustained if there are concerns about harm or abuse. Some textbooks also noted the pressure on assessors from the ‘public’ (represented usually by the news media and party political interests) not to make mistakes or to allow risky behaviour that may result in harm and outcry. It is implied that such pressures may narrow scope for service-user involvement.

All the assessment frameworks regard involvement of service users and carers as integral to the assessment process (Crisp et al, 2005, p 50). They also emphasise that the needs of the person being assessed are paramount for the purpose of the assessment and that those needs should not be overshadowed by the needs of other family members. In the case of the carer’s assessment, the carer is the client or service user and a participant in a carer-centred assessment.

Taken together, the British textbooks and frameworks are the more reliable source of information on involvement of service users and carers in assessment when compared with overseas publications. The declared commitment to this approach in UK social work and social policy is, according to Crisp and colleagues, not evident in the passages on assessment processes in the two US textbooks or, to any extent, in the Australian text (2005, App 1).

Question for educators

  • Do teaching and learning cover the different kinds of involvement of service users and carers debated in UK social work and expected by user and carer groups and social policy?
  • Do students have the opportunity to learn how users wish to be involved in the definition and exploration of their issues during assessment?

Next: User-led assessment