2023 News

Experts discuss why, how social workers change policy

Social policy is a part of social work at almost every turn, yet many of the insights from the profession never find their way into the programs and rules that govern social workers’ efforts. What prompts helping professionals to take up policy work, and which strategies are most effective for influencing policy?

Social workers and scholars around the world gathered virtually on January 26 to discuss these subjects at Social Work in Social Policy: Engagement Strategies for Today and the Next Generation—A Book Event.

Organized by the Center for Social Development, the event featured a panel discussion with John Gal and Idit Weiss-Gal, authors of the new book When Social Workers Impact Policy and Don’t Just Implement It: A Framework for Understanding Policy Engagement (Policy Press).

John Gal said research they conducted for the book shows that whether and how social workers engage in policy work depends in part on the environments in which they operate. Gal is Full Professor and former Dean at the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

He noted that motivation to engage can come from the severity of specific problems and the nature of related policies, as well as the extent to which the social work profession is embedded within society and the profession’s discourse favors policy engagement.

Policy engagement, identity, and opportunity

Other factors, including individual values, gender, race, and ethnicity, also come into play.

Assistant Professor Husain Lateef teaches social welfare policy to students at Washington University’s Brown School. “Many of my students come from very diverse backgrounds,” he said. Their attitudes on policy engagement are shaped by their identity and experiences with sociocultural stressors, he noted, so attitudes differ.

But differences diminish, he said, “when the institutional environment of social work students’ education provides them with equitable opportunities to build motivation.”

Opportunity structures exert other influences on decisions about engagement.

Lateef noted that students’ finances can create pressure that “may limit their sight in thinking about policy as a viable option for gainful employment” after graduation. For those social workers, he said, policy work is a matter of volunteerism, not employment, and that work takes place outside of an economic model for policy engagement.

Motivation for policy work can also bend to priorities of employers, Gal said. Research for the book shows that “the policy engagement of these social workers was much dependent on the organizational culture of their workplace and the way it views policy engagement.”

Gal also pointed to the influences of laws on political involvement, mission statements, and professional ethics in shaping the culture of organizations.

Inspiring engagement

Panelist Sarah Butts, Director of Public Policy at the National Association of Social Workers, observed that the association’s code of ethics explicitly calls for policy engagement, yet many social workers never “give testimony at public hearings, send written comments on proposed legislative change, or make use of opportunities to impact regulations.”

“How do we inspire all social workers to become more involved?” Butts asked.

“How do we inspire all social workers to become more involved?”

Sarah C. Butts
John Gal
Idit Weiss-Gal
Sarah C. Butts
Charles E. Lewis Jr.
Husain Lateef
Riccardo Guidi
Michael Sherraden
Video | Social Work in Social Policy: Engagement Strategies for Today and the Next Generation—A Book Event

Weiss-Gal said that the responsibility begins with institutions, particularly “schools of social work and the professional organizations.”

“We need to install the perception that all social workers can engage in policy, and not only experts and not only social workers in specific positions,” she added. “This is very, very important to do from the beginning of the professional socialization.”

Some students are intimidated by the work, Gal said. “When they think of policy, they think what they have to do is to begin a process and to lead that process, continue that process until policies change.”

“That it’s not the case,” he said. “You work with other people. You work in coalition with other social workers, with service users, with advocacy organizations. Your role can just be to get the ball rolling, or your role can be just to give one idea about the new policy.”

“Everyone can do something,” Weiss-Gal said.

Weiss-Gal also to the responsibilities of professional associations: “to do conferences on this, to give examples, to publish social workers that engage in policy, to make courses for social work.” Professional associations can give visibility to policy activity, she said.

“It is not enough to want to impact policy. You have to find a way to do so—to access the places where policy is decided.”

John Gal

Gal said, “It is not enough to want to impact policy. You have to find a way to do so—to access the places where policy is decided.”

Charles Lewis, Director of the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy, acknowledged that research can facilitate that sort of access, and he asked whether the book’s policy engagement framework could help social work researchers to translate their findings.

“Many times the research that’s being done by social workers is not really connected to the deliberations that are happening on the Hill,” Lewis said.

“They want policy recommendations,” Gal acknowledged. “We can do that if we take our research and try to translate it into the language, into something that has meaning for policymakers.”

“Sometimes our role is to raise issues to place them on the agenda through our research,” he added. “Sometimes it’s to give very specific policy recommendations.”

Policy engagement and political bias

In policy engagement, teaching, and scholarship, said Michael Sherraden, social workers must contend with the possibility that their activity will be characterized as political. Sherraden is the George Warren Brown Distinguished University Professor at Washington University and Founding Director of the Center for Social Development. He moderated the event.

Sherraden asked how professionals should navigate that risk. “This is complex ground,” he said, “especially for people who are teaching in public universities in the United States at the present time.”

“I think we can get around this to a certain degree by doing research,” said Gal. “If we do good research, and we stick to our values, and we stick to the issues, and we deal with issues that are important, I think we can have an impact.”

“In my practical classes, we start from problem that the social worker sees from their service users,” said Weiss-Gal. “They bring the subject from the field. So then it’s a problem in the policy that they can see,” rather than a partisan issue, she said.

“This is a sort of fraught territory for all of us,” said Sherraden. “Some people will accuse us of being partisan when we, from our perspective, are just teaching or doing research on something, getting evidence, trying to teach effective practice representing social work values.”

An emerging trend?

Noting the recent publication of numerous studies on policy engagement in social work, panelist Riccardo Guidi, Associate Professor in Sociology at the Department of Political Science at the University of Pisa, asked whether interest in the subject is driven by real changes “in the world of social work” or by new sensitivity to the subject.

“I can say, without a doubt, that there is a transformative trend in the social work community. The same can be said with regard to social work education,” Weiss-Gal said of the growing interest in policy work.

But it is less clear in social work practice. “I think that we can certainly speak about change, but not necessarily describe it as a transformative a trend,” she said.

“There is a change in the way street-level frontline social workers perceive their policy role and the level of engagement in policy, particularly at the local level.”

Idit Weiss-Gal

“There is a change in the way street-level frontline social workers perceive their policy role and the level of engagement in policy, particularly at the local level,” she added.

“But I think that we will be able to talk about a transformative trend in social work practice when much more social workers hold policy change positions inside and outside government. And, more importantly, when more social workers perceive their job, his or her job, as including policy engagement.” In this, she said, “the social work profession still has a long way to go.”

Weiss-Gal continued, “It’s very important to create an atmosphere and to create the space for policy engagement. And social workers cannot engage in policy practice without their administrators—that let them, that provide the time and the resources to do that.”

The road ahead

Guidi asked about the next stage for this research, suggesting that Gal and Weiss-Gal employ the framework for a cross-national comparison.

“It’s a very complex research because we need to compare between different countries with the different welfare regimes,” Weiss-Gal responded. “But we look forward to this. I think that this will be our next challenge.”

Weiss-Gal said that she also plans to study how social workers are affected by engaging in policy work. “I can see that social workers that engage in policy practice are less burdened, and their quality of life in the work increases because they feel that they do something big, that they impact more than one client,” she said. “It’s like something that gives the social workers more energy to continue their professional job.”

That energy, long a force in social work, has driven successful policy efforts in the past, noted Sherraden.

“There have been times in U.S. history when social workers were very much leading in policy,” he said. “We can again move social work into being more engaged in policy and representing social work values and forming society.”

The gathering came about through the efforts of an international team of sponsors: the Center for Social Development, Policy Press, the Council on Social Work Education, the Grand Challenges for Social Work, the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy, Influencing Social Policy, the National Association of Social Workers, the European Social Work Research Association, the International Consortium for Social Development, and the Special Commission to Advance Macro Practice in Social Work.

Video from the event can be found on the Center for Social Development’s YouTube channel.