Professional Social Work (PSW) Article February 2018
PROFESSIONAL SOCIAL WORK MAGAZINE | MARCH 2018
hile training to become a social worker
my lecturers told me collaboration
and empowerment were fundamental
cornerstones of social work ethics and practice.
However, once ensconced in front line work, I rapidly
became aware that power was firmly held by the large
institutions. People who used services had to conform and
comply or face the consequences.
Does it have to be this way? Can we not instead adopt an
approach that seeks out shared interests to build sustainable
relationships between services and those who use them?
One way our ancient forefathers obtained goods
unavailable in their community was to raid a neighbouring
land. This, however, was dangerous and not sustainable in
the long term. Hence the emergence of trade.
Historians believe the first long-distance trade was
between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley in Pakistan
around 3000 BC. The domestication of camels around 1,000
BC helped encourage overland trade and, around 800 BC,
Homer and Hesiod wrote of permanent places of trade, or
‘emporia’ – the ancient equivalent of shopping centres.
Nomadic travel and the trade in goods promoted
an exchange of ideas and technologies. Trade brought
disparate peoples into close proximity with one another
due to their shared interests in each other’s produce.
Communication and social interaction were crucial.
Successful traders learnt foreign languages and familiarised
themselves with the different customs of trading partners.
So what does this teach us? Peoples with shared interests
share the same pathway – an association based upon
mutual exchange. In the same way, creating a better
communal understanding of how social workers and
service users share complementary priorities can help
bolster a more resilient relationship able to withstand the
inevitable mutual waxes and wanes.
Doing things to, rather than with, service users increases
the risk of disengagement. Collaboration and reinforcing
community cohesion is key to sustainable relationships.
Sharing power saves time, energy and resources in the
long-term. It also tends to make institutions more stable.
As the great political philosopher Montesquieu noted, if
power is too concentrated, institutions become subject
to the whims of those in control. Centralised power can
disengage and disempower your target audience – those
supposed to be the recipients of your ‘product’ or service.
And history has many warnings of what eventually happens
to governments run as dictatorships.
This has become increasingly recognised by companies
seeking a leading edge. A commitment to address
discrimination, to gender equity and women’s economic
empowerment, for example, advances the companies’
association with the target audience and thereby increases
their market share.
Power sharing can help overcome a problem often
lamented by social workers – a perceived ‘lack of
commitment’ from someone to plans drawn up on their
behalf. Sharing power can’t be achieved without sharing the
A co-working approach involves the service user from the
outset, working to identify and agree actions to be taken by
both parties toward their shared interests. Discovering what
a person wants to achieve (rather than imposing our own
views) and aligning these with our objectives creates a win-
win. Tensions in the relationship diminish as a result and
genuine ownership of agreed goals engenders commitment.
Forming relationships with other professionals – such
as health, education and probation – who have common
interests can further add to the efficacy of social work while
enhancing the standing of the profession.
Co-creation with service users also taps into the
psychology of reciprocity, or mutual benefit. We inherently
convey a feeling of indebtedness when someone does
something for us. This need not be based upon feelings
of guilt, or inducement to pay back, but centred upon the
mutual respect that collaboration can generate.
Reframing the way we work and moving towards a far
greater recognition of shared interests is a great way for
social workers and service users to forge a stronger and
more resilient working relationship.
the way we
help us forge
Alex Clapson is a qualified social worker, trainer and consultant
specialising in staff development, including supervison skills
Alex Clapson on the benefits and
value of working in partnership
with people using services
Sharing power and
interests is a win-win