Influencing society is an ethical task

Experts in social work must see to it that the most vulnerable members of our society are not forgotten in the major changes to social services. But getting decision-makers to listen is difficult.

“Decision-makers and officials must listen to the experts in social work when planning social policy reforms. This is especially important in the upcoming health and social services reform in Finland, in which the ’social’ component has been completely forgotten,” says Harry Lunabba (@HarryLunabba), university lecturer in social work at the Swedish School of Social Science at the University of Helsinki.

Societal influence is the University’s third task in addition to teaching and research. Lunabba considers this third task to be of particular importance in the field of social work.

“It is an ethical task to make the general public aware of the most vulnerable members of society and to make their needs heard.”

“We do our best to disseminate the results of our research.”

Social work as an academic discipline has a strong connection to working life, and the degree programme in social work confers professional qualifications for practitioners. Social work is an important part of society, and thus Lunabba feels it is important to influence policy in the field.

“Our research is conducted for the benefit of society, and as an academic I want the results of my work and other research in the field to be publicised and disseminated as widely as possible,” Lunabba says.

Helena Blomberg-Kroll, professor of social policy at the Swedish School of Social Science, says that societal influence is an inherent feature of her field, a field with strong ties to working life. Research results are naturally disseminated to municipalities by the students.

Blomberg-Kroll is a participating researcher in the project Tackling Inequalities in Time of Austerity (TITA), a consortium project financed by the Academy of Finland. The project is an example of academic research with inherent societal relevance. The research results are reported directly to the Government.

“We do our best to disseminate the results of our research,” Blomberg-Kroll says. “The extent to which our recommendations are followed is a political decision.”

A cautionary example

Harry Lunabba says it is extremely alarming that the decision-makers do not listen to professional social workers. In the health and social services reform, the “social” component has consistently been forgotten.

The recent transfer of responsibility for basic social assistance from the municipalities to the Social Insurance Institution of Finland (Kela) is a cautionary example of what this can lead to. The transfer was carried out without adequate preparation and with no knowledge of the field of social work, according to Lunabba.

“They thought it was merely a technical change. They totally failed to see that professional knowledge is required to make correct and tenable decisions concerning social assistance.”

Now the people in need of social assistance are left without the support of social workers.

“The disregard for professional expertise is alarming. The current decisions that Kela has made are untenable and do not meet the needs of the clients. Application processing times and queues are long, and people are left without money to buy the medicines they need.”

Lunabba fears the same mistake will be repeated in the health and social services reform.

“As yet, there has been no attempt to solve the problems in social services and the fact that 20 per cent of the clients use 80 per cent of the available resources. The reform does not address how to solve these issues.”

“It is not customary for management in social services to organise and work to influence policy, and that is a problem,” says Helena Blomberg-Kroll.

“There is a strong tradition of medical advocacy in the healthcare sector, and senior physicians often have access to both academia and political decision-making. Their advocacy structures are strong.”

Uncharted waters

According to Blomberg-Kroll, most experts agree that the reform is progressing too quickly.

“There is no similar model in use anywhere whose experiences we could draw on. Swedish and Nordic research has shown that semi-privatisation of social services does not result in greater equality. The Nordic countries have no previous experience in integrating health and social services. We do not know how well the model will work for clients who require long-term social services or for the most vulnerable members of society.”  

"It will be interesting to see how the reform succeeds in meeting the needs of those who need social services the most.”

As part of their work in the TITA project, Blomberg-Kroll and her colleagues will conduct a long-term study of the consequences of the change in providers of basic social assistance, from the perspectives of clients and social workers, among others. They will also study the changes brought about by the health and social services reform.

“The goal of the health and social services reform and the change in providers of basic social assistance is to increase equality and cut down on bureaucracy. Our task is to study whether this will be accomplished. It will be interesting to see how the reform succeeds in meeting the needs of those who need social services the most.”

New avenues of influence

The task of the experts, says Harry Lunabba, is to constantly remind decision-makers that social services exist and that academics in social work must be consulted when reforms are being planned. There are several different ways of doing this, but one channel that has proven useful is Twitter.

“I’ve been campaigning actively on Twitter, and managed to get a foot in the door at the Ministry that way,” Lunabba says.

In his tweets, he has ceaselessly pointed out the fact that social work has not been taken into consideration, and he has also called draft bills into question.

“Among other things, I wrote directly to ministers Rehula and Risikko and to Under-Secretary of State Tuomas Pöysti. Sometimes you get a response, sometimes not. At least it led to a discussion and we were given the opportunity to meet with Mr. Pöysti.”

As a result of the Twitter campaign, a group of academics and practitioners of social work met with a delegation of officials consisting of Under-Secretary of State Tuomas Pöysti, leader of change in reform of social welfare and healthcare Sinikka Salo, Director Kari Ilmonen, Ministerial Advisor Satu Karppanen, Ministerial Advisor Elina Palola and Senior Specialist Virva Juurikkala to discuss the issues involved and to emphasise the important role of social work in the reform. Twitter was a key tool for achieving this meeting, according to Lunabba.

“It’s a new avenue of influence that I find fascinating, and one that demonstrably produces results. I encourage researchers to use this medium to make themselves heard.”

The role of social work in social policy

That meeting was a constructive gathering of decision-makers and specialists. According to Lunabba, there is a desire to clarify the role of social services and social work in the reform. The role of social services and health centres cannot be limited to short-term counselling and guidance. In order to create preventative structures, social work must be included in the planning as early as possible.

“The contribution of the social sciences is needed in the drafting of the reform. If we are to reach the most vulnerable 20 per cent of our clients, we need to be able to apply a wide holistic approach and accommodate our operations to those who fit poorly into the general structure,” says Lunabba.

Compared with many other countries, Finnish academics in social work are in general quite involved in influencing social policy, says Helena Blomberg-Kroll. She and university lecturer Christian Kroll at the Swedish School of Social Science contributed to an international project that compared social work academics’ involvement in social policy in 12 countries. The project resulted in the study Where academia and policy meet – A cross-national perspective on the involvement of social work academics in social policy, recently published by Polity Press.

“Although Finnish academics are quite active compared with those of other countries, many of them feel that they are inadequately supported in their involvement. In many countries, universities appear to support their faculty more than we do here,” Blomberg-Kroll points out.

Both Lunabba and Blomberg-Kroll agree that as Finland is currently in the middle of the greatest change to social policy in its history, it is of the utmost importance that academics get the support they need in order to make their voices heard.