We are told, quite rightly, that professional and personal values are key to ensuring that the care and services we provide have a context. As social workers, as professionals in a health and social care system which is full of complexities which render it mostly incomprehensible to those who are at the mercy of it, we have an extraordinary amount of power. We don’t always recognise the power we have, particularly if we feel subjugated by large organisational leviathans, but it is there.
This week, and not just this week really, because these are thoughts I’ve had fleetingly for a number of years, I’m considering how we can work in a professionally competent and ethical manner while in organisations and political climates that may not reflect the values that we hold as important to ourselves and our work. However much we may ‘rage against the machine’, to the outsider, we are instruments of the State and representatives of the organisation whose badge we wear when we use the powers that we have.
However, these values can be stretched at times. When you see services which are vital being cut while endless money seems to be thrown in the ‘wrong’ direction because of political masters rather than acting in the most appropriate way ethically.
The way, rightly or wrongly, that I have justified my work to myself – at the very least – it by telling myself that I can continue in the work because I am providing the interface between organisation (and by extension – the State) with as much sensitivity, kindness and clarity as possible. There are powers I have extrinsically that clatter into life by virtue of the ID badge/warrant card I wear around my neck which explain my legal powers very clearly. And then there is the intrinsic power I have by virtue of being in a room at a particular time when conversations are happening and when someone with much more apparent extrinsic power might turn and ask my opinion. I have intrinsic power by way of the information I have access to – about people and organisations which may not be widely known. All these aspects of my role and my power put me in a position of privilege.
I can use that power to ‘do the right thing’. Namely by working to make services and people I work with better, smoother, kinder for those who have no choices about where, when or how they are provided with care – nor by whom. This is, rightly or wrongly, how I tell myself I can continue to work in a system and within processes that are larger than me and may not match my ethics and values consistently.
I couldn’t continue with the work I do, if I didn’t think it made the interface between state and individual a little bit easier or less harsh for some. Maybe I’m kidding myself. I think I have also reached the point of recognising that I get up in the morning and go to work, not for the organisation who pay me – I feel little loyalty to them and have, at times, probably a little too loudly, I suspect – questioned their values or rather the way values are implemented in practice – but rather for those who rely on me doing a good job and for whom I can advocate and give a voice to, in a complex health and social care landscape which can be wrought with hierarchies and unspoken ‘rules’ about whose voices are the ones that need to be heard.
I feel little loyalty to an employing organisation that I know feels little to me, but that is neither a motivator nor a de-motivator. My employment gives me a voice and power to amplify the voice of others and while the systems can be comprising ethically, the outcomes can be kinder if we listen, hear and act on those voices with empathy, thoughtfulness and with the intent and actions which provide them with routes to make positive changes.
I’ve reached a point where ‘leadership’ has passed me by. I’m not the type and I won’t, possibly can’t now, remain ‘on message’ for long enough. But having the freedom to realise that experience and knowing how systems and organisations work – mostly which ears to bend – can provide as many opportunities as ‘management’ and ‘leadership’ without the glory (or the pay!).
So can we work ethically in large organisations and systems which push government agendas we might not agree with. I think we can but we can do it with as much kindness, clarity, honesty and humility that we can. The power we have exists. How we acknowledge it and choose to use it is what separates us out.