Possessing a critical understanding of the structure and functioning of human service organisations is essential for effective social work practice. The concept of bureaucracy provides one framework for examining the ways in which human service organisations shape social work practice. This essay will explore the concept of bureaucracy in relation to contemporary social work practice through the discussion of the theory of bureaucracy, the influence of context on practice, the distinct characteristics of human service organisations and management practices in human service organisations. Examples from my placement will be provided throughout the essay to further demonstrate the concepts presented.
The term, bureaucracy is defined as, “an organisational model rationally designed to perform complex tasks efficiently” (Macionis & Plummer 2002, p. 669). The writings of influential German sociologist, Max Weber, provide a theory of bureaucracy, based on his ideas about the nature of power, domination and authority (Jones & May 1992, p.34). Weber identifies six key elements characteristic of an “ideal” bureaucratic organisation: individuals with specialised duties, hierarchy of offices, rules and regulations, technical competence to carry out duties, impersonality of relations among workers and with clients, and formal, written communications (Macionis & Plummer 2002, p.133). His writings are particularly concerned with the nature of authority of which he distinguishes three types: traditional authority, charismatic authority, and legal- rational authority (Jones & May 1992, p.34). Weber argues that legal-rational authority, that is, “power legitimised by legally enacted rules and regulations,” provides the basis of the power relationship between rulers and the ruled in modern society, and is manifested in bureaucratic organisations (Macionis & Plummer 2002, p.379; Jones & May 1992, p.34). With the majority of social workers employed in such organisations, it is important that workers understand Weber's theory of bureaucracy, in particular, recognising that they may be subject to and part of bureaucratic systems of authority (Jones & May 1992, p.37).
The organisational location of social workers influences the degree to which they will act as bureaucrats. Social work in Australia is primarily embedded in human service organisations which occupy the government, non-government and private sectors. As a result, employment in the human services field is diverse and workers are located in various different organisational contexts. (Jones & May 1992, p.11) According to Sheafor et al. (1994, p.473), large human service organisations have tended to adhere to the traditional bureaucratic approach, characterised by a hierarchical pyramid structure featuring a single manager at the peak and many service providers at the base. However, according to Jones & May (1992, p.8), “whether or not, and in what ways, any particular organisation is a bureaucracy is a matter for analysis and debate.” Exploring the implications of location on social work practice in a particular organisation can help to uncover the bureaucratic roles that may be adopted by workers.
My placement agency, the Community Acute Care Team, is a small community mental health service within the Integrated Mental Health Services of the Logan-Beaudesert Health Service District (LBHSD), and part of the Queensland Health Department. Located within the state government sector, Acute Care workers are subject to and part of Queensland Health's hierarchical organisational structure and systems of authority. For example, my field educator is responsible to the team leader of Acute Care, who is responsible to the Manager of Mental Health Services, who is responsible to the District Manager. For specifically professional issues, workers are required to report along the professional reporting lines operating within the LBHSD. This means that my field educator reports to the Senior Social Worker, who reports to the Director of Social Work, who reports to the Director of Allied Heath. Acute Care workers are required to carry out certain tasks stipulated in their job descriptions, such as assessment, short term case management, and rapid response interventions, in order to achieve the mission of Queensland Health: “to improve the health and wellbeing of all Queenslanders” (The State of Queensland 2007, p.1). In addition, Acute Care workers must comply with the Queensland Health Code of Conduct and other policies adopted by Queensland Health, such as the National Mental Health Plan 2003-2008. The location of Acute Care within Queensland Health means that workers are part of systems of legal-rational authority consistent with bureaucracy, particularly in the form of a hierarchical organisational structure, and rules and regulations outlining the expectations of workers.
It is necessary to conceptualise social work as both professional and organisational in nature (Jones & May 1992, p.12). Social work in Australia is commonly portrayed as an emerging profession which, while strongly situated in organisations, is primarily characterised by its universal values, knowledge and skills gained via professional socialisation and strengthened through participation in a professional community (Jones & May 1992, p.13). Despite claims for full professional recognition, social work remains an unregistered profession in Australia (Healy 2004, p.110). Healy (2004, p.110) argues that as a result, social workers “must frequently make the case, both individually and collectively, to employers about their distinctive contribution to human services organisations.” The firm location of social work in organisations prevents it from presenting itself as a free-standing professional activity (Jones 2007, lecture 1: p.10). Instead, workers must accept the structural constraints of their occupation and develop ways to practice effectively from both an organisational and professional approach (Jones & May 1992, p.12). The term, “heteronomous profession”, coined by Weber, has been used in literature to encapsulate the nature of social work (Jones & May 1992, p.12). According to Toren (1972, pp.52-53 in Jones & May 1992, p.14), social work is a “heteronomous profession” as,
members of the profession are guided and controlled not only from `within' - that is, by internalised professional norms, expert knowledge and the professional community - but also by administrative rules and by superiors in the organisational hierarchy.
From this perspective, both professional norms and systems of legal-rational authority consistent with bureaucracy limit the occupational autonomy of social workers.
The concept of social work as a “heteronomous profession” can be applied to my placement agency. On one hand, social workers in Acute Care, as professionals, are required to adhere to the Australian Association of Social Worker's (AASW) Code of Ethics, which sets out the professional norms of ethical practice, and are guided by social work theory and specialised knowledge attained through education and training. On the other hand, Queensland Health employees, Acute Care social workers must practice consistently with key policy documents underpinning service provision of the Logan-Beaudesert Mental Health Services such as the National Mental Health Plan 2003-2008, and the National Standards for Mental Health Services 1996. As a result, social workers in my placement agency must develop skills to be able to practice in a way that meets both professional and organisational requirements. In this sense, social workers in my placement agency are consistently modifying their behaviour as professionals due to the legal-rational authority operating in their organisation.
The tasks inherent in the micro-practice and macro-practice of social work may be perceived as both organisational and bureaucratic in nature. In terms of micro-practice, social workers, in the roles of advocate, arbitrator, case manager, mediator, and negotiator, require organisational skills to be able to effectively liaise with other organisations in order to link clients with services and resources (Jones & May 1992, p.16). For example, in my placement agency, social workers advocate for their clients to be provided with accommodation through interaction with community housing organisations. From a Weberian perspective, in order to effectively link clients with services, social workers need to be aware of the structural dimensions of other organisations, in particular, the systems of hierarchy and authority operating. Macro-practice in social work is particularly organisational in nature (Jones 2007, lecture 1: p.12). For example, roles involved in macro-practice, such as administration, service planning and policy development and analysis, are intrinsically concerned with organisational functioning and operation (Jones & May 1992, p.18). These roles, from a Weberian analysis, are involved in altering and reinforcing the systems of legal-rational authority operating in organisations. Therefore, from this perspective, social workers engaged in macro-practice adopt an actively bureaucratic role. However, the specific human service organisations in which a worker is employed, and the organisations they interact with, will impact the nature if their tasks, and consequently, their conformity to the role of a bureaucrat.
“Human service organisation” is the term commonly used to capture the kinds of organisations in which social workers are employed (Jones & May 1992, p.82). The characteristic features of human service organisations can be conceptualised in terms of purpose, technology and auspice (Jones 2007, lecture 3: p.6). According to Martin (1997, p.3), “The primary purpose of human service organisations is to respond to the needs of people as recognised and adjudicated by the providers or by wider society.” In terms of technology, human service organisations are involved in defining, shaping, or altering the personal attributes of people (Jones & May 1992, p.86). In this sense, people are the raw material of human service organisations (Jones 2007, lecture 3: p.8). According to Austin (1981, p.38-39 in Jones & May 1992, p.92), human service organisations are a “group of formal organisations under government or non-profit philanthropic auspices that produce public services.” From this perspective, human service organisations are usually associated with having a public auspice - meaning that they function directly or indirectly as part of the state (Jones & May 1992, p.92).
The concepts of human service organisations and bureaucracy are by no means mutually exclusive. While the characteristic features of human service organisations, in terms of purpose, technology and auspice, have considerable implications for social workers, a bureaucratic model of organisation is still able to operate. Like most large human service organisations, my placement agency adheres to a traditional hierarchical bureaucratic approach. Social workers in Acute Care carry out their purpose of enhancing the mental health and well-being of clients experiencing serious mental illness under the authority of their supervisors and in accordance with Queensland Health policies and procedures. The philosophy of Queensland Health, espoused in its policies and regulations, guides Acute Care social workers in making decisions that will affect the welfare of clients. For example, using the LBHSD Risk Screening Form is a requirement of Acute Care social workers and guides them in planning their interventions with clients. In addition, social workers in Acute Care are expected to use specific criteria for assessing mental well-being, outlined in organisational documents, to enhance the organisation's ability to demonstrate its effectiveness. It is evident that while the characteristics of human service organisations will have certain implications on social work practice, systems of bureaucratic authority may control how social workers are able to deal with these issues.
Coming to terms with the ideas of management and managerialism is vital for understanding the organisational context of social work. Management is defined as, “the process of getting activities completed efficiently, effectively, equitably and with excellence by the exercise of authority and/or by working with and through other people in organisations” (Jones 2007, lecture 4: p.5). Managerialism, also known as “corporate management”, has emerged as the dominant style of management in human service organisations largely due to the increasing demands of society on human services (Jones & May 1992, p.386). This dominance has resulted in a higher demand for human service organisations to demonstrate effectiveness and efficiency (Jones & May 1992, p.386). According to Keating (1990 in Jones & May 1992, p.386), from a managerialism perspective, human service organisations must be clear about their goals, establish the most cost-effective ways to achieve them, and should monitor and evaluate their progress and performance. Managerial techniques, such as mission statements, strategic plans, efficiency and effectiveness auditing, and program evaluations are often viewed by social workers as attempts to control their activities and limit the services they provide (Jones & May 1992, p.390). Some writers have emphasised the need for managerial techniques in human service organisations to focus more on client satisfaction. For example, Tilbury (2002, p.137) argues that, “It is vital to ensure that performance measurement is not exclusively about efficiency and accountability to government, but brings improved service quality and accountability to clients.” In the context of dominant managerialism ideas, social workers need to develop strategies for defining and assessing efficiency and effectiveness in such a way that adheres to their professional values and the requirements of their organisation (Jones & May 1992, p.397).
The idea of management can be closely linked with bureaucracy when applied to my placement organisation. Managers, often also named “team leaders”, exercise authority within the organisational hierarchy of the LBHSD. In these roles, managers supervise the specialised activities of workers below them in the hierarchy, and are responsible to the managers above them in the hierarchy. From a Weberian perspective, workers in Acute Care obey the orders of those above them in the hierarchy because they accept that people who have achieved their position according to the rules and regulations of Queensland Health and the Logan-Beaudesert Health Service District have the right to deliver orders and expect obedience (Jones & May 1992, p.34). Social workers occupy some of the managerial roles in the LBHSD, which suggests that management is an important skill for workers to develop, especially if they wish to gain more authority within bureaucratic organisations.
This essay has explored how the location of social work, influence of context on social work practice, characteristic features of human service organisations, and ideas of management within such organisations are relevant to Weber's concept of bureaucracy. Firstly, the organisational location of social workers will affect the organisational structure of their organisation, which is likely to be based on the operation of authority within a hierarchy of offices, consistent with ideas of bureaucracy. Secondly, while the autonomy of social workers is shaped largely by this hierarchical structure, they are also subject to professional demands and expectations. Thirdly, it is evident that many social work tasks, particularly macro-tasks, are involved in reinforcing and legitimising the legal-rational authority inherent in bureaucracies. Fourthly, human service organisations may adhere to a bureaucratic model, which will play a significant part in determining how social workers deal with the implications emerging from the characteristic features of human service organisations. Finally, principles of the management of human service organisations closely resemble the legal-rational authority on which bureaucracies are based. Thus, in order to navigate these complex issues, social workers must develop skills which will enable them to work effectively within the constraints of the organisations in which they are employed. In this sense, social workers must be “good bureaucrats”.