Saturday, December 19, 2009

On My Transformation from Social Worker to Public Servant

I read somewhere that the (median) average age of entry into the Canadian federal public service is 34 years old.  That fits me reasonably well; this is my second career.  For my first 10 years of "professional" employment I was a social worker, and my speciality was child and adolescent mental health.  It was the most valuable contribution I'd ever made to society, and it was with palpable trepidation that I realized that I couldn't do it anymore.

Social work can be the shortest career of a person's life.  I've known people that lasted less time in the field than it took to earn the degree to get them there.  To say it's a hard job is a grievous understatement.  It's frequently misunderstood — even feared and hated.  It's societally undervalued, emotionally draining, and woefully underpaid.

I'm ashamed to admit that it was the last of these which finally forced me to take down my shingle.  Decisions I'd made to improve my own life — marriage, children, a home of my own — made it an impossible wage to live on.  But where to go?  Well, if you read my previous piece, you'll know that life led me back to university, then into the government, despite it being the last place I expected to work.

After a positive experience as a CO-OP student, I told someone that I was considering a long-term career in the public service only to have them ask, "What does social work have to do with government?"  Good question.  Tip: You can easily gauge someone's perception of government by answering: "Well, they both exist to help people." just as I did.  Tip: If the person you're speaking to falls over laughing or punches you in the face, this may indicate that they harbour repressed anti-government sentiment.

Trust me: I'm a behavioural expert.

All frivolity aside though, this change of direction prompted a number of questions and doubts, from others and from within. Was my most valuable contribution to society now to be a thing of the past?

When you think of government, what images does it evoke?  Imagery of power, bureaucracy, hierarchy, insularity and disconnect?  I can't say that these spectres didn't leave me feeling unsettled.  As a social worker, I possessed a sense of identity, duty and integrity that I didn't want to risk compromising to any degree.

I think that bureaucracies can create efficiency and logical order, but can also foment disordered thought and behaviour through their structure and culture.  Bureaucracies have the ability to change people for the worse, if individuals lose sight of themselves, or begin to closely integrate their sense of power and position within their definition of self.  I am not singling out the Federal Government.  Rather, I'm thinking of my workplace experiences as a whole, along with information gleaned from co-workers, and plain old common sense.  I understand that this capacity exists within any large and complex organization: the risks associated with becoming part of something  that makes you lose a part of yourself.

And while social workers may have a certain sense of themselves, their purpose, and their personal and professional principles, there is no denying the lure of expert power.  It's something that the public expects and demands, and something that social work therapists like I was may aspire to even if they do not consciously acknowledge it. While we may strongly identify with the professional goal of empowering those we work with, we also harbour a human need to feel personally respected, professionally competent, and societally valued, and we may assert this in a way that feels empowering to us but that places us in a position of power over those that we intend to help.

I would be very surprised to learn that none of my fellow social work practitioners perceive any difference in status between the so-called “soft sciences” and “hard sciences”. I know I felt this “legitimacy gap” as a university student and sensed an internal imperative to close it somehow by trying to appear more scientific. What better way to achieve this than to become part of a large and powerful organization with a macro-focused  human service, where my Master's degree is a Master's degree, and my value as an analyst or an advisor is based on the results of my work?  After all, is all bureaucracy as evil as some fear, and is social work really as pure as I like to believe it is?

As a social worker who worked in a variety of settings and networked with a great many others, I’ve observed environments where constructed ideas about being a therapist, a supervisor, or a person with a diagnosis (part real, part theoretical — based on a best-guess) orchestrated a reality that governed how people thought of themselves, interacted, conducted their affairs, and perceived other people. I’ve experienced environments of co-option where people were so consumed by the necessity to get up to speed with the entrenched policies and procedures, there was no time to consider whether they were right or wrong, let alone change them. I observed people so fixated on meeting deadlines, paying bills, and surviving professionally, they did not have the presence of mind to understand how they were being changed in the process.

What have I learned from this?

While I'm proud of the good I've accomplished as a social worker, the groups I worked with and environments I practiced in weren't idyllic.  Nothing is.  In the final analysis, there is danger in any large and complex organization, be it a government, a health care network, or a school district. There isn't a job to be found that offers complete safety of integrity, or any person that can make a guarantee to watch out for you (and what you might change into) except yourself, of course.  Probability of indoctrination is the risk inherent to attachment to anything significant.  Ultimately, it's the responsibility of the learner to remain aware of what is being learned, and exercise personal control over what becomes integrated as "self".  This is as true for indoctrination by a bureaucracy as it is for the indoctrination I received through my university education.

So today I am a social worker who was taught to embrace structuralism, but I work within an entrenched system that I believe must be fundamentally altered.  I was educated to be an agent of change, but must work mindfully to avoid becoming an agent of the system.  I am able to bridge this gap because I believe that small change is possible, even within a bureaucracy. It isn’t the permanent, fundamental change that structuralism desires, but then, nothing is permanent in government.  I am eager to see what small changes I can accomplish, particularly as a member of the small but powerful group championing social media in the Government of Canada.