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SSWWeek Day Four: Understanding the Workforce - Who are they, what do they do and how can we help them do it better?

Anonymous's picture

By Maury Mendenhall, MSW, Senior Technical Advisor, Orphans and Vulnerable Children, US Agency for International Development

As a social service worker, I got into this business because I wanted to change lives for the better. For a long time, I thought that my good intentions were enough. But at some point, perhaps we all wonder “Am I making a difference? Is the difference that I am making positive?”

Lately, I have begun to ask the same question about social service workforce strengthening.

Everywhere I go, the people that I meet at Social Service Ministries, Non-governmental Organizations, in villages, regret the lack of social service workers – the implication being that if we only had more social service workers, we could deliver services more effectively.

I have begun to wonder if that is true. It’s not that I doubt the logic. It is hard to argue that a ratio of 1 social service worker to a population of 155,000 is sufficient.

But what do we hope to achieve by increasing the workforce – improved job performance? Better outcomes for vulnerable children and other populations? What do improved job performance and better outcomes for children look like? Are there are other things that we can do to make better use of the social service workers that we have? Which of these strategies are most cost-effective? Do we even know how many social service workers are out there? Where are they? What are they doing? These are some pretty fundamental questions.

I have a love/hate relationship with data collection and research. On the one hand, good useful research and information systems are expensive and it is hard for me to justify diverting funds from much needed social services. On the other hand, I want to be certain that the social services we support with our limited resources are the services with the greatest potential to change lives for the better. And I now realize that we need to apply the same rigor to monitoring and researching the impact of our investments in social service strengthening.

Although it may have taken me a while to reach this conclusion, I am encouraged to know that social service workers and other researchers and information managers all over the world have been asking these big questions for some time. Efforts supported by the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and others to map workforce in Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe Kenya, Malawi and Ethiopia have begun to provide us with a better understanding of what the workforce looks like – right now – so that we have a baseline for future workforce strengthening initiatives.  PEFPAR and USAID have also sponsored Human Resources Information Systems in Malawi and Tanzania to help to track the workforce and identify gaps in specific regions or areas of practice.  These initiatives were highlighted in a recent Global Social Service Workforce Alliance Webinar titled “Using Human Resources Data to Improve Social Services: Experiences from Malawi and Tanzania.”  During the April 29, 2014 Alliance Symposium in Washington, DC, funded by PEPFAR, USAID and the National Association for Social Workers Foundation, Kendra Blackett-Dibinga from Save the Children shared with us the results of a study on the Impact of Community Caregivers on OVC in Cote d’Ivoire, which looked at the effects of casework on access to services and retention in Anti-retroviral Treatment for HIV+ patients. At another recent Symposium on Building the Evidence:  Measuring the Social Service Workforce co-hosted by the Alliance and the Child Protection in Crisis Learning Network in New York on February 19,  2014, Joan Levy Zlotnik from the US National Association of Social Workers Social Work Policy Institute highlighted growing evidence indicating that effective supervision is critical to promoting child welfare staff retention, positive organizational culture and climate, culturally competent practice, transmission of evidence-based practices, and child and family outcomes. At the same Symposium, Dr. Mark Preston from the Columbia School of Social Work discussed the interactive effects of task complexity, instrumental feedback, and task control on worker well-being.

The individuals involved in these efforts are heroes. These are not easy tasks. You can read about a few of these workers in the profiles below:

I find these individuals and their work extremely inspiring.

Within the last few weeks, Mark Canavera from the Child Protection in Crisis Learning Network, Mari Hickman from Futures Group and I began co-chairing a new Interest Group under the Alliance to help to build the body of evidence to support workforce strengthening and monitor the impact of workforce strengthening efforts. The group is still in the early stages of planning but our hope is that we might engage a range of academics, practitioners, evaluators, information managers, and others to begin to address some of the areas of enquiry listed below:

  • What sort of impact do we ultimately hope to achieve through workforce strengthening efforts and how are we currently measuring this impact? 
  • What frameworks, indicators, and other tools exist to support this measurement? How might we refine or improve the way in which we articulate and measure impact?
  • What might be some appropriate and/or common workforce strengthening input, output and impact indicators that could be measured across social service workforce strengthening efforts to compare impact or monitor efforts at the global level?
  • What evidence is already available to demonstrate the impact of workforce strengthening efforts – including evidence on social service workforce strengthening efforts in low income, middle income and high income countries, as well as evidence from related workforce strengthening efforts (such as the health workforce, the education workforce, etc…)?
  • What are the most critical evidence gaps and what potential research questions or studies might help to address those gaps?
  • What are potential research opportunities – including funding, available research teams, etc… - and how can the Alliance and its members be engaged in these opportunities?

If you are interested in joining this group or have any research or data that you think might be helpful to this group, please feel to contact us. You can learn more about this Alliance Interest Group and join our group by becoming a member of the Alliance and then following this link to subscribe to the interest group.

My hope is that in the very near future, we will be swimming in data. We will have the evidence we need to make a case for increasing investments in the workforce and workforce strengthening - and we will be able to target investments, to achieve the impact that we desire, with laser precision.

Too optimistic? Perhaps … But you have to admire my intentions, right?



Lucy Y Steinitz's picture

Three cheers for your vision and your energy, Maury -- and for this blog.  But it is not clear from your writing, Who would count as a social service worker in order to be mapped?  Definitions are a chronic problem in this field, but you might add a question to that effect in your exploration.  I imagine that people who graduated from a recognized program in social work (and possibly, on one of the allied professions) would be counted, for sure. But when you get to the so-called para-social-work field, the boundaries get blurrier. What about people without recognized or formal training, who are nevertheless working in the field?  For those with training, how much do you need to have?  And what kind of training, acceptable or recognized by what body?  And then, at the grass-roots level, the challenges become even bigger.  As you know so well, it is often volunteers and those with very little pay who perform the bulk of social service tasks at the family level -- for example: some assessments and regular monitoring;  supportive counseling and assistance with problem-solving; better parenting advice; nutritoinal counseling and some health/sanitation education; HIV/AIDS referral, disclosure counseling and adherence support... in addition to other types other typs of referral, follow-up and the coordination of care.  Some of these (incentivized) social service volunteers are trained and properly supervised; others less so.  Where do we draw our lines?