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Building the Evidence Base for Social Service Workforce Strengthening

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by Jini Roby

There is a crisis of a shortage of social services workers around the globe. Pressing needs of child protection, social protection and family strengthening require a variety of trained workers; yet, many low- and middle-income countries are struggling to recruit, train and retain them in a sustainable way. Since the workforce serves as the critical bridge to services and resources for vulnerable children and families, strengthening the workforce has emerged as a global priority issue. How can we effectively plan, develop, deploy and maintain an effective social service workforce? What evidence is there that can support this effort? This was the topic of the first-ever social service workforce evidence review convened by the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance Building Evidence for Social Service Workforce Strengthening Interest Group on June 3 in Washington, D.C. Download the full report and the evidence matrix.

The evidence forum included multi-disciplinary experts to review the draft report of the current state of evidence on social service workforce strengthening around the world. The goal of the report is to identify the most critical gaps in evidence and priority research needs pertinent to strengthening the workforce.

This process was initiated by creating an evidence matrix using key words and accessing multiple data libraries and search engines to explore academic and grey literature. Relevance was determined by the approximation of the work to the Framework for Strengthening the Social Service Workforce, adopted by the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance. The Framework envisages strengthening the workforce through coordinated and integrated processes of planning, developing, and supporting the workforce. Of the thousands of articles and books found, only those considered the most relevant were added to the matrix.

Although there is an increasing interest in best practice models in these areas, the evidence is scattered, and tends to be anecdotal, program-specific, or observational in nature. These pieces of information are helpful since in most development efforts, workforce building is location specific and measured at the program level. However, there is also a need to organize the current state of information to better understand what we know, as well as what we don’t know, about what workforce strengthening strategies work, what doesn’t work, and the impact of workforce strengthening on clients.

Overall, the available evidence on efforts to strengthen the social service workforce is weak. Yet of the pertinent studies, there are some methodologically robust studies coming out of high-income countries such as the U.S. and UK. Evidence from the low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) is emerging, and tends to be limited to technical reports and situational analyses that are country- or region-specific. Still, these pieces of information provide a much needed sense for what is happening on the ground in some regions and suggest many helpful ideas for further exploration regarding the workforce. In addition, research in allied fields, such as health, suggests potential research methodologies and applications for the social service workforce as well as a foundation for anticipating some issues that have not yet emerged as discussion topics in the field.

The evidence review meeting brought together a large variety of experts to help analyze the preliminary findings. The participants were broken into three groups and were tasked with analyzing and determining the utility of the existing evidence base. They also identified high priority areas in need of further research and next steps needed to create a practical and useful research agenda. The full group then reconvened to discuss their findings and vote on what they saw as the most important areas to tackle first.

The summary of available information combined with the insights from experts at the working group meeting has been combined into an outcomes paper that provides some direction and suggestions for priority research areas to build the evidence base for social service workforce strengthening. We invite your input on these suggestions from the full report and on the evidence matrix by posting a comment here, initiating a discussion on the discussion board (note you must be a member to post comments or discussion topics) or emailing the Alliance.