Articles Evidence in social work: the unfinished and flawed agenda

Evidence in social work: the unfinished and flawed agenda

Policy makers and commissioners alike want to identify best evidence. The argument goes that the application of empirical evidence should promote better policies, improve services and promote the more efficient use of resources, but it has often been difficult to harness the ‘right’ evidence. This is true of social work as of other policy areas, writes Dr Mary Baginsky.

Support for the idea that social work practice should be based on evidence has grown over the last ten years but the implication that previous and, indeed, current practice lacked an evidence base is  nonsense. Who would suggest that social workers have never used the best possible evidence to inform their practice? Attachment is probably an area that is most readily identified as being ‘theory based’. Of course the field has developed but most social work students will cover theories on attachment during their training, as did those training in the 1970s and 1980s.

Challenging terms: lacking common definitions

There are challenges. The greatest of these is, I think, widespread confusion of what evidence is and what to do about it. Confusion manifests itself in the language used, commissioning policies and in the reaction of practitioners.

’Evidence-based policy and practice’ and evidence-informed counterparts’ are widely used terms but it is not always clear that there is a common understanding of what they mean. Do we mean specific interventions that have proved to be effective or a more general approach to practice that draws on a wider body of evidence? In my experience the two are used interchangeably and without too much distinction at policy and practice levels.

We need to get better at judging the evidence we have

All parties will have an obvious preference for research that is rigorous, robust and systematic and leads to reliable and valid knowledge. This can represent good qualitative studies as well as the ‘gold standard’ randomised controlled trials (RCTs). Health has a hierarchy of evidence that places the RCT at the top of the evidence pyramid but social sciences in general, and social work specifically, lacks a similar body of experimental evidence. Only a small number of RCTs have been conducted that are relevant to social work practice but the approach will rarely fit with the timescales required by policy makers. We need a sharper approach to judging research and evaluations in this area. This approach would recognise good evidence from strong studies – whatever the methodology – and dismissing the dubious.

The funding gap: evidence they’ll pay for, evidence they value

There’s another conflict, between what is seen to be desirable and what will be funded. The desire for reliable evidence will be undermined by an emerging dissonance between an espoused desire for rigour alongside commissioning evaluations that are identified as light touch and not burdensome. Researchers, dependent on the willing participation of practitioners and policy makers, will do everything possible to mitigate burden but they should never allow it to become a guiding principle. Doing so jeopardises the very thing they set out to collect – reliable and replicable evidence. But the voices of professional researchers are being drowned out by those of think tanks and those conducting quick investigations, sometimes commissioned by Government departments that are labelled as research and lauded as evidence.

Where do we go from here?

This approach will deepen the divide with practitioners and unless evidence transfers to practice what is the point? Practitioners tell us that they are confused about how evidence should guide their practice. I recently spoke to a group of practitioners who had received training on an evidence-based intervention. They doubted that what they had been told would work because it had to be supported by appropriate supervision, resources, the time to embed before the next initiative came along and, most important of all, experienced practitioners – all of which was in short supply. For them, evidence-based practice was ‘clutching at straws’ during a deluge. 

Dr Mary Baginsky has extensive research experience in academic, voluntary, independent, public and private sectors. She was senior researcher at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), and Head of Research at Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) where she became Assistant Director with responsibility for a national programme of social work projects in children’s sector. Most recently she was Professional Adviser across the Safeguarding Division of the Department for Education. As well as being Director of Quest Research and Evaluation she is also Senior Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London and a 2013 Churchill Fellow.

Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. To learn more about the Alliance and join us (it’s free and open to all) click here.