Closet activism, covert workplace activity, and the social work voice?

I listened with interest to Lyndal Greenslade’s podcast and read the related paper with a mix of excitement and concern (Greenslade, McAuliffe, & Chenoweth, 2014; Podsocs, 2014). Both of these items were kindly posted on this website by Liz Beddoe. The podcast and paper described radical ways in which social workers in Australia work covertly to the advantage of their clients. For example, turning a blind eye to behaviour that was contrary to care plans, in order to avoid a more arbitrary use of power by other professionals. This covert activism must be considered in the context of the social workers’ ‘deep critical reflection’ on their practice, and an organisational climate experienced as being increasingly hostile to the professional values held by social workers.

The ethical considerations associated with ‘bending the rules’ and even ‘breaking the law’ seem, on first reading, to be, at the very least, concerning. While Greenslade positions the actions of some of the social workers she interviewed as being primarily about helping the client, I wondered  – while wearing my somewhat faded manager’s hat –  how this position would pan out in a disciplinary hearing? However, I found myself cheering at the creative ways in which the social workers interviewed bucked the system to the positive benefit of the people with whom they were working.

The podcast discussion explored the ways in which a robust ethical stance was maintained through the use of supervision and/or reflective discussions between small groups of radical social workers.   I was reminded that when governments act to disadvantage people through socially and economically regressive, neo-liberal policies, social workers are often amongst the first to protest vehemently. Resistance though, as Greenslade points out, is never easy, it requires courage and collectivism. Social work has a long history of supporting and encouraging activism to empower people and resist injustice.

In the current climate of a neo-liberally led welfare system focussed on outcomes, efficiency, privatisation, ‘modernisation’ and the ‘investment approach’, the negative impacts on people in need of support is tangible. The passion and despair of social work colleagues was evident at a recent meeting I attended with Andrew Little, Leader of the Labour Party. Social workers, while describing the effects of current housing policy on their community, were often moved to tears in desperation as they told their stories.  They wanted action.

Since the RSW Collective was formed and began to foster conversations about the CYF review and the so-called ‘expert panel’, I have received a number of e-mails and personal approaches to thank the RSW Collective for the work we have done. Many colleagues also felt the need to apologise for not being able to be more vociferous. Colleagues have referred to their employment obligation of ‘political neutrality’, thus preventing them from feeling able to openly comment on many issues of concern. This position of reprisal by employers, following open activism, was alluded to in Greenslade’s article. While I understand that some employers expect ‘political neutrality’ (indeed some contracts state this), I wonder whether this language may have become misconstrued. When social work values include advocacy, empowerment and the pursuit of social justice how can social workers stay silent? Why can we, in this profession, not be seen to have a voice that matters? It strikes me that neo-liberal policy is managing to prevent some of us from being able to have an opinion or a voice, causing us to feel unreasonably restricted. It also strikes me that not having that voice is counter-productive for our profession, and more importantly, counter-productive for the people we, as social workers, support. This position does not sit comfortably with me. I am regularly receiving messages that my colleagues are afraid to speak out against the injustices they experience every day. Fear is gagging our profession.

So what to do? Habermas described professional social workers as being unique because they need to be expert ‘boundary-spanners’(Murphy & Fleming, 2010) in that they have to be expert in managing to practice across a complex array of inter-relating and sometimes conflicting institutional structures and individual lives. So how can we wrench our way back to having a voice?

The answers, to me at least, seem quite simple. We need to stand together and make a noise. We can do this in many ways, together and anonymously, if that feels safer. Naturally my first position would be to use our professional organisation, Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW). If you are not already a member, I would strongly urge you to join. As an elected member to the ANZASW Board, of course I am going to encourage this. As social workers, I believe that we are stronger together. ANZASW has an online discussion forum regarding the CYF review, to which you could contribute in a safe environment. ANZASW will try to be responsive to your requests, they will shout collectively on your behalf through press releases, commentary etcetera.  As an added benefit membership comes with professional indemnity cover, which is always reassuring! If this is not for you then consider The Tangata Whenua Social Work Association (TWSWA). Take a look at their website. ANZASW and TWSWA are connected and working together.

If professional associations are not for you then next (or if you like, as well as), I would look to other collective organisations such as your union, most likely to be PSA. PSA have a social work specific branch (Social Workers Action Network (SWAN) and a Maori specific branch (Te Rūnanga o Ngā Toa Āwhina). All of the above organisations have made connections, especially with regards to the CYF Review. There is strength in numbers.

In addition to a collective response through organisations, there is always the positive use of social media. Twitter and Facebook are being used avidly at the moment in response to the CYF Review. Many connections are being made. We advise using social media with care, many professionals set up separate professional and personal identities to maintain boundaries.

Finally, there are a range of websites and blogs that can be accessed including this site, which is a good example of how people can use social media to have a voice on issues affecting social work. Please read and while reading a blog post or a comment, have a think about what comes to mind for you, are there any pictures, words or phrases that pop into your head?  Is there something that resonates with you? Does the blog post affirm any of your practice? If so, please try not to be afraid to comment, comment encourages more thought and it can be made anonymously.

Nowhere is the presence of neo-liberal governance more apparent than in the public service sector (Liebenberg, Ungar, & Ikeda, 2013).

In the face of a clear challenge to our profession and while recognising that most practitioners are busier than ever, quite often exhausted, what do you feel able to do? I wonder if, at the very least, you should raise the issue as an item in supervision. Have a robust discussion, in confidence, about issues such as the CYF Review, how it might affect you and your practice and what, if anything, you feel comfortable doing in response?

Perhaps though the harder question might be, when does not doing anything become so uncomfortable that doing something is the better option?

Simon Lowe: Simon is a Registered Social Worker and an elected member to the ANZASW Board. He is the Fieldwork Placement Coordinator on the Social Work programme at the University of Waikato and a PhD candidate at the University of Canterbury.


Greenslade, L., McAuliffe, D., & Chenoweth, L. (2014). Social workers’ experiences of covert workplace activism. Australian Social Work, 1-16. doi: 10.1080/0312407X.2014.940360

Liebenberg, L., Ungar, M., & Ikeda, J. (2013). Neo-liberalism and responsibilisation in the discourse of social service workers. British Journal of Social Work. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bct172

Murphy, M., & Fleming, T. (2010). Habermas, critical theory and education: Routledge.

Podsoc (2014). Closet activists and covert workplace activities: In conversation with Lyndal Greenslade [Episode 71 ]

7 replies on “Closet activism, covert workplace activity, and the social work voice?”

I haven’t yet listened to the pod cast as fossicking around at 5.30 am for my ear phones may wake up my bed mate! And when I can, I’m interested to hear about this closet activism where the rules are bent so to avoid a more arbitrary response for our families. Anyway my thoughts went in a different direction…Generally I’m finding that I’m receiving NO/poor response from CYFs to the families that need a C&P response. Yes workload/capacity are in play here. And it worries me big time. And it leaves a NGO social worker like myself with the knowledge that the children in these families remain at risk.
OK… Now, where are those earphones….

Hi Carole, thanks for your response, I hope that you have now found your earphones and had a chance to listen to the podcast! Your concerns are valid and I think many people would support (even if it is ‘yet another’) a review of the intricacies of CYF work. The concerns with the current CYF Review are the not just about the nature of the so-called ‘expert panel’ but around what is the desired outcome of the panel. Happy listening.

Kia ora Simon and thanks for your timely words on social action and suggestions. I agree that some organisational contexts are more constraining than others, but I also know that sometimes there are some misconceptions around what’s possible – especially in the public sector and from people who should know better. Within the last 18 months I asked an HR manager in the public sector what the position was on my appearing before a select committee to speak to a submission I had made about something unrelated to my current employer. I’d already checked the organisation’s code of conduct and found it a bit confusing but couldn’t see any clauses that prevented me from doing this but was told by HR that no, I definitely could not speak to a select committee in my own time. Just thought I would double check with the union who provided a really helpful annotated version of the organisation’s code and the SSC code of conduct explaining the situation. In fact, there was nothing in my organisation’s code of conduct that prevented me from speaking to a select committee – the HR person hadn’t bothered to find that out.
This is not to say that life might not be made more difficult for workplace activists but it’s worth finding out exactly what the parameters are. At least then, if you know you have met the code, you can challenge any kickback. Our association and unions are good sources of support. For public sector employees this section of the SSC statement on impartiality is useful. My understanding is that all public sector codes should be consistent with this code which is overarching.

Thanks Jude for your comment and reminding us that there are different places from which we can gain support. Many people in their social work positions naturally become experts on their field of practice and should be encouraged, not discouraged from speaking out about their area of knowledge, skills and values. The process through which you went seems to have been affirming, I hope your words serve to encourage and empower other colleagues.

In terms of reprisals for those employed by the Government, I am reminded of the action against benefit cuts in the early ’90s – cuts that still affect our clients today. I can remember taking part in an ABC march (Against Benefit Cuts) when I was employed by CYPS , and being hauled over the coals by my manager – despite it being in my lunch break. She didn’t have a leg to stand on, and we should, as Jude points out, check the correct legal situation – not what our employer would like it to be. The PSA was very active at one time in advocating for clients’ interests as well as for social workers’, and good on them and Amy in SWAN for reviving that grand tradition.

As an activist and Social Worker (I tend to think the two cannot be separated) I am happy to say that my employer knows and encourages my activities outside of my employment. During our monthly team meetings I have been able to discuss activities I have been involved in and how the issue being confronted affects our clients and society. Feedback from colleagues (and a yearning to learn more) has been fantastic. I am not sure I could work for an organisation that would see the need to push me into the closet.

I know this post is over a year old but I have one question which has nagged at me ever since the CYFS reforms were announced. As a former (now ‘retired’) ‘first parent’ and, despite having witnessed some really negative outcomes for some people, personally, I had what were I now know quite positive relationships with my case workers, and had the best possible outcomes under the circumstances.
I wonder , how do CYFS workers deal with the homelessness of families with children now? I looked up the long list of CYFS official ‘red flags’ for child abuse in families living in poverty for whatever reason is now as far as I can understand simple ‘poverty’ can now be classed as ‘child abuse’.
This logical upshot of the ‘child centric’ social policy means a future where NZs governance authorities of whatever persuasion are under less obligation to house families as “families”; and therefore under less obligation to provide public housing at all…In this way the NZ government’s selective signatory to the UN Optional protocols could also help remove any obligation for provision of public housing within NZ? Children, people with disabilities and marginally the elderly may be entitled to some form of accommodation assistance but only as part of an overall welfare package to the local contracted NGO; not as of right. I see this in practice with the delegation of housing services to welfare NGOs and child foster services and the dismantling of more universal public housing…This must be music to the ears of real estate developers and suchlike Tell me please that I am mistaken? I hope I am…

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