The sudden importance of social media to social workers in New Zealand

In just two months the New Zealand social work profession has undergone a transformation, or at the very least has risen, shaken itself off and shown a renewed confidence in the value of its own opinion. Over these two months, since Minister Tolley’s CYF Review announcement at the beginning of April, there has been an intense succession of disturbing new social policies, funding crises, service delivery disasters and heartbreaking news stories all related to the services provided (or not) to New Zealand’s most vulnerable. There has been no rest for the wicked problems which when not regularly bubbling to the surface of the cauldron, have been happily stewing away at the bottom, preparing to rise again. And no rest for many social workers, who found themselves compelled to respond in ways that surprised even themselves.

This new reality is worthy of a pause for reflection. As social workers in this country become increasingly enraged by the current government’s appalling approach to the provision of social services, and find themselves joining the cause, it is helpful to go back two months , to find meaning in the impetus, the energy and the expertise that formed what has without doubt become a New Zealand “social work campaign.” It is also useful to reflect on how powerful this campaign is and how ground-breaking it has been for the Aotearoa social work profession. For the first time in this country social workers have become visible social media activists.

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Late last year a new New Zealand social work Facebook group began; it now has over 550 members. At the time of Minister Tolley’s announcement on 1st April the page had only half that number and it was on this page on that same day that the initial social work outrage began. A deeper collective response was spearheaded by Liz Beddoe in her blog Social Work Research in New Zealand beginning with her challenge regarding the intention of the review and the acute lack of useful representation on the panel (Not independent and not expert- so what is the agenda?). This was followed by a series of guest posts on her blog, honing in on key issues and providing valuable social work analysis of events over the first crucial days after the announcement.

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The guest posts began with in-depth analysis of the terms of reference of the review, examining the semantics and the role of the media in the announcement (Reading between the lines), followed by responses to unfounded criticism of social work education in New Zealand, and its role in the poor performance of Child Youth and Family (Big Brains and the modernisation of CYF). These views were supported in following posts, urging the government to make use of expertise, research and resources in their critique of CYF (The skills and expertise of social workers). Further analysis focussed on the wider needs of vulnerable children, the failure of the government to address the key sources of child abuse and the opportunities that continue to be missed in addressing these (Detect and rescue or genuine engagement). This writing frenzy occurred over the Easter long weekend and daily postings on Liz Beddoe’s blog saw traffic jump from a respectable 200 visitors in previous months, to 1628 unique visitors and 5283 views in the month of April. The hotter the fire, the more quickly boiling point is reached.

This intensity of interest led to the need for a dedicated social media space to capture the passion clearly rising from the initial burst of shock and indignation. This resulted in the emergence of this blog, Reimagining Social Work, and the writing has continued. There was valuable analysis of the public conceptions of child abuse and the subsequent misconceived solutions (The pictures in our heads), and some strong Tangata Whenua perspectives (The continuing significance of Puao-te-ata-tu).

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The blog has continued with an overwhelming amount of traffic, a total to date of 40 posts made up of analysis and support from overseas social work experts, student responses, SW academic comment, further Tangata Whenua responses, practical and ethical guidance to social workers regarding their use of social media and links to media, and other important sources of key information related to the CYF review. To date there have been over 11,000 views, almost 4000 visitors and 55 blog followers since its inception on 8 April, only two months ago. And the use of Twitter and Facebook has spread the word exponentially.

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Screenshot 2015-06-11 10.32.34This digital activism has had direct impact on the “other side” of social media. There has been political pressure, with liberal MP Jacinda Ardern taking questions from voices collected on the RSW blog directly to parliament, union action, responses tabled by ANZASW, CWEANZ, SWRB, student action, increasingly active discussion forums, support of/for other social advocacy groups, lots of talk in tea rooms and meeting spaces, and expressions of gratitude from some social workers who understandably feel unable to express their views publicly. This has prompted discussion of the extent of political neutrality required of social workers and their use of social media like Facebook and Twitter.

Government needs to be held to account in its policy making and service delivery, and social workers have always been challenged to make use of any available form of advocacy tactic to do this on behalf of the people they work alongside. This is what social workers do, have always done, and are ethically obliged to do. As we have seen over the past two months, social media offers another very valuable way of offering this service to our communities.

There is no one way to use social media, just as there is no one way to talk or write or sing – or stir the pot. And this spectrum exists for professional social work use as well. There are those who deliver great oratories, others who summarize, support or mediate. Some bring large networks, others humour, visuals, stories. Some have a lot to say, others less. There are those with great technical understanding, who know how to like and share and work the room of social media like nobody’s business, while others lurk to learn, or occasionally pop out to make a point. At the end of the day we all bring something, and the discussion and debate, the collection of knowledge, the support and sharing are all invaluable. We don’t want to turn down the heat, but we certainly need to add richness and depth to the debate and ensure that everyone has an opportunity to contribute to what’s being cooked up!

6 replies on “The sudden importance of social media to social workers in New Zealand”

Kia ora, I just wanted to add that I had not thought of myself as ‘social media activist’ but rather a social justice advocate (who happens to be Maori) speaking up about issues impacting whanau Maori. My individual perspective is not representative of all tangata whenua, indeed there are many who do not agree with my views, as such my view is not a “strong tangata whenua perspective”. There are many Pakeha social workers who also advocate for social justice issues impacting tangata whenua…although they are not referred to as ‘Pakeha perspectives.’ Not intending to take anything away from the above article, I just wanted to make this distinction/point. 🙂 Mauri ora koutou.

Kia ora Paora, excellent distinction. I (we) am grateful for your perspective and respect your forthright way of highlighting social justice issues and their impact on whanau Maori. Thank you for clarifying that your voice does not represent all Tangata Whenua. Although I believe your voice is strong and crucial, this is a very important point and I respectfully acknowledge it.

Indeed social media is a powerful tool and I believe if enough social workers (and students of social work) respond collectively then change will occur, all be it as much as is politically ‘permissible’. I for one am tired of hearing Ministers (and others) talk of the ‘welfare state’ being unsustainable and using this as a springboard for policy that ‘modernises’ or improves outcomes’ but does nothing for communities but make things worse. The ‘welfare state’ is unsustainable because the ‘resource’ has been steadily relocated into areas that don’t prioritise well-being for its citizens. This ‘relocation’ is deliberate, controlled and ironically not sustainable either.

More power to everyone in finding a collective voice that’s willing to send a message that community social needs, whether indigenous or not, aren’t being addressed let alone met. How a Government can rationalise their approach for provision of social service while spending ‘acres’ more on infrastructure is beyond me.

The late great Edward Ross (sociologist) once stated,

“If customs and institutions grew right out of the impulses and experiences of the people, they would offer little check to harmless human tendencies. but various crude products of thinking, half- baked theologies and philosophies, have had part in their shaping, so that we have no assurance that the social order will comport with ordinary human nature” (Ross, 1920)

This offering is nearly 100 years old and sadly still relevant today. My message to Minister Tolley and her cohorts is to take a look around, listen to community and to get a bit more ‘real’ with policy that should be designed to ‘uplift’ and protect our more disadvantaged people, not hinder the profession that does this service.

Well Dean, we’ll never know where conversation may lead if the late Mr Ross and ministers from our current government were to gather around a dinner table today, but it does seem that power is a constant feature, and the drive to preserve it overrides all. Common sense and respect for the creativity and integrity of the public isn’t too apparent eh? Thanks for your comment and support.

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