Summer 2008 - Volume 11 Number 3
|Reviews||Connecting Policy to Practice in the Human Services, 2nd edition
Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2003
Seldom, if ever, has The College Quarterly given space to reviews of generic textbooks or books, the primary purpose of which is to service college classrooms. In the case of Connecting Policy to Practice in the Human Services, however, an exception is being made. This book is designed for college and university-level students of social work and related “helping professions.” I, for example, became aware of it through connections with the undergraduate Health Sciences program at the University of Western Ontario in London.
For those who are in a position to designate assigned reading in college courses and are therefore familiar with the range of “products” offered by mainstream educational publishers, it is probably unsurprising that the exception is being made to accommodate comments on a book from Oxford University Press. The diversity of producers of undergraduate and colleges texts is dwindling as major multinational publishing corporations systematically push smaller companies into the role of niche market suppliers, or drive them from the marketplace altogether. As a result, bland, expensive, admittedly colourful and media-laden, but largely interchangeable “door-stops” are mass produced and dedicated to what may be the lowest common level of academic or professional credibility in almost any discipline.
Though not alone, Oxford University Press has been unusual in bringing less homogenized and therefore more engaging books to the postsecondary classroom. This is the case not only in the domain of comprehensive survey texts used mainly in introductory courses, but also specialized books appropriate in more advanced subject fields.
As someone who is frequently called upon to teach “practical sociology” to social work and gerontology students, I would have no hesitancy recommending Connecting Policy to Practice in the Human Services as supplementary reading in my classes and, were I to be assigned a course on policy formulation in almost any field of social policy, I would likewise be quick to urge students to read this book. Its immediate utility as a pedagogical tool, however, is not the main reason for discussing it in The College Quarterly.
Brian Whorf (Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Human and Social Development at the University of Victoria) and Brad McKenzie (Professor, Faculty of Social Work, at the University of Manitoba) present an admirable account of the fundamentals of policy formation that would help anyone in education to understand how to improve policy making as it affects both others and themselves.
Most allegedly helpful guides to administrative practice are currently derived from private sector business and organizational theory. Such tomes are commonly rooted in market theories and present models that are dedicated to issues such as efficiency and accountability. They cater to meeting the expressed needs of “customers” (previous known as “students”) in the commodified world of corporate-friendly education. They are directly in line with the specifications of the “new public management,” which has been the principal ideological rationale for the devastation of the public sector over the past few decades. And they conveniently ignore questions of power and social justice.
The political agenda that rests unstated at the foundations of a “reformed” public service and its advocates is, of course, replicated in the labour process of college teaching. In this pusillanimous new world, full-time faculty are declared redundant and replaced by necessarily timid contract workers. Collegiality is suppressed by absurd notions of “employment ownership.” Academic standards are negotiable as pressure for grade inflation is exerted by government, management, students and their fees-paying parents. Curriculum content is shaped to consumer preference and teaching excellence is redefined as the possession of an appealing personality and, above all, a reputation as an “easy marker”; youthful good looks don’t hurt either.
What happens in college employment practices permeates all sectors of public service work, including community, social and health care services. Connecting Policy to Practice in the Human Services does not submit to such ideology-driven demands. Instead, it proceeds along a cogent narrative line to describe, analyze and invite reflection on the bureaucratic process as it is, and to show clearly how existing administrative procedures could be improved.
In the text are a limited number of appropriate and helpful boxes, tables and figures to provide revealing examples, analytical guidelines and existing processes of governance. There are appendices containing “questions for reflection” and an adequate inventory of “annotated websites and selected Canadian journals.” These teachers’ aids, however, are not intended to help the instructor “teach to the test,” in a manner that is consistent with the trend back to rote learning and away from genuinely critical thinking. Instead of providing a narrative with key points to memorize about how policy making “works” in the ethereal atmosphere of organization theory and sanitized accounts of public service in practice, the authors explicitly make policy making and implementation problematic, and invite students to interrogate administrative behaviour as it is, by equipping them with the rudiments of organizational alternatives.
In short, Wharf and McKenzie write candidly, and approach their topic from a specific point of view that is never concealed by the illusion of dispassionate objectivity, which is, of course, the primary ideological tool of those books that endorse and reinforce corporatist managerial principles presented as realistic and even scientific theory.
Connecting Policy to Practice in the Human Services shows how inclusive approaches involving higher quantifiable measures of public involvement and qualitatively inclusive opportunities for citizen participation are not only normatively appealing to those well-disposed to democracy, but are also pragmatic methods needed to achieve more successful policy objectives.
Hierarchical and authoritarian managerial strategiesdespite all the hypocritical commitments to “empowerment”remain conspicuously in place both in human services generally and in postsecondary education specifically, and corporatist models are ever more firmly enforced as fiscal restraint is invoked in defence of draconian policies. So, college educators would do well to propose this book for the edification of their students as aspirant human service professionals. Moreover, they would do themselves a favour by reading it for their own “professional development.”
Too often, academic staff retreat into the relative comfort of their own offices, carrels and computer screens, eager to avoid rancorous “college politics” and tedious committee meetings. They choose to avoid the hassle, preferring to be left alone to do their jobs in the only place where they can exercise some small measure of professional autonomytheir classrooms. To be drawn into larger corporate dynamics seems to be both frustrating and futile. Moreover, when they occasionally voice misgivings or actual complaints about mismanagement, they are often silenced with the demand for a practical alternative.
Learning (or being reminded) of the degree to which educational and other human services workers could enhance the quality of their work and their workplaces is just one of the benefits that can be derived from this wholly accessible, even-handed book. It could also serve to provide the skeleton of a cogent response to existing circumstances, upon which we might hang the meat of our specific experience.
Don’t get me wrong, Connecting Policy to Practice in the Human Services is no subversive screed. It does not seek to turn students, teachers, human service providers and consumers into dreaded “community organizers” and activists in the style of Saul Alinsky, Chicago’s ur-dissenter and radical tactician. It remains almost obsessively polite throughout, and does not venture far into a political analysis of the overt suppression of ineffectively articulated interests. For example, it approvingly reproduces Sherry Arnstein’s iconic “ladder of citizen participation” which emerged from a consideration of events in the tumultuous 1960s, and remains both valid and widely circulated today. As Arnstein herself has argued, her typology applies “to any hierarchical society” and expresses concepts that “are still mostly unknown, unacknowledged or ignored … even [by] people who have the job of representing citizens views [yet] seem largely unaware, or even dismissive of these principles. Many planners, architects, politicians, bosses, project leaders and power-holders,” she adds, “still dress all variety of manipulations up as ‘participation in the process’, ‘citizen consultation’ and other shades of technobable.” It does not, however, press the matter further and consider explicit conflict models and instances of active repression.
To be fair, Wharf and McKenzie do examine instances of “whistle-blowing” and their consequences, but they generally refrain from dealing systematically with overt threat, initimidation, harassment and ultimately dismissal of employees with the courage to stand up to mismanagement or with “client” groups who sometimes take to the streets to express their pent-up anger at the authorities. That next step is arguably beyond the scope of their presentation. To the extent that it raises our awareness of the methods and means used to choreograph and thereby dilute participatory practices, however, it is helpful in clarifying the boundaries of active public involvment in policy making. To the degree that it demonstrates the pragmatic advantages of opting for inclusive rather than exclusive policy planning, implementation and evaluation of human services practices, it encourages critical understanding as the necessary prerequisite for the practice of responsible social reform.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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