What is a social work assessment, plan and evaluation?
The aim of social work is to protect individuals from harm, and to empower them and improve their lives. Social workers form a human link between the many programs employed to serve the public good and those who are in need. They form the ‘eyes and ears’ of public efforts to combat social ills, so to speak, and they are the practical human element of common sense in their application. It is in this role where new ideas are created and innovative solutions are identified, where existing practices are judged for effectiveness, and, most importantly, where the faceless bureaucracy of government takes human form.
In order to accomplish this a critical process of assessment, planning, and evaluation has evolved in the field of social work which allows social workers to effectively achieve their goals. Moreover, it is has found a wide range of applications, from the student-supervisor relationship to practitioners in the field.
The process of assessment is aimed first at identifying problems or ‘taking stock’ of a particular situation. Identifying the problems in a situation provides the fundamental raison d’être for the development and employment of a solution. Past identifying whether there is actually a problem (which is often suspected or reasonably understood before an assessment is undertaken), social work assessment has more to do with determining the particular nature of the problem and its degree. Understanding what kind of problem is being faced, and just how bad it really is, is key to forming a coherent plan to affect a real solution. This requires strong observation and critical analysis skills on the part of the social worker, but it also requires an intimate and experiential knowledge of the field in which the assessment is being undertaken.
Once the nature and degree of a problem is understood, different options may emerge – each as a possible solution. Each possible solution will have its own strengths and weaknesses, its own advantages and drawbacks. And while the process of assessment may be viewed as excessively tedious at times, it is critical to never underestimate its importance. A study on the need for an assessment model in primary medical care facilities for the elderly noted that: “When psychosocial needs go unmet through misdiagnosis, lack of detection, lack of treatment and follow up, elderly patients are at risk of further health problems that can lead to physical deterioration, reduced independence, and eventually to the need for more intensive and expensive services. “ (Berkman et al., 1999) The failure of proper assessment not only prevents positive solutions, but also results in negative impacts.
Assessment forms a critical foundation for the effectiveness of all other social work efforts. As such, the identification of different solutions requires policy knowhow and creativity on the part of the social worker. Meeting the demands of this important aspect of assessment, in conjunction with the skills of problem identification and critical analysis, will ensure sound and proper assessments which enable the identification of proper solutions.
Assessment is a critical component at the basis of all kinds of social work, from medical care and patient treatment to domestic violence and child poverty. All outcomes depend upon an assessment model built upon sound observation and critical analysis combined with creative and informed policy thought.
Solid assessment will provide the social worker with a range of options for addressing a particular problem. The selection of an appropriate solution involves properly understanding the nature of the problem, as well as the various impacts of each option at different levels.
The skills required to identify the right solution to a problem involve more than simple program literacy or policy analysis. They involve the fundamental ability to not only understand policies, but to weigh them concurrently against previously identified goals. Because many factors involved in determining the impacts of a possible solution are subjective (i.e. individuals, public and private groups, changing laws etc…), achieving this is not a matter of simple analysis but of an intuitive understanding of these subjective factors. Too often, someone unfamiliar with, or removed from, these subjective variables enacts a calculated decision based upon what is understood to be sound analysis. The history of social work is filled with this kind of serial miscalculation.
Take, for example, a 2005 study on battered women. It found that: “Safety planning will be most effective if it occurs within a contextualized assessmentprocess that illuminates the deeper struggles and multiple harms that women balance when making decisions about continuing or ending relationships.” (Lindhorst et al., 2005) While a “contextualized assessment process” is the main focus of the essay, it is the effectiveness of the plan or policy that is identified as the major issue affected by its absence. Assuming the burdens of sound assessment are properly met elsewhere, the ‘contextualization of the process’, or the root of its understanding in the subjective variables which specifically define it, will determine its success.
Real planning and policy implementation in response to sound assessment must always be rooted in the day to day reality of the issue it is dealing with. Too much abstraction or beaurocratization of this process distances it from reality, and only serves the employment of solutions which leave critical needs and major goals unmet. Ensuring that this understanding is present, along with the required critical analysis skills and policy knowledge on the part of the social worker, will ensure the right person is making these decisions. A bad decision based upon the best assessment is still an unacceptable outcome.
It is never evident, however, that the right plan or policy was chosen or the right assessment undertaken without some kind of evaluation. Success and failure is seldom absolute. More often it exists in degrees. And while success may be met in a number of respects, it may be absent in a number of others. The process of evaluation is designed to measure these degrees.
The changes that have taken place since a particular plan or policy was implemented are a major indicator of their effectiveness. Too often, however, not enough attention is paid to whether or not these changes are actually the result of the plans or policies in question. It is the process of evaluation’s primary task to determine the facts of policy impacts and exactly what policies are responsible for certain changes.
Furthermore, the process of evaluation is usually synonymous with some kind of accountability. When looking at programs from a financial point of view, this accountability is welcome. Indeed, it is rightly viewed as necessary to their responsible administration. This evaluation is, to a large degree, black and white. Either the numbers add up or they don’t. Either an idea has fundamentally succeeded or it has failed, or else it needs some tweaking.
From a personnel perspective, however, “the words ‘accountability,’ ‘supervision’ and ‘evaluation’ are frightening. They imply having one’s feet held to the fire for failure. These processes exist in a paradigm of fear and dread. Educators blame others and blame the circumstances for their lack of effectiveness rather than taking personal responsibility.
This phenomenon in human dynamics should not be seen as unique to teachers and administrators in education. It exists everywhere. We all have a tough time taking and giving criticism. We all have that very common fear of failure.” (Mcgrath, 2000) The human dynamic is here identified as a force resistant to the very kind of accountability the process of evaluation is meant to bring about. The study, “The Human Dynamics of Personnel Evaluation” (Mcgrath, 2000) talks about the judgmental nature and pressure of accountability which needs to be taken into account in the evaluation process.
The evaluation process is often viewed as a simple matter of calculation, or arithmetic. We had the goals the reasoning goes, we had the assessment and the plan, and we had what happened – just add it all up. But it’s just not that simple. The human dynamic is woven between virtually every fibre in the assessment and policy process. Viewing accountability through a fiscal lens, or a purely factual lens of objective causes and effects, miscalculates one of the largest and most influential factors in determining the usefulness of social work evaluation: people.
Making the evaluation process effective must involve, as with the two other processes discussed in this essay, more than just analysis. It must involve a psychology of responsibility that individuals are confronted with in the process at all levels. It must involve a confrontation of the fear of failure present in the heart of every sincere effort. Perhaps the great compassion which drives the field of social work forward, demanding the investment of nothing less than life itself from thousands of people, is also its greatest weakness. I believe, however, that it is the unawareness of this vulnerability which makes it a liability – nothing the fullness of character and a mature temperament cannot address.
Berkman et al. (1999) “Standardized Screening of Elderly Patients’ Needs for Social Work Assessment in Primary Care: Use of the SF-36” Health and Social Work. Vol. 24
Boutin-Foster et al. (2005) “Social Work Admission Assessment Tool for Identifying Patients in Need of Comprehensive Social Work Evaluation” Health and Social Work. Vol. 30
Burgess, H., Taylor, O., (2004) Effective Learning and Teaching in Social Policy and Social Work. London: RoutledgeFalmer
Garcia, J., Floyd, C., (2002) “Addressing Evaluative Standards Related to Program Assessment: How Do We Respond?” Journal of Social Work Education. Vol. 38
Ginsburg, E., (1990) Effective Interventions: Applying Learning Theory to School Social Work. New York: Greenwood Press
Gitterman, A., (2001) Handbook of Social Work Practice with Vulnerable and Resilient Populations. New York: Columbia University Press
Lindhorst et al. (2005) “Contextualized Assessmennt of Battered Women: Strategic Safety Planning to Cope with Multiple Harms” Journal of Social Work Education. Vol. 41
Mcgrath, M., (2000) “The Human Dynamics of Personnel Evaluation” School Administrator. Vol. 57
Pardeck, J., (2002) Family Health Social Work Practice. London: Auburn House
Siebert, D., Siebert, C., Spaulding-Givens, J., (2006) “Teaching Social Work Skills Primarily Online: An Evaluation” Journal of Social Work Education. Vol. 42
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