When Harriett Rinaldo was just 21, she earned her master’s degree in social science. She was subsequently employed by the Children’s Aid Society and the Philadelphia Welfare Agency, and then she moved to the Social Security Agency in New York.
This was back in the 1920s, and these were quite significant achievements for a woman, let alone one who was so young.
Harriett wasn’t resting on her laurels. From New York, she moved to Washington where she knew that she could do a better job of influencing social welfare policy.
In her job at the Veterans Administration, she developed personnel and rating procedures.
During her time there, she recruited hundreds of social workers to fill the manpower needs that had been created by the Second World War.
She also streamlined the recruitment process and developed the recruitment model that is used to this day by many federal departments and social welfare agencies.
Harriett Rinaldo is just one social worker who played a significant role in influencing social work policy and development in the US.
There are many others, men and women from all races, who dedicated their lives to making sure that policies and laws were enacted to provide social welfare to the underprivileged and underserved populations of America.
With the right training and qualifications, you can become one of their numbers. You need a Master of Social Work (MSW) if you are going to be a policymaker. There are numerous MSW careers options that are open to graduates, such as the one offered from Keuka College.
The course covers themes such as professional and ethical development, clinical social work competencies, and theory and evidence-based practice. Students also learn about social policy, diversity, and human rights and advocacy.
If you enroll in an online program, the course can take as little as two years and you learn at your own pace. Online learning is recommended for working professionals because it makes it easier to balance the demands of work and college.
Potential career paths include clinical social work, school social work, healthcare social work, substance abuse counseling and clinical leadership. These, however, are just stepping stones. Your master’s degree qualifies you to become a policymaker in your area of expertise.
Even as you contemplate the best route to take into social work policy, it helps to be acquainted with the basic issues. What role do social workers play in policy formulation? What skills and knowledge do they need?
Before we answer these questions, it is important to understand what a policymaker is, and how they intersect with social work.
What is a policymaker?
A policymaker is a professional who is tasked with creating and amending policies. A policy can be defined as a framework or guideline that is adopted to help with decision-making.
Policies are often formulated to deal with specific problems, and they reflect the values and philosophies of a society.
In social work, a policymaker is a social worker who creates frameworks to tackle the problems that affect those who are less fortunate.
These may be individuals who are underrepresented, underserved, poor, handicapped, or even unable to live productive and fulfilling lives because of issues such as drug and alcohol addiction.
What role do social workers play in policy formulation and development?
Policy formulation isn’t just for social workers – the gamut of policymakers runs from bureaucrats to politicians, academics, researchers, planners and many other professionals.
The social worker, however, has some specific roles when it comes to policy formulation, and it is because of their unique role in communities.
Every social worker begins at the grassroots level. They are allocated case files, and they have to familiarize themselves with the issues that afflict their clients to deliver social welfare.
Unlike other professionals, social workers come face to face with the problems that people are dealing with in their assigned communities.
They not only get to understand the problems, but also get a good insight into the causes, and by talking to their clients and community leaders, they start to think about how these problems can be alleviated permanently, efficiently and effectively.
They can argue on behalf of a particular group, or advocate for an issue or idea based on their extensive experience within their communities. They also use their knowledge to bring about change, build new frameworks and shine a light on issues that afflict their clients.
There are eight roles that social workers can serve in policy formulation and social change.
- They identify issues and conduct research
Imagine that a social worker services 10 or 12 families in their community, and within each of these families is a teenager suffering from drug addiction. The social worker sees a trend – could more people in the community be suffering from the same problem?
For the social worker to get the resources that are needed to fight addiction, they have to show the numbers to the relevant authorities. They can only get these numbers by conducting research.
Research not only helps social workers get resources, but it also helps them to advocate in the right places. If they can present their data proving that there is a serious problem with drugs and alcohol, it can lead to a policy shift.
Law enforcement may become more involved, schools may start to talk about the negative effects of drug use on young people, after-school programs can be started to keep children busy, and any other interventions that are within reach can be implemented.
Once a social worker identifies an issue that they think is affecting a significant section of the community, it is their responsibility to point it out to their supervisors and others who can help. They can only justify their case with numbers – hence the need for research.
The social worker may hand out questionnaires or surveys, or they may conduct interviews. Sometimes social workers use a combination of all three survey techniques. They analyze the numbers and produce reports, and they should be prepared to present these reports to the relevant authorities.
- They advocate for and represent their clients
Advocacy means developing and uplifting the vulnerable in society. For the social worker, a big part of policymaking is advocacy and representation. The mere identification of an issue is not enough. Apathy and an unwillingness to act, bureaucracy, budgetary issues and politics often stand in the way of assistance.
The social worker steps in as an advocate. They are the voice of their clients and their community. If they want meaningful change to take place, they must make sure that the issues highlighted remain at the forefront and ensure that they are actioned.
The social worker may not go out and demonstrate or picket, but they will use their research and the reports they have collated to put pressure on the right institutions and individuals.
Advocacy often involves getting the right people in your corner. Social workers develop networks, and through these networks, they meet people who can help them be heard.
They don’t have to advocate by themselves. They can recruit others who are in positions of influence to get their issues addressed.
- Consolidation of expert opinion
Often, it is politicians, bureaucrats and administrators who take the sort of action that is needed to help the vulnerable, and they usually have to be convinced by expert opinion.
The social worker brainstorms with their supervisors to come up with names of experts who can help them support their case. They may be other social workers, academicians, scientists, researchers or other professionals who have the sort of knowledge needed to convince decision makers.
The social worker forms an expert committee and briefs the experts as to what the problem is and what sort of solutions they envision. They must be prepared to listen to what the experts have to say.
The experts may decide that the problem isn’t serious enough to warrant governmental intervention, or they may decide to phrase it differently. They may advise the social worker about alternative solutions, or a different way to tackle the problem.
Sometimes social workers even enlist the help of the media to give voice to an issue. They understand that the more people know about it, the more pressure there is on relevant bodies to take action.
- Implementation and execution
Social workers often find themselves implementing programs to help their clients. They put together the right people to help them make policies come to life. These may include community and religious leaders, teachers and others who have the authority to rally people to the cause.
Keeping with our example above of the social worker who detected a serious drug problem in the teenagers in their community, let’s assume that they get the right people to listen.
A policy is created to keep teenagers busy and to also educate them on the dangers of drugs. The policy recommends creating after-school programs and presenting lectures in schools. The social worker puts together an implementation team to make sure that the policies are adopted.
Execution is two-pronged. It involves making sure that policy recommendations are executed, and also that the benefits reach those who the policy was created for.
- Supervision and monitoring
The social worker has worked very hard to get their clients the resources they need to uplift their lives. It is their job to supervise and monitor, ensuring that each client gets the assistance they need.
If they created an after-school program, for example, they make sure that there is sufficient attendance and that most children within the community are accounted for. They also monitor activities within the program to ensure that the children are supervised and pursue helpful rather than destructive activities.
They also monitor to ensure that the new policy has the intended effect, and that indeed the social welfare program is helping those it was created for.
One of the ways to help vulnerable people is to educate them about the causes of their problems, how they can be avoided, and how they can improve their lives.
Social workers play a critical role in educating the vulnerable people in their communities. They can visit homes and schools, or they can organize community meetings.
They are not just educators – they also listen to concerns and issues that the community faces as they embrace the new policy, and they make adjustments as needed.
Public education isn’t something that should be taken lightly. It isn’t a matter of calling a meeting in the town hall and reading out a lecture. It often takes more than that.
Social workers may have to go to homes and encourage people to attend. They may have to give them reasons why attending these meetings is important and how it will help improve their lives.
Uptake can be slow, but the social worker must be patient. Change happens slowly.
- Resource mobilization
Many community advocacy programs are facilitated by individuals. Governments can be slow to take action, and in many parts of America, communities take charge to improve their own lives.
In such cases, social workers will assist with resource mobilization. They create committees that brainstorm on the best ways to raise funds to tackle whatever problems they may be facing.
Once the resources are in place, the social worker ensures that they are allocated accordingly. They do regular transparency audits, the results of which can be used to mobilize even more resources. If people see a transparent, well-run community initiative, they are more likely to give to the cause.
Social workers volunteer to help their communities, and when it comes to enacting policies, they are usually at the forefront.
Not only do they step in and get involved in various programs, but they also mobilize others to provide their services free of charge for the benefit of those who are less fortunate within their community.
What knowledge and skills are needed to be a social work policymaker?
While a master’s in social work is vital, certain skills will make you a good policymaker.
As you consider your MSW career options, think about whether or not you possess the following knowledge and skills. If not, think about ways that you can develop them – for example, by going on training courses.
Remember, most people do not start their careers with the requisite skills (or all the knowledge) – they develop them along the way.
- Know existing policies – You must know what policies are in place and why they were formulated in the first place. You should also have a good understanding of why these policies are failing and what can be done to improve them.
- Understand the political and legislative process – How does it work at the local, state and federal levels? You should know how laws are formulated and what the process is to change them.
- Understand service delivery – this is the process of delivering resources to the community. The social worker should know how it works and the various offices that are involved in bringing services to their community.
- An analytical mind – What goes through the social worker’s mind when they see something unusual? Do they want to know why it is happening? An analytical mind means that you can ask the necessary questions, and when faced with data, use it to draw the right conclusions.
- Research skills – This is about looking for answers. Good social workers are wide readers, have a big social network, and are always looking for new ways that they can improve their clients’ lives. They talk to anyone they need to in order to find the answers they are looking for.
- Communication – This is one of the basic skills that a social worker should have. Not only should you know how to put your clients at ease, but you also have to master the art of communication at higher levels. You constantly interact with other high-ranking professionals, politicians and bureaucrats, and must know how to make your voice heard to them.
- Organizational skills – These are especially important when it comes to writing up and updating case files, as well as data collection, research and analysis. If a social worker is disorganized, they may soon find themselves overwhelmed. They may also miss obvious things that are buried in the mess they create.
- Technological skills – Social workers don’t need to be computer geniuses, but there is a lot of technology that is designed to make their work easier, and they should learn how to use it. Something as simple as a scheduling app can ensure that you never miss an appointment.
- Continuing education – Getting a master’s degree isn’t the end of the road for social workers. You can add other educational qualifications that help you be better at your job.
Policymaking is an important part of social work, and those who want to rise to this level need to have the right educational qualifications. They should obtain a master’s degree in social work and learn how to contribute to policy decisions and implement lasting change within their communities.
They can go even higher and become policymakers at the state or national level, bringing about change that impacts the underprivileged and underrepresented all over America.