Back in January, a manager of a community service agency asked me if there was a better way to supervise social workers doing community work? She felt that her staff has been losing out on the supervision that other social workers who were doing case management were getting.
While the administrative function of supervision played a part in monitoring programme outcomes, she wondered if there could be better support for her social workers who were involved in community work and were also overseeing a pool of volunteers for the programmes. Surely, the challenges of dealing with the community, the volunteers, the community partners, sponsors and other stakeholders would take a toll on their well-being if supervision is just focused on the programme outcomes!
The Social Work Competencies for Community Work
The National Social Work Competency Framework (Singapore) listed community work as one of eight Key Responsibility Areas (KRA) for direct practice that social workers are expected to develop competencies in. As a start, junior social workers are required to "assist with environmental scanning and assessment of community needs through data collection and the conduct of basic analysis (e.g. collation of social data, conducting interviews or surveys, community mapping, analysis of social trends, etc.)"(NSWCF, 2015). Those with some years of experience are expected to be able to design, develop and implement community-specific development programmes and participate in community development initiatives.
Looking at the competency requirements alone, it is not surprising that community work seems to hold lesser importance for supervisors when compared to casework, which takes up three ( engagement & assessment, case review & documentation, goal setting & intervention plans) of the eight Key Responsibility Areas for direct practice.
The Challenges of Community Work
Similar to caseworkers, social workers doing community work have to take on multiple roles. Often, they would be the initiator for social change within the community by developing programmes to address service gaps or rally support to advocate for resources and services. While planning, organising and executing community programmes, these social workers are also likely to take on the role of enabler - to provide support, encouragement and motivation to the programme participants to complete tasks and solve problems. They would probably need to mediate between conflicting parties, broker community resources and services, mobilize volunteers and other community resources to respond to the community's needs, and manage the overall programme.
In these roles, social workers would have to deal with individuals from different macrosystems, each with their own personal and agency agendas, in addition to the collaborative goals.
Social workers will not only need to learn to engage the client group but also need to develop skills to manoeuvre the different systems to achieve programme goals as well as to maintain their own well being in the face of challenges when dealing with these different systems (often, all at the same time!).
What Can Supervisors Do?
As supervisors, apart from ensuring programme outcomes, we should also take time to check on how our social workers are managing in their multiple roles while doing community work.
Supervisors can provide the steady hand that guide the workers through the different systems, connect them to their network of contacts in the different organisations and hold them with the confidence of a seasoned advocate.
At the same time, supervisors can offer a listening ear to hear the struggles and challenges that their workers go through as they interfaced with the various macrosystems and offer emotional support and encouragement.
Tips for Supervising Social Workers in Community Work
In summary, here are my top 5 tips for supervising social workers in community work:
1. Schedule your supervision - Make the effort to have protected time to check-in on your social workers and go through their scope of work. Just like casework, social workers doing community work also need timely reviews of the progress they have made, and the challenges they need to overcome to achieve programme goals.
2. Limit the updates - Because time is limited, let the social worker know that the hour you have with him/her needs to be optimised. Limit the reporting of numbers into tables and progress timelines which you could run through quickly. Focus on the lessons the social worker has learnt from the community work processes and the areas in which the worker needs the agency or management support.
3. Listen to the struggles - Junior workers, especially, may encounter difficulties as they learn to manoeuvre macrosystems, get programme participants, manage volunteers, keep to programme budget, deal with stakeholders and many other programme related activities. Listen with empathy. Clarify if roadblocks are due to a lack of skills and knowledge, personal beliefs and attitudes or systemic barriers that needed intervention from a higher authority. Work on the solutions together.
4. Share your experience - Workers need to know that their struggles are part of the learning which you have learnt to overcome. Share your own experience and lessons learnt. How did you deal with agency partners that are not putting in their share of the work? What worked when you have to confront an overzealous volunteer? How did you get donors and sponsors to fund programmes? Offer insights but allow the worker to process how to apply your experiences to what is currently happening . Your experience in dealing with particular challenges serves as an example, not the solution.
5. Be the bridge - Being new in the field, social workers may not have the wealth of contacts that they can reach out to for support and assistance. Supervisors can be the bridge by introducing social workers to their networks. Bring junior staff for networking sessions in the community. Encourage supervisees to apply the micro-skills they have learnt for casework in the networking setting for community work as well.
Want to know more about the National Social Work Competency Framework? Download it here