A reflection from the IFSW Secretary-General, Rory Truell
It was snowing in Helsinki, the waters of the inner harbour were covered in a thick coating of ice. In the inner city, people go about their business with layers of clothing. The atmosphere was quiet, orderly and the cobbled streets clean. In the street market the sellers were humming or singing and would offer me, as a tourist, information without pressure to buy anything. No beggars, no poverty in sight. But this is one story from Finland and there are others.
For World Social Work Day, Talentia – The Finnish Association and Union of Social Workers – invited Ana Radulescu, IFSW European President, and myself as Secretary-General to speak at their national conference. From the start, our social work colleagues talked of their challenges with welfare bureaucracy. ‘We have so many welfare-related laws and regulations that don’t fit together’, I was told. I asked if people fell through the gaps, ‘Yes, was the reply.
They facilitated a meeting with some of Helsinki City social workers. Two of them worked in an Outreach Team that spent their working time on the streets visiting people who community members or the state felt were ‘vulnerable’, though this may not be the description that either the team or the people themselves would use.
One of the social workers explained, “Anyone can use our service. Sometimes a concerned citizen calls us to say there is a person sleeping in their car. Sometimes we hear on the street that a person has pitched a tent in a wooded area out of sight. Our job is not to put pressure on any of these people, but to check if they are alright and let them know support is available should they want it”.
Another social worker in the outreach team, further explained, “Quite a few of the people we work with have formed a big distrust of police, the government and social services over many decades, and we know putting pressure on them will not help. We have to build a relationship with them. Sometimes this means calling by every day, just to say that we are checking in on them and if they need anything. After a while, a conversation grows and maybe we end up going for a walk with them, slowly building up trust”.
This approach reminded me a lot of a social worker I worked with in Aotearoa New Zealand. She would often walk with people (the agency called them clients) picking watercress along the riverbanks. The physical act of doing something together helped break down the barriers and began a different journey, which often ended in healing.
Once trust is established the Finnish outreach workers accompany the people they are working with to the relevant services, staying with them for as long as it takes, until the person has developed the confidence to navigate that service for themself. “This is another dimension of work”, the social workers explained:
Structural work. We have to champion change in the services to be able to respond to needs and working with people, so they are a part of the solution. This can involve workers from different health, addiction, mental health or welfare services developing a unique plan with the person who wants to make change in his/her life. This is not easy as each part of the wider system have been built in silos. But, with tenacity, we mostly find ways to bring people together. It can take time however, and the bureaucracy has not necessarily been built on working in partnership with people”.
This raises the question for many social workers working in highly bureaucratised systems: What do we really want administrative systems and legislation to do?
In all my meetings with social workers and ministry representatives, they highlighted that the profession’s role in ‘community development’ was absent in their current legislation and corresponding job descriptions. They had encountered, seen or read of examples from other countries, where the social work role involved facilitating communities as a whole to co-address social problems, and were frustrated by their statutory limitations.
This situation is about to change, however. As a result of Talentia, social work practitioners and others, a new force of community-oriented social work and outreach will become part of the Social Welfare Act. From July 2023 onwards, the new section of the Act will state that “the residents of the welfare area must have access to community-oriented social work. Community-oriented social work is provided to ensure social integration and welfare as well as good population relations in society. Community-oriented social work within the welfare area is carried out in collaboration with the area’s residents and with municipalities, organisations and congregations”.
Finnish social workers’ actions are as passionate and committed as any social worker around the world. Nor are they limited in their expertise as professionals as was demonstrated by their very deeply respectful ways of working with people. Their approach is far from the cold bureaucracies I have observed in other places.
From a global perspective, as the Federation has grown the majority of IFSW members now come from countries with extreme poverty and disaster, coupled with the absence of strong state welfare structures, and we, the profession, have learnt so much from them. Social workers in these countries have given rich gifts of practice approaches that utilise co-building with communities – creating joint action for social transformation. Yet, Finnish social work also continues to present gifts that we can learn from. Gifts that can contribute to each of us considering and working towards the right balance of state services and communities realising their power in owning and leading inclusive systems of well-being.
As the Federation matures in sharing knowledge which can be considered and adapted in different practice contexts, Finnish social workers offer us significant models of outreach and other programmes that are relevant for all. The particular issue that they want to share with us relates to the environment of regulation and legislation which offers us a cautionary tale as social legislation develops around the world. We need to consider how the role of administration and statutes support the role of social work in social development.
Ideally, our vision is not only to provide expertise to individuals but for services to also become platforms working with the organic communities’ systems, realising their capacity, their strengths, their resource in preventing social crisis and providing caring, loving environments. In each country, social workers are advancing this agenda. Some in contexts of the absence of services, some working in overly controlling systems.
Thank you Talentia for sharing your wisdom. It is a contribution that woven together with the experiences of other countries takes us a step further to the sustainable, just, eco-social world we all seek.
Photo: Helsinki social worker from the Outreach Team