In the social work profession, we dream of contributing towards a better, fairer, civil society. In this research I explore the professionalisation and regulation of social work in Aotearoa New Zealand specifically considering the question “In what ways have political, sociocultural and economic dimensions impacted on the development and initial implementation of the Social Workers Registration Act (SWRA) 2003?”
A sociological lens was utilised to frame the forces that contributed to the problematising of social work professionalisation and the determining of the need for registration. I employed a qualitative realist research methodology, conducting qualitative interviews with 22 participants. Archival data from Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW) and the Social Workers Registration Board (SWRB) as well as policy documents were collected and analysed as the second data set.
The archival research demonstrates that the professionalisation project commenced around the same time as the development of the first tertiary social work qualification. Alongside this, the instigation of the New Zealand Association of Social Workers in 1964 connected social workers and formalised international links. Social work as an occupation strengthened with employers increasingly establishing social work roles. An indigenous cultural awakening in Aotearoa New Zealand, in the 1960s and 1970s, strengthened indigenous critical voices to spearhead challenges regarding institutional and personal racism in the social services sector.
By the 1980s and 1990s, social workers were challenged to respond to issues of elitism, sexism, and racism within their professional association and work places, as well as personally. Relationships between Māori and Tauiwi (non- Māori living in Aotearoa New Zealand) moved to a more equitable footing within the professional body and, with this, a returning focus on registration was agreed upon in the social work sector.
From the 1990s, a perfect storm of coalescing forces led to the development and passing of the SWRA 2003, providing an option for social workers to register. Consideration is given to the part played by a range of key actors in the neoliberal, market-driven environment that the project was anchored within.
To implement the enabling legislation, the inaugural Board established by section 97 of the SWRA 2003, was required to consult with the complex sector and develop the policies and practices for registration within a very limited timeframe. Inevitable conflicts between stakeholders and the Board surfaced and decision making and compromise to ensure responsiveness to stakeholders and meet the purposes of the legislation was required. The Aotearoa New Zealand registration history provides a unique response to risk-averse environments, reflecting tensions between prescriptive state regulation and professional autonomy. Risks to the profession of Aotearoa New Zealand’s version of social worker registration are considered. The thesis concludes that while social worker registration has played a role in strengthening the professionalism of social work and enhanced social work’s claim to the professional domain, caution and care are required to ensure the vision of social work’s role in promoting civil society is not undermined by increasingly prescriptive state regulation that blames organisational and systemic failings on individual practitioners. Through the provision of this historical research, lessons may be considered for future social work regulation developments.
Recommendations include that future research projects consider the impact of both voluntary and mandatory state regulation with regard to protection of the public, as well as on the profession, educators, and practitioners with specific consideration of the intersection of their gender, ethnicity, age, and region. It is also recommended that the Board, in collaboration with the sector, develop frameworks that assert the rights of indigenous service users and practitioners that are fundamental to addressing systemic as well as individual responsibility to tangata whenua. Further, it is recommended that systemic and organisational responsibilities be accounted for in regulatory framework developments, so that accountability for practice decisions can be considered in a holistic manner. The social work profession is encouraged to strengthen its place and space in the Bourdieusian field of social work. Aligning with this, it is recommended that the responsibility for appointment of Board members be shared by the state with the social work sector to reduce the risk of state capture of the profession. Finally, it is recommended that current levels of investment in social work education be challenged to ensure that educators have capacity required to promote and instill critical consciousness in graduating social workers.