The Future of Social Work Administration: An Interview With Felice D. Perlmutter
A veteran mover and shaker in social work administration speaks out.
Felice D. Perlmutter, MSW, PhD, is a household name in the field of social work management. Many social work administration students read her early book Changing Hats: From Social Work Practice to Administration, written to help practitioners decide whether to shift from case work or group work to administration.
In addition to authoring 10 books and 80 articles on social policy, human services, and nonprofit management, Perlmutter is professor emeritus at Temple University in Philadelphia. In 1974, she was instrumental in starting the School of Social Administration at Temple, one of the first programs in social work administration.
Perlmutter is one of the founders of The National Network of Social Work Managers (see sidebar). “The belief that social work managers needed to have their own professional organization committed to supporting them in their specific challenges, along with the development of their professional expertise, was the reason we founded the network,” explains Perlmutter.
The National Network of Social Work Managers recently celebrated its 20th anniversary at its annual institute, held at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Perlmutter was one of several founders honored and was also the keynote speaker.
Social Work Today (SWT) had the chance to chat with Perlmutter about how she has seen the profession change since the network was founded. She made no secret of the fact that she came to the 20th anniversary event with an agenda: She thinks that social work management as a profession is in crisis. She hopes to develop support for making changes in the way that social work managers are trained and how the profession is accredited and licensed.
SWT: You have written extensively about social workers in management roles. Was management always your interest?
Perlmutter: I was on the frontline for many years—first as a group worker, then as a community organizer, then as an administrator, and ultimately as an educator. My early years as a social worker were heady years when our profession was proud and productive and at the avant garde of social movements and social change. My research has been administrative- and policy-related, and I always involved workers in the research protocol.
SWT: How does social work contribute to management?
Perlmutter: Social work is still one of the few professions that has as its life’s blood a commitment to being consumer-oriented, to working with disenfranchised populations, dealing with social problems, focusing on social policy, and promoting advocacy. The value of having someone with a social work degree in management is their orientation to the clients, services, and advocacy.
SWT: What are the challenges of running organizations today?
Perlmutter: Today’s human service organizations are extremely complex, even more difficult to run than businesses, since there is the additional challenge of balancing the mission of the organization and its client focus with the business dimensions. Social work managers need business skills—for example, financial management, public relations, development, strategic planning. So, it is a very, very tough job that requires extensive preparation.
SWT: How is the external environment different for social workers?
Perlmutter: The whole external context in which people practice has changed as social problems have become more complex and as funding has become more challenging. Yet, I wish to emphasize that the shift that is really the big one is that of moving from being clinically oriented to being management-oriented. The clinically oriented practitioner is generally more focused on the current circumstance, the here-and-now, and is neutral with clients; by contrast, the administrator is more future-oriented, more proactive, a decision-maker, concerned about the total system as opposed to the particular client.
SWT: I know that you recently updated Changing Hats. What has changed since the first edition came out in 1990?
Perlmutter: Wendy Crook, PhD, joined me in coauthoring this second edition in which we updated the kinds of agencies and issues that we use as case examples. For example, drug addiction agencies, services for battered women, AIDS organizations, among others, were not covered in the first edition. And then we discuss the changing demands on executive leadership, including decision making, governance, government relations, in order to help social workers decide whether these macro aspects are of interest to them.
Perlmutter: I would say so. Given the challenges in our society today, it is often necessary for social agencies to become engaged in partnerships and collaborations not only at the local level but at the state and federal levels as well. It is a political as well as interpersonal process and requires a different set of skills. You have to be comfortable going out and playing with the big boys. Today’s social work manager has to be a politician and savvy with a board of directors.
SWT: The network has been very concerned with the fact that, increasingly, social service organizations that once had a social worker at the helm now have another executive—often an MBA or an attorney—as their CEO. What has happened?
Perlmutter: The skills that are needed at the top are those other skills—they are not clinical skills. I think that is where social work deludes itself. It is no longer a simple process of going up the line from caseworker to supervisor to manager. The folks that do this are not prepared. It is bound to fail when you have people that are trained as clinicians and don’t have a clue about being political and all of the other skills that you need to be a successful executive.
SWT: Isn’t there some value in having a trained social worker running a social work organization?
Perlmutter: The value of having someone with a social work degree is the orientation to clients and services, but that isn’t even happening. I was struck by research by Donna Hardina, PhD, for the network that found that social workers at the top of their organization aren’t empowering their staff or clients to participate in any of the decision making. We have this rhetoric about empowerment and participatory decision making, but we don’t practice it. We use it as a mantra. For years, we have been in self-denial and infatuated with these words.
SWT: Is this a reflection of the generic approach that many social work schools have gone to?
Perlmutter: I think the profession has just lost it in terms of preparing for management. Many of us who have been teaching in the management sequence of schools of social work have moved our professional activities to other organizations that are more compatible with our philosophy of education. And sadly, the general atmosphere in many schools of social work downplays or negates the preparation for administration. I don’t think that the profession is responding in any way appropriately. I am about ready to say that we should just resign ourselves to not being the CEOs and that we should accept that we are going to be the middle managers who are doing supervision and administering programs, but not agencies.
SWT: Why has this happened? Is this a reflection of the students coming in to social work schools?
Perlmutter: It is true that many of the students coming in to social work schools see it as the best way to go into private practice. They don’t want to go for a PhD—which they would need if they went the psychology route and got licensed—so they come for an MSW.
SWT: Are we abandoning the management role for social workers? If social workers are not going to take leadership of social service organizations and our organizations are going to be led instead by attorneys and MBAs, it is going to be a very different field.
Perlmutter: Different but not necessarily worse. I think that many of the people that come into these positions from other professions do have compatible values. You can hire and screen for people that have clinical skills. You do have to have interpersonal skills. One of my best students who also got her MBA from Wharton shared with me that they talk about interpersonal skills and ethics in business school. These skills are not the exclusive domain of social work.
SWT: Do you have any other thoughts for the readers of SWT?
Perlmutter: We know from organizational theory that every organization wants to survive. The way for social work management to survive is to shift, including changing the educational preparation we get in schools of social work, the accreditation process of CSWE (Council on Social Work Education) and in state licensure. The standards for social work managers developed by the network are certainly an important first step, and are necessary, but they are not sufficient to ensure the survival of social work management.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of Felice D. Perlmutter and do not necessarily represent the views of The National Network of Social Work Managers.
— Lynn K. Jones, DSW, CSWM, is a freelance writer and has been a social work manager leading human service organizations in child welfare, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse addiction for more than 20 years. She is also a board member of The National Network of Social Work Managers.
The National Network of Social Work Managers
The National Network of Social Work Managers has determined that the following competencies are essential for social work managers:
• communication and interpersonal relationships;
• financial development;
• financial management;
• human resource management and development;
• information technology;
• program development and organizational management;
• public/community relations and marketing; and
• public policy.
Social workers must demonstrate competency in these areas to earn the CSWM.
Information about the National Network of Social Work Managers is available here.