Measuring Success in Social Work

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     Some time ago, I attended a three-day training workshop on how to measure the success of a social work program.  The thrust of the training was how to measure real positive results in people rather than simply counting numbers.  For example, instead of recording how many life-skills classes you held in a given year or even how many clients attended, you measure the positive changes that took place in the actual clients as a result of their attending the classes.  The fact that you had 100% participation in a program means little if no one actually benefited from their involvement.  So outcomes are not to be measured simply in terms of numbers participating, but in terms of desired changes resulting from their participation.

     On the surface this would appear to make sense.  Why count or even have programs if they do not result in any positive outcomes?  The hidden danger in this thinking, however, is the assumption that one can always measure such correlations.  In other words, we believe everything done in social services is quantifiable, scientifically measurable products that can be tested and then adjusted to maximize the positive results.

     This is not necessarily the case.   For example, using these criteria for measuring success, one might conclude something similar to the following:  80% of persons with low self-esteem (measured low by some sophisticated testing instrument) who take a class on improving self-image are found to be more self-confident than those who do not take such a class.  The goal then becomes to have everyone participate in at least two such classes each week.  One could even get to the point of measuring how many times the instructor says encouraging words to the clients and set a goal to double the number of encouraging words said in each class.  So we deliberately use 40 encouraging words per class instead of 20. 

     The point is this - - such scientific approaches to measuring success when it comes to human behavior and more importantly relationships (e.g. instructor to client) are not always applicable.  It is not inconceivable, for instance, to discover that it was the genuine compassion of a particular instructor (and not the number of words used) that made the difference in the clients’ self-esteem.  Compassion, however, does not lend itself very readily to scientific measurement.  Furthermore, you cannot adjust the number of units of compassion a person should give to another person by setting higher goals.  It doesn’t work that way.

     Compassion for others is something a person either has or doesn’t.  One does not become more compassionate by simply increasing the number of positive statements one uses in a class.  It cannot be dictated through goal setting.  It defies being tampered with through scientific adjustments.  It is a spiritual thing.

     It is, nevertheless, the most vital part of the social service worker’s job.  Without it little lasting success can be realized.  In this impersonal, scientific age, we want to be able to put everything, including social work, “in a test tube” so we can label it, measure it, and make it work for us in the most efficient way possible.  Unfortunately, in doing so we can very easily miss the really important part of our work – caring for others without regard to how it may or may not influence our desired, measurable outcomes.  People are most profoundly changed by love and love alone.  So above all else, we should love others, even if they don’t change.

More about this author: Gil Vanorder Jr

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