Felice D. Perlmutter, MSW, Ph.D. is a household name in the field of social work management. Many social work students in administration read her early book in the field, Changing Hats: From Social work Practice to Administration, aimed at helping the practitioner 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 1974, she was instrumental in starting the School of Social Administration, at Temple University, one of the first programs in administration in social work. Perlmutter is one the founders of the National Network of Social Work Managers. “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 their annual Institute, held at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Perlmutter was one of several founders that was honored and was the keynote speaker at the event. I had the chance to chat with Perlmutter about how she has seen the profession change in the last 20 years 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 hoped to develop support for making changes in the way that these managers are trained and how the profession is accredited and licensed.
Jones: You have written extensively about social workers in management roles. Was management always your interest?
Perlmutter: I was on the front-line 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.
Jones: Is what social work has to contribute to management replicated in other fields?
Perlmutter: This 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, to dealing with social problems, to focusing on social policy, and to promoting advocacy. The value of having someone with a social work degree in management is their orientation to the clients, to services, and to advocacy.
Jones: What are the challenges for 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.
Jones: 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.
Jones: I know thatyou recently updated Changing Hats. What has changed since the first edition came out in 1984?
Perlmutter: Wendy Crook joined me in co-authoring 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.
Jones: And is that decision more complicated today?
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 has to be savvy with a board of directors.
Jones: 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 a 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.
Jones: Isn’t there some value in having a trained social worker running a social work organization?
Perlmutter: The value of having someone with this specific degree is the orientation to clients and to services, but that isn’t even happening. I was struck by research by Dona Hardina for the Network that found that individuals with this specific training 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.
Jones: 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 which are more compatible with our philosophy of education. And sadly, the general atmosphere in many schools downplay 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.
Jones: Why has this happened? Is this a reflection of the students coming into these schools?
Perlmutter: It is true that many of the students coming into these 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 a MSW.
Jones: Professional and licensing organizations tend to be driven by the needs and interests of their membership and so, if this is so heavily weighted in the direction of clinical interests, then that must be an important factor.
Perlmutter: The problem is certainly exacerbated by the Council on Social Work Education, the accrediting body for the social work education field. CSWE is a stumbling block as it requires a generic first year. I asked CSWE what schools have Administration specializations, and I was told by one of their specialists, to my amazement and chagrin, “Unfortunately, CSWE does not keep a list of schools with Administration specialties; the only data we collect is on student methods.” I was equally amazed at CSWE’s website catalogue of publications. While there was a major focus on international practice, diversity, special populations, such as, rural, domestic violence, women’s health, all important, but there were no publications on management and administration. Is this not indicative of CSWE’s inattention to management?
Jones: What about the National Association of Social Workers?
Perlmutter: It also has a singular focus on clinical work. I challenged the Network: Should we let NASW off the hook for failing to advocate for these managers, for failing to counter many of the myths of the profession and for only paying attention to clinical licensing? NASW’s silence is an endorsement of the idea that rising from the front line is the best training for managers. Their endorsement of testing and licensing for advanced clinical social workers and their silence on the necessary training for social work managers does not help us one bit!
Jones: 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 lawyers, 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.
Jones: Dr. Perlmutter, thank you for sharing your perspective with me. Do you have any other thoughts for the readers of Social Work Today?
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 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 National Network of Social Work Managers
The National Network of Social Work Managers is a professional organization devoted to supporting the work of social work managers. The Network has developed practice standards and a certification for social work managers, the Certified Social Work Manager (CSWM). The Network holds annual training Institutes that support the professional development of social work managers. The Network also publishes the highly regarded journal Administration in Social Work and an informational newsletter that all members receive.
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