Complexity approach to frontline social work management

Michael Webster


This paper articulates an emergent complexity approach to the frontline manager-practitioner relationship within the context of a managerialist culture and the tensions between new public management (NPM) and social work ethical codes. Drawing from New Zealand perspectives but with transnational applications, a conceptual ‘coalface’ practice model for social work is proposed. Three constituents comprising professional, organisational and political cultures in which social care managers operate are extrapolated to construct the model: [1] the pervasive reality of managerialism; [2] workplace tensions arising from interrelationships between ethics, the organisation and the individual worker; and [3] an emergent, organic perception of agencies as organisations, integrating ‘whole systems’ thinking and complex adaptive approaches.

The paper analyses the argument advanced by NPM theory of the interoperability of public and private management and proposes a team design that meets managerialist output and performance expectations whilst also creating an emergent framework enabling team leadership flexibility. The paper suggests that high performance can be integrated with a management approach predicated on social work values, thus offering potential solutions to job stressors and challenges facing frontline team leaders, managers, supervisors and practitioners who function in a managerialist environment.


complexity;frontline management;managerialism;ethics;leadership

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