How to Measure Success in Social Work

Social work is one of the most chaotic and complicated matters in the sciences, especially  when it comes to measuring success of a program or venture that involves changing human nature, opportunity, resources and decision making. These days, corporate and political entities are engaging in social work programs and social engineering on an unprecedented scale. Whether they are accepted as legitimate or not, they need to be added to the official ranks of social workers, as their agendas and programs are having large impacts on government and society.

There are incredible amounts of external and hidden influence on the cause and effect issues that social workers are attempting to wrangle. There are social, political, economic, legal, corporate and physical environments that are becoming increasingly complex and volatile in changing the overall conditions that affect program outcomes.

As an example, a food program can have clearly defined determinants of success as it is being developed. Of course, the most obvious determinant of success is improved nutrition for people who do not have money for healthy, plentiful and fresh food. Another determinant of success is better engagement and resilience in poor school children who have been better fed. Also, attacking the obesity epidemic among the poor who only have access to cheap, calorie, sugar and fat laden foods might be a major goal.

Overall success can be measured when lowered numbers of  people show up with illnesses that are the results of poor nutrition. Poor nutrition, of course, includes engaging in the dietary habits, lifestyle habits and eating the types of foods that lead to an epidemic of obesity.

A current controversy, extending unemployment benefits, is under attack by those who are pushing a factually unsupported political ideology that cutting people off will force them to go to work rather than staying dependent on their benefits. As such, this qualifies as a social program, developed by political and corporate social workers who want to see unemployment compensation end after a certain cutoff period.

The problems with this agenda is that the public is not allowed to know the complete agenda or to examine any factual support, beyond limiting the national debt load and kicking accused slackers off their couches, that was used to develop it. Yet the backers were powerful enough to delay the extension. This had a recursive effect in the form of national outrage and threat to the careers of politicians who had held up the extension.

The actual outcomes of cutting unemployment insurance might be found if anyone could measure the resulting benefits to the corporations and the underground economies in addition to the effect on the treasury and national debt load.

But it will be impossible to measure success or failure in situations where the long term unemployed engage in cash for hire work, where they report no income and contribute no taxes at all!  There can be measures of the local economies that are doing well, but where unemployment is far too high to account for sales and other financial transactions that are paid with cash.

Finally, in social work that deals with direct intervention and support of families and individuals, the measurements of success include increasing the numbers of the next generation of a newly immigrated or troubled family who become educated and healthy enough to get off of social support. Other measurements include successful protection of at risk children of substance abusers and recidivist criminals.

There are measures of success that would show more cases of temporary need, rather than long term dependence on social support. Where there is long term and permanent need, as with the disabled, elderly and handicapped,  there are measures for determining the required quality of the support in relation to the funds that are expended as indicators of success. 

In summary, social programs are traditionally developed either to fix a social problem, to provide resources that take away roadblocks in life, or to respond to need. Measuring their success is often not possible, even when a particular program or program element is highly successful. This is because the environment changes in volatile ways that can cause a well done program to become a problem in it’s own right.

As a result, programs that involve successful environmental scanning and adaptation to change are more inclined to have more comprehensive measures of true success, rather than limited measures of specific program success.