Standardised practice in Norwegian child welfare services: How standardisation influences professional practice in child welfare services
This thesis explores how standardisation in Norwegian child welfare services (CWS) influences CWS professionals and practices. CWS is a complex field, which has been criticised for poor decision-making and for not putting effective measures into place for families in need. CWS practice is also criticised for not being informed by research. As a response to these criticisms, we have witnessed an increased use of standards and standardisation to ensure effective and accountable services of high quality. Consequently, the use of standardised assessment forms and standardised intervention programmes has been on the rise, in Norway and internationally. This has led to considerable debate concerning the tension between standardisation as a tool of control and professional practice involving discretion. Critical voices have argued that standardisation limits professionals’ discretion and restricts their ability to use specialised abstract knowledge, a key feature of professional work. Much research on standardisation has focused on effects of standardised practices with a top-down approach. Hence, there is a need for research on the ‘ongoing work’ that frontline professionals engage in and how frontline practice is influenced by standardisation, which is the aim of this study.
This thesis aims to expand the body of knowledge on how standardisation affects professional practice. This is done by investigating how CWS professionals use two standardised tools commonly used in Norway, namely the Kvello Assessment Framework tool (KF) and Circle of Security - parenting (COS-P). The overall research question is: How do CWS professionals become carriers of standardised practice and how does standardised practice influence the professional role? To answer the research question, a case study design was chosen, the case being standardised practice. The data stem from fieldwork, client documents and interviews with CWS professionals in two child welfare offices. In order to explore how the frontline professionals respond to the standardised tools, the analysis draws on institutional theory and the theory of profession.
The body of this thesis consists of three articles. The first article examines how the professionals adapt the two standardised tools into the local practice. Findings are based on observation (45 days), client documents (15) and interviews with 49 participants, including frontline professionals and managers. The findings show that new rules for practice and knowledge emerged, but that the professionals modified the tools for ethical and practical reasons. Consequently, the professionals were active agents through the exercise of discretion. The second article explores how the two standardised tools influence the professional role in relation to CWS work. The analysis is based on interviews with 31 frontline professionals (individual and group interviews). The findings show that the standardised tools enhanced professionals’ competence but also challenged their professional knowledge base, reflective practice and accountability through a more rule-following approach. Moreover, the article points to the potential of doing families injustice. The third article examines how use of the KF influences assessment work in CWS.
The data stem from fieldwork, client documents and interviews with 32 CWS professionals, including frontline professionals and managers. While the two first articles focus on both standardised tools, the third article pays particular attention to the KF. Findings revealed that the KF tool led to a proceduralist approach in assessment work, placing demands on focus and activities, as well as interpretative demands upon the professionals. Moreover, lack of transparency in decision-making processes was identified, with a heavy reliance on detecting risk factors. A key question raised in the article is whether the proceduralisation of CWS practice leads to better CWS practices.
The thesis expands our knowledge about how standardisation influences professional practice in CWS. By focusing on ‘ongoing work’ performed by the frontline professionals, this thesis provides knowledge on how professionals are also active agents. Although a procedural rule- following approach seemed to dominate among the professionals that took part in this study, some also questioned the standards and took action to alter them with regard to their professional ethos. Moreover, the study contributes knowledge on how standardisation influences professionals’ discretionary space, the knowledge base and the professional role in a CWS practice context. As this thesis shows, standardisation can support CWS practice; however, the use of standardised tools alone will not solve the complexity of CWS work.
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