Using Our Heads in Social Services

The recent surge in public attention to poverty and homelessness in America, which has been exasperated by the financial crisis, has exposed the social service industry for what it is: a stagnating industry with a lot of heart, but few good ideas. The issues we in the social service sector have dedicated our lives to have come to the forefront of the country’s collective consciousness. The public is looking to us to help struggling families. This should be our moment to shine.

Instead, we have squandered this opportunity, complaining we are light on solutions because we are light on funding. But lack of money is not the reason we have failed in the social service sector to make significant gains in solving social problems. I have no doubt that if we actually knew how to solve social problems, that the American public would give us the support we need.

The reason we don’t have the money we want is because we do not have a track record of success. We have failed to succeed so far because of a collective culture that is anti-competitive, and is deathly afraid that if we started rigorously evaluating the services we provide, that we would discover we aren’t really doing anything.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that as an industry we fail to produce good ideas, considering that we don’t really think.

Other industries use professional journals and online forums to exchange ideas, think critically about what works and what doesn’t, and encourage competition so the best innovations rise to the top, and others get thrashed and left behind, as they should. We in social services however, spend our time patting ourselves on the back, telling one another how great we are, and sharing articles about how there are too many poor people and not enough social services.

It’s time for us to get real. Not every idea is a good one, not every agency has a right to exist, and even if we “keep working together” that does not mean “it is going to get better.” We need a cultural revolution in the social service industry. We need to start taking ourselves as seriously as the problems we work on. So long as we hold back on critiquing ourselves, and one another, our industry will continue on its path to mediocrity.