Policy versus discretion in direct service

Social WorkLeave a Comment

If you work in social services like me, you know that we dwell in the land of grey areas. Every agency has policies in place to address probable scenarios, and every day there are scenarios where the policies just don’t quite address what’s actually going on.

For example, you might work in a residential facility where policy limits clients in their movements so that they can’t travel between different parts of the unit without staff permission. But if one resident had a medical emergency in an area that wasn’t being monitored by staff and another resident broke policy by running to a different area to get help, that would be fine, right? You wouldn’t consequence the second resident because you know that violating program rule was actually the best thing they could have done.

So how do we balance policy with staff discretion?

Leaning too heavily in either direction is problematic. If you rely too much on policy, then you end up issuing consequences to clients for doing the right thing in a situation that the policies didn’t envision. If your policies are ambiguous and discretion reigns, your clients will be anxious because the program lacks consistency and you will have a very difficult time training new staff.

It also depends on the strength of the program. If the program is designed well, then making excessive exceptions could be a sign that a particular staff person has poor judgment or poor boundaries. But if the program is weak, then it becomes necessary to work around the rules in order to create positive outcomes for your clients.

For program managers, finding the right balance is essential to creating strong outcomes while empowering staff. For direct service workers, policy should clearly indicate the priorities in a given situation and offer a template for how those priorities can be upheld in most situations. Then when dealing with a grey area, direct service staff can still make a decision informed by agency priorities even if they don’t follow the rules perfectly.

In sum, policies should account for most situations that direct service staff will encounter, but they should also illustrate how the agency’s values are at work so that those values can inform staff decisions around situations that fall into grey areas.

(Image modified from original found here.)

SorenPolicy versus discretion in direct service

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *