During the last two decades, profound organisational changes have swept through human service agencies, as the ‘New Public Management’ (NPM) has reshaped how and by whom human services are funded and delivered. Many public services have been privatised or contracted out, generic managers have replaced those specialised in human services, new modes of accountability and surveillance for both providers and service users have been enacted, and market concepts and frames have been imposed on the discourse and organisation of human services work. In the light of these developments, this workshop will bring together researchers and professional leaders to explore three questions:

  1. What has been the impact of the NPM on the meaning, experience and organisation of professional work in human services?
  2. How have human service professionals, individually and as groups, responded to these changes?
  3. What new models of professionalism are being – or might be – fashioned to meet the demands of changed organisational environments in human service organisations?

Human service professionals work with citizens at their most vulnerable – with children, with the frail aged, with the ill and with those affected by social risks such as disability, unemployment, exclusion, and violence. Significant changes to their working environments challenge theorists, policy researchers, policy makers, and human service practitioners themselves to understand the implications of changes and to fashion responses that preserve or renew capacity to deliver humane and effective services.

Accordingly, the issues to be discussed in the workshop bring together key themes at the intersections of social science, social policy and human service disciplines. The sociology of the professions is undergoing somewhat of a revival in the context of demographic and organisational change in the professions and their working environments. In social policy research, the crucial role of human services in differentiating contemporary welfare states – and in providing professional and other forms of employment for women – is emerging as a new theme. Internationally, researchers are grappling with the challenges that NPM is posing in human services work and organisations as concepts of choice, market, competition, customers, entrepreneurship and accountability diffuse and are contested and appropriated. Meanwhile within human service professional disciplines such as nursing and social work, debate about the value and viability of the (masculine) professional ideal continues and evolves as these ‘sisters of Sisyphus’ face successive challenges to their claims to professional status.

These issues have profound policy implications. The language and practice of NPM are now entrenched in Australia, and a thoroughgoing assessment of their impact is required. The workshop will develop insights to support policy development in human services, specifically to meet the challenge of maintaining and improving the quality of service under conditions of rapid change in the organisation of work and service delivery. The workshop will also contribute valuable insights for educators of human service professionals as they prepare practitioners to enter a dynamic, and sometimes hostile, environment.

The main themes of the workshop will be to:

  • Understand the impact of NPM by mapping and analysing changes to the meaning, experience and organisation of specific human services professions in Australia over the last two decades.
  • Investigate the usefulness of theories of gender and professionalism, and of organization, markets and neoliberalism for understanding these changes; and contribute to theory development in these fields.
  • Document and evaluate the efficacy, viability and transferability of emerging new models of human service professional practice.