3. Challenges and opportunities of participation

Social work scholars have introduced a participative professional approach, that relates their practice reflexively to that of diverse actors, including other professionals, organizations, policy makers and, most importantly, service users (Parton & O’Byrne, 2006; Kessl, 2009; Van Beveren et al., 2018). Kessl (2009) asserts that social work should act as a critical agency, an agency oriented at offering or creating new options to service users which they had previously missed or denied. A participative dimension of reflexivity can thus sharpen the understanding of how professional autonomy can be practiced in different national contexts in Europe.

Nevertheless, ‘citizen participation’, ‘service user involvement and participation’, and ‘dialogical and democratic practice’ are ambiguous notions (Beresford, 2000, 2001, 2010; Boone et al., 2019; Krumer-Nevo, 2008). Since the 1990’s, a participatory paradigm has emerged in social policy, being rooted in a wider participatory democracy turn in a variety of societal domains (Beresford, 2001; Della Porta, 2013; Lee, 2015; Smith, 2009). The participatory democracy turn in social policy-making focuses on the central question how citizen participation can influence, deepen and legitimize the democratic nature of policy processes, and improve the quality, efficiency, and accountability of public administrations, public institutions, and public service delivery (Degerickx et al., 2022; Fung, 2006).

In that vein, the wider participatory democracy turn has become part of the public mandate of social work (Beresford, 2010; Garrett, 2019). The participation of citizens as service users in social work practice development, social work research, and social work education on topics affecting their lives has been incorporated into the legislation of many countries, and various practices have been developed (Fung, 2006; Krumer-Nevo, 2005, 2008; Ní Shé et al., 2019). In the drive to become more responsive to the concerns of ‘welfare recipients’ as service users, their participation has been perceived as a contribution to the democratic nature of public service delivery regimes (Beresford, 2010; Garrett, 2019).

Participatory practices are expanding in the field of social work, yet service users are often not sufficiently participating in a democratic creation of knowledge that informs forms of social work practice (Beresford & Croft, 2001; Krumer-Nevo, 2005, 2008). Participatory projects come with challenges and complexities, and can therefore be referred to as “the politics of participation” (Croft & Beresford, 1992), expressing the danger of participation being:

  • “tokenistic” (Beresford, 2010) due to “service users functioning as pawns rather than pioneers” (Roets et al., 2012),
  • “only ad hoc and inconsistent” (Schön, 2016),
  • “more rhetoric than reality” (Adams, 2017),
  • a mere “buzzword” (Cornwall & Brock, 2005),
  • “reproducing subordination, inferiority, and powerlessness” (Boone, Roets & Roose, 2019),
  • a “new tyranny” that legitimizes an unjustified exercise of power (Cooke & Kothari, 2001) in social policy making and social work practice development.

The Intensive Programs in Dublin and Ghent were committed to engage in a critical examination of participative approaches when being implemented in social work practice, research, and education.

Output 2 provides case examples and guidelines. In Output 3, next to the caveat and critiques formulated, we are also addressing the benefits and opportunities of participative approaches, and how they can be very meaningful when reflexive professionals embrace the perspectives of service users.