Social Work Concern: Global management consultancies, English social work reform and the co-option of good intentions
Since starting the @SWConcern twitter account, I’ve been contacted once or twice by people expressing discomfort, and sometimes offence, in relation to information I’ve posted there pertaining to connections and associations between some individuals and organisations within our social work and social care systems and certain global management consultancies. One of these consultancies is the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) which profits from supporting oppressive regimes by, for example, providing consultation on defense procurement to the Saudi government while positioning itself as ethical actor fit to intervene in the lives of vulnerable people throughout the world. BCG and other consultancies do this through various 'social impact' schemes under what they euphemistically call 'corporate social responsibility' and 'corporate statesmanship' - forms of philanthropic activity by elite financial organisations predicated on the myth that these organisations are 'doing well by doing good’.
This myth warrants deeper exploration but suffice to say for now the inherent paradox is clearly expressed in the term itself. 'Doing well by doing good' essentially means profiting from social disadvantage. To do that, a business needs a replenishing stock of socially disadvantaged people. Ergo, eradicating social disadvantage is bad for business. There is no business model in the world built on the premise of self-defeat. Hence the lack of attention paid by 'socially responsible' corporations to tackling social problems at structural level. Rather the focus of these firms' 'social impact' activities is largely on education and behaviour modification of the poor. The business model has the perpetuation of inequality baked in. Saviours need people to save. And, if you can get rich into the bargain, well that’s ok, you can sleep secure in the knowledge your success comes from 'doing good’. Just don’t look at the bigger picture. Ever.
'Social impact' activities, by design, lead these corporations to come into contact with talented, well-meaning people who want to make a positive contribution to society by helping 'solve' seemingly intractable social problems. Moreover, they offer idealistic, socially aware high-flyers the chance to save the world while boosting their career options through ‘leadership development schemes' and ‘fellowships’
It is admirable that these individuals wish to set their considerable skills and attributes to achieving better outcomes for disadvantaged people. However, I’m sorry to say that I believe they are, for the most part, subject to disingenuous engagement strategies which lure them into working in partnership with consultancies engaged in deeply morally questionable ventures around the world.
I say disingenuous because it takes considerable nous on the part of these corporations which make $millions from morally defunct business activities to appear to simultaneously occupy the positions 'doing well' and 'doing good’. At the scale of global corporatism, those positions are fundamentally incompatible. The result is dichotomy: How is it possible to make money from a contract to improve defense procurement for a regime that regularly conducts air strikes on civilians, including children - as is the case with BCG in Saudi Arabia - while at the same time claiming to be 'transforming the lives of vulnerable children’, through founding and supporting organisations delivering social and educational initiatives, as is the case with BCG’s philanthropic incursions into our public services?
It bears repeating, the activities of BCG and other management consultancies in places like Angola and Saudi Arabia are in direct conflict with the values, aims and missions of the international social work profession.
I understand that information like this, which I have presented at @SWConcern in the interests of transparency, openness and accountability in order to promote thought and discussion, can lead to discomfort and, it seems, offence for some of those involved or associated with BCG’s projects in our social support systems. I’m OK with that. But I’m not OK with the suggestion that, in presenting this information, all of which in the public domain, just a few keystrokes away (seek and ye shall find), I am somehow personally responsible for causing that discomfort and distress. Experience tells me it is usually prudent to look at the information and examine the sources first, before loosing a volley at the messenger.
We each make our choices and compromises. I am not responsible for the decisions that lead people to work with the likes of BCG. I am responsible for my own decisions about who I work for and with. Most often good intentions and the desire to make a difference are the main drivers for folk wanting to get involved with 'social impact’ initiatives. But global management consultancies are past masters at co-opting good intentions. They’re past masters at everything. They have to be, because their business is to consult and advise on everything from education to green energy to AI to... social care. And these firms are quite open about bearing the standard of 'corporate social responsibility' in their own interests. Invoking the 'social' humanises them and their work - which is good for PR - and enables them to expand their networks within governments and government services throughout the world, which is great for the bottom line.
But those seeking to take up the offer of changing the world while furthering their career with BCG, Deloitte, KPMG, PwC or whoever should know that, due to the sheer scale and scope of these companies' operations and interests, anything they do within that relationship will always, in some way, be overshadowed by these companies, and that the taint of scandal is never far away...
I’ve used @SWConcern to collate and present publicly available information, to ask questions about how this information should be viewed in light of social work values and to raise flags about the potential implications for our profession and for social care. I believe it has at least achieved the goal of promoting thought and reflection. My intention now is to focus on those potential implications for the profession and, crucially, explore with others alternative approaches to social care and social work reform. I don’t know yet what these alternatives might look like, exactly. I’m almost certain they won’t involve suggestions to take services completely back 'in house’, not least because the state doesn’t exactly have an unblemished record of excellence in humane care and support and is certainly not immune to evolving into an unaccountable behemoth, though I do believe democratic systems of accountability, governance and regulatory oversight are vital. And I am in no doubt that alternative approaches to social care and social work reform absolutely must have at their core, and built into every part, a commitment to upholding the rights and interests of those we hope and aim to support and that this commitment must be the deed as well as word of every individual and organisation involved.
That exploration will require some time, and some deeper thought and discussion. In the meantime, thank you for persevering.