Engaging with involuntary service users in social work

Project Details

Key findings

The social work relationship is vital for working with involuntary service users. Some things which can help to build positive working relationships:
• Maintaining continuity by avoiding frequent changes of worker.
• Workers striking a balance between exercising social work authority, and empowering service users to control the process where possible.
• Workers giving practical assistance.
• Workers paying attention to what is positive in the service user’s behaviour and celebrating all achievements.
• Workers showing service users their humanity, e.g. by finding a common interest, showing empathy or ‘going the extra mile’ in working with them.
• Workers being flexible over timescales – moving at the service user’s pace.
• The use of independent mediation services when necessary.
Building trust appears essential in engaging with involuntary service users.
• Involuntary service users are often mistrustful of social services. Building trust, even on the smallest scale, can start to overcome their fears.
• Trust can be built by social workers doing simple things: consistency; sticking to their word; being honest and upfront about the situation and why social work is involved; apologising when mistakes are made.
• Building trust takes time and persistence. Progress is often slow.
Clear communication is vital for engagement with involuntary service users.
• Many involuntary service users struggle to understand what is happening to them. This makes engagement difficult.
• Engagement can be improved by social workers making clear at every contact what the purpose of the intervention is, what is going to happen next and what the likely consequences will be. Good practice also involves checking with the service user that this is understood and agreed upon.
• Empathy is crucial for maintaining engagement even where difficult issues are being discussed.
• Jargon should be avoided.
• Too much information (e.g. long, complex reports) can be as unhelpful as too little.
Key findings about knowledge exchange
• Collaborative working relationships, built through face-to-face contact between academics and practitioners, were essential for effective knowledge exchange. Relationships between practitioners (e.g. between managers and front-line staff) are also crucial. Relationships proved particularly important for realising impact, and for collecting evidence about this.
• In planning knowledge exchange events, the format of short presentations (15 mins) followed by longer small group discussion sessions (45 mins) worked well. Good facilitation of the groups by academics was crucial. Practical details, such as choosing good quality venues and food, are also important.
• In producing written documents for social work practitioners, what worked best for us were short pieces with simple, bold designs, clear prose (short sentences, avoiding jargon) and the use of abstract images. Social workers advised us to avoid using photographs of service users.
• In terms of the role of internet communication, local authority firewalls meant that online tools (e.g. wikis, discussion boards) were of little use. Practitioners also receive high volumes of email, so communication via this route was most effective where relationships have already been established through face-to-face contact.
Effective start/end date1/11/0928/02/11


  • ESRC: £90,970.00
  • ESRC: £9,352.00


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