Engaging with Involuntary Service Users in Social Work: Findings from a Knowledge Exchange Project

Mark Smith, M. Gallagher, Helen Wosu, Jane Stewart, V. Cree, Scott Hunter, Sam Evans, Catherine Montgomery, Sarah Holiday, H. Wilkinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The participation of service users in the planning and delivery of social work services has become a familiar objective in the UK. Policy injunctions, however, mask a lack of clarity around what is meant by terms such as ‘participation’ and ‘engagement’. Moreover, since many service users do not engage with social workers voluntarily, the expectation that they become centrally involved in the planning and delivery of services highlights tensions and contradictions. This article explores social work engagement with involuntary clients, drawing on findings from a knowledge exchange project involving academics and local authority social workers. A review of the literature traces the background to user involvement and identifies its different stages and types. Data from small-scale practitioner research projects undertaken within the project is then drawn on to illuminate how social workers and clients negotiate mutual engagement in their everyday encounters. It is suggested that the ‘roll out’ of the user engagement agenda may be understood as an exercise in the problematics of government. More optimistically, the work of Michel De Certeau is drawn on to propose that a practice of the everyday in such encounters rescues them from an ill-defined, abstract and undifferentiated policy agenda.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1460-1477
JournalBritish Journal of Social Work
Issue number8
Early online date9 Nov 2011
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2012


  • Engagement
  • knowledge exchange
  • involuntary service users
  • participation
  • practitioner research


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