Practice that can be evidenced as ethical and effective is a central feature of modern social work. It is embraced by both the professional and policy agendas and is emblematic of social work in the twenty-first century. Like most aspirations, it is open to interpretation and refinement by workers and by the agencies in which they are employed. In this context, ethical and effective practice is frequently confused with the emerging ‘what works’ agenda (McGuire and Priestley 1995) that reflects the need to justify outcomes, not only for the service user but often in terms of value for money. Good practice, from a professional perspective, is about more than effectiveness; it is also concerned with how outcomes are achieved — the ethical. What this means is that practice that is understood to be ethical and effective is likely to be moderated through both the individual worker’s approach and the agency context. This raises issues over ‘what works’ for whom, why and in what way. For example, for front-line workers, ‘what works’ may mean meeting agency standards and government targets rather than responding to individual service users’ needs. Alternatively it may help workers to set more realistic and achievable goals, enabling those using the service to feel valued and empowered to make choices.
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