Social Workers’ Experiences of Bureaucracy: A Systematic Synthesis of Qualitative Studies

Katheryn-Margaret Pascoe, Bethany Waterhouse-Bradley, Tony McGinn

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Since the 1990s managerialism has spread across the public sector, implementing private sector practices targeting greater efficiency in public services. Consequently, reforms focusing on risk management, standardisation, fragmentation and accountability have increased demands for paperwork and procedure compliance from street-level bureaucrats (SLBs). Focusing specifically on the impact on social work, this paper presents the findings of a systematic literature review synthesising social workers experience of bureaucracy across thirty-nine published qualitative studies. Despite warnings being voiced about the risks associated with enforcing highly bureaucratic and managerial cultures in social work, evidence reinforces the consequences predicted over two decades prior. Major themes from the systematic synthesis include negative effects on social workers and service users, social workers’ resistance to bureaucratic structures and the coping strategies they employed. Although the review found some positive perspectives, this was sporadic and only reported in a minority of studies. As SLBs, social workers face an important question: What should be prioritised in the delivery of social services? Managing procedures, administration and documentation or pursuing sustainable change through meaningful engagement with service users?
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)513-533
Number of pages21
JournalThe British Journal of Social Work
Issue number1
Early online date23 Jun 2022
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 20 Jan 2023


  • Social work
  • bureaucracy
  • Managerialism
  • systematic literature review


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