Self-Reflexivity as a Form of Client Participation: A Restricted Form of Client Empowerment?

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy.  Click here to access the article.

Client participation is carried out for a variety of purposes including democratizing welfare services and increasing efficiency. Scholars often build on a democratic concept of client participation as a transfer of power from authorities to clients. However, clients are increasingly involved through a different form of participation: self-reflexive participation. This form of involvement has important implications for how clients participate and what they participate in.

Self-reflexive participation constitutes a relatively restricted form of client participation, where clients participate individually through self-observation and life-planning. I will argue that this may detach client participation from organizational responsiveness and struggles over user-control.

Self-reflexive participation is related to the use of individual action plans as a policy instrument.With the use of individual action plans, clients are called on to be self-reflexive, goal-oriented and engage in strategic planning. Clients are expected to participate in a development-oriented dialogue with a practitioner. Through this dialogue, clients reflect on their plans for the future and make strategies. Self-reflexive participation is highly individualized, as clients are required to engage with questions such aswhat are your goals?, and how do you expect to achieve them?Hence, clients participate in a negotiation of personal development goals, which connects participation to self-regulation.

Yet, while self-reflexive participation is a participation in planning and self-creation, it does not necessarily entail participation in decision-making or problem definition in a broader sense. Self-reflexive participation is a relatively narrow form of participation in the sense that it relates to personal goal-setting, planning and development. However, it is also a broad form of participation, in the sense that personal development goals are often broader than the specific target area addressed by the agency in question and combines reflexivity in relation to personal, social, educational, health and professional developments.

Several authors have been critical of self-reflexivity in the relationship between state and citizen, arguing that self-reflexivity is a new form of micro-power, pushing social problems back on clients and displacing public responsibility for addressing social problems. For instance,self-reflexive participation may make the client individually responsible for managing structural problems, and clients may be required to engage in personal development when faced with unemployment or disabilities.

Self-reflexive participation seems to build on the assumption that it is possible to reach consensus between the client and the agency regarding problem-definition and the goals of interventions through dialogue. However, important conflicts of interest may hinder a collaborative approach to client participation. For instance, women suffering domestic violence may want to avoid state intervention in the home out of fear of having the children taken into out-of-home placement. Meanwhile child protection services may want to examine the conditions in the home and possibly intervene by removing the children from a violent family context. When such conflicts of interests exist, self-reflexive participation can be problematic. The attempt at reaching consensus through dialogue may become a form of manipulation of the goals and preferences of clients that obscures the fundamental conflicts between agency and clients. In contrast, democratic participation recognizes that an adversarial relationship may exist between the agency and clients, and here client participation is a means to challenge the balance of power between social authorities and vulnerable groups.

However, scholars have also argued that self-reflexivity holds a democratic potential, since clients participate in defining their own problems and setting their own goals, effectively placing social services in the context of the life projects of participants. Because self-reflexivity is often broader than the scope of the specific target area addressed by the agency in question, it carries potentials for life-first approaches (rather than, e.g. work-first). As such, self-reflexivity may hold potentials for the empowerment of clients.

Yet because self-reflexivity is an individual and personal development-oriented approach, the underlying assumption is that clients may be empowered through skills of self-observation and life-planning. While this may be the case, it is important to underscore that clients may be ‘reflexive but powerless’, unable to influence the structures that affect them. In addition, self-reflexivity is focused on the goals, plans and practices of the client, not the practices of the institution. Self-reflexive participation is aimed mainly at improving the client’s capacities for self-regulation, rather than increasing user control or organizational responsiveness to client needs and preferences.

Self-reflexive participation may further a problem-setting participation, where social services are tailored to the wishes and life-projects of participants. It may empower clients to reflect, set goals and ultimately act in accordance with their own wishes for their future. As such, I think it is important to acknowledge the value of forms of client participation that allow clients to define their own problems, set their own goals and shape interventions in accordance with their life-projects (rather than the reverse) – even when such participation is somewhat restricted.

However, I believe self-reflexive participation promotes a rather narrow form of client empowerment where clients are empowered to act individually, goal-oriented and focused on a personal problem-definition rather than being empowered to act collectively and strive for community control focused on structural change.


About the author

Merete Monrad is a Lecturer at Aalborg University.

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