We are entering a new era of The Salvation Army in Australia. The structural merger of two autonomous territories, separated for almost a century, presents new opportunities and challenges for the organisation as we reconsider how best to approach mission in the 21st century. We’ve seen decades of growth in our social programs and, sadly, corresponding decline in engagement with our corps. Though I have a few thoughts about the latter problem, my primary area of expertise and experience has been in Salvation Army social programs. After more than 20 years working and studying at various levels and different types of social programs, I’ve gained a few insights to the organisational challenges we face as one of Australia’s most prominent service providers. It’s become increasingly clear over this time that I embody one of the key issues – social officership.
It’s not surprising that the role of officers in Salvation Army social programs has changed significantly since James Barker started visiting the Old Melbourne Gaol in 1883. The growth of the welfare state, outsourcing of government services and professionalisation of social work have radically shifted the context and manner in which services are delivered. This dynamic context continues to change today, for instance with the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) or the latest round of welfare reform, which lays an increasingly difficult burden on unemployed Australians. Despite a range of efforts by dedicated stakeholders, we are struggling to keep up with the contemporary world of social services.
While we still have many officers involved in social programs, almost all of them are at the frontlines of service delivery. It’s a good thing to have officers at the frontline. Almost 30 years since my first job in a Salvation Army social program, I continue to draw on the learnings of that frontline experience on a regular basis. However, it’s also clear that we are living with the legacy of a failure to consistently invest in the professional development of those officers with the desire, capacity and skills to take their place at other levels of our social services infrastructure. We rely on a handful of officers, many of whom still feel underqualified, to take on roles that they may not have won in open competition with the professional market.
Let me be clear, this is not to denigrate those officers (myself included) who have stepped up to tasks that they might not have been ready for. It is also not a criticism of our outstanding employees, whose professional skills, intelligence and dedication to our shared mission I have learned so much from and who continue to inspire me every day. However, I do think it’s time for a wake up call if we want to continue in this mission of service, in which we have established a remarkable reputation over many years. We need to take seriously the governance and oversight responsibilities for the hundreds of programs we manage and ensure that decision makers at all levels of the organisation have the appropriate skills, understanding and qualifications necessary. If we don’t have these in roles that have traditionally been held by officers, then we need to put a suitably qualified employee in their place. An officer’s calling is an incredibly special thing but it is not a substitute for capabilities that match the tasks that need to be done.
I’ve heard far too many officers bemoan the loss of officer presence at the management level of our social programs. Not only do I find this incredibly disrespectful to the employees who have taken their place but it fails to take seriously the work that needs to be done in order to keep officers involved at these levels. There is much to do but I believe such change is possible.
Instead of wondering where all of the Salvationists have gone from our social programs, why don’t we ask ourselves why we’ve so consistently failed to inspire our own young people, including new and aspiring officers, to prepare themselves for a career in social services? Why isn’t there at least one Salvationist in every university social work course around the country? Where is the long term strategic plan to develop the necessary proportions of our officer workforce with the experience, skills and qualifications necessary to engage at all levels of this work throughout our movement? Why shouldn’t social officers compete on equal footing with employees to ensure that key roles go to the very best candidate?
A new vision for The Salvation Army’s mission in Australia needs to fully take into account the significant social shifts that have defined the contemporary context for service delivery. I don’t underestimate the difficulties that this involves but surely this is a time for us to be visionary and ambitious about what we can do, in partnership with God, to live up to our historical identity as a world-changing movement.