From the 1920s until the 1960s the predominant model of social work intervention was psycho-social casework. This model was based on the work of Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalysts.
Psychoanalytic social work emphasised relationship-focussed intervention with the professional adopting the role of the 'expert'.
In this approach the client's problems were viewed as fundamentally psychological in nature, and linked to internal psychodynamic factors such as faulty 'ego functioning'.
Work with clients tended to be long-term - up to eighteen months - and open-ended in nature.
Improvement in client's difficulties was often slow, hard to quantify, and in some cases deterioration in their condition was observed.
As the social work profession expanded and the scope of social workers' responsibilities extended, concern about the limits of the casework approach emerged.
Traditional casework was criticised for being resource intensive; lacking in focus; and with outcomes that were difficult to quantify and evaluate.
In the late 1960s in North America Reid and Shyne (1969) undertook an extensive four year study to explore an alternative approach to traditional casework.
This new approach involved brief, highly focussed periods of intervention. Clients were offered up to eight sessions concentrating on clearly defined and explicit goals. The approach was client directed with the social worker acting as a facilitator. The study found that clients' difficulties improved quickly and that significant change could sometime occur after only one session.
The work of Reid and Shyne was replicated and developed further in the United Kingdom by Goldberg et al (1977).
Three hypotheses emerged from these studies to account for the difference in outcomes between psychosocial case work and the new approach:
The findings of these studies resulted in the development of what became known as the task-centered approach to social work and the model was further developed and refined in practice.
The task-centered model was supported by evidence of practical benefits for clients; and also met a pressing organisational need to ration scarce social work resources.
In addition, the adoption of the task-centered model signalled a move away from the assumption of the professional as the source of expertise; and was a first step towards a more empowering approach.
Rather than viewing the individual and their psychological history as the primary source of their difficulties; more attention was paid to the social and external factors impacting on the individual.
There are several clearly identifiable phases in the application of the task-centered model.
Firstly, the social worker helps the service user articulate the specific problems as the service user sees them. In this phase active listening is important.
Secondly, the social worker assists the service user to break down and detail the problem areas, redefining these where necessary. Distressed or anxious service users sometimes cannot 'see the wood for the trees'.
Finally the social worker encourages the service user to prioritise the problems according to the service user's own views. Sometimes an external constraint (for example the threat of eviction) is most pressing, but otherwise the priority depends on the urgency as perceived by the service user.
Using the task-centered approach the social worker and service user will work in parnership to
A social worker using the task-centered approach has to be able to instil confidence, trust and hopefulness. These are promoted by positive engagement, and active and accurate listening.
The service user needs to feel that she is understood and the social worker can demonstrate this using a systematic communication style. The social worker needs to be responsive to the client by reflecting back and interpreting the client views accurately.
There needs to be flexibility in negotiation between social worker and service user. The social worker has to be able to engage the skills and abilities of the service user, whilst at the same time injecting a level of realism into the goals and timescales agreed upon.