Social work
and democracy

Social work, and with it youth work, has a long tradition in Europe but has developed differently in different countries. In relation to the forms of government and questions of power, there are several approaches. Social work is considered first and foremost as a helping profession that supports individuals to cope with their lives. It can also see its role as maintaining a certain social order and trying to guide people into the social mainstream, which is often prioritised by the state. Especially, but not only, in anti-democratic regimes, this tendency promotes the danger of a politically unreflective affirmative attitude towards those in power and towards social inequality. 

A modern understanding of social work, on the other hand, is closely linked to democratic goals. Here, the focus lies on strengthening human rights, democracy and individual maturity. Clients, especially young people, are to be empowered and supported on their way to becoming free, competent, but also solidary citizens. This goal may well clash with the goals of the government principals from time to time. For example, the state can commission social work to integrate unemployed people into the labour market. In the theoretical debates on the role of social work, this is discussed as the double mandate and the triple mandate of social work (Staub-Bernasconi 2007). The double mandate refers to the fact that on the one hand, social workers have an obligation to their client (the state), but at the same time, they also have an obligation to the client (the individual) and their well-being. The third mandate is the obligation to fulfill scientific and ethical requirements.This also raises the question of whether social work as a profession should be an actor in the political debate, for example, to advance social and human rights policies. 

From an understanding of democracy that places equal opportunities for participation in the foreground, this pressure has a counterproductive effect.

However, the dilemma cannot be completely resolved and must be considered and evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The problem can only be briefly touched upon here. However, it is important for social and youth workers to be aware of the possible dilemmas.

Notwithstanding the political conditions indicated above, it must be stressed that those who perform social work on a daily basis also have many opportunities to shape democratic attitudes in the recipients of their work.

Often, the sensitivity with which they approach these recipients to different social, cultural, physical, etc. characteristics will determine how they influence the future behaviour of these people. It also influences whether those on welfare will later find it easier to maintain a link with the democratic system, or whether they will continue to lose faith in it and be more likely to adopt radical or even extremist attitudes.

In this sense, social workers' interpersonal competences and democratic awareness may also determine the future behaviour of the people they meet in their professional capacity. For this reason, this handbook focuses on the development of such competences and awareness.

Democratic Citizenship Education and Social Work: European Perspectives

In order to understand the challenges of social work and youth work today, a brief look at its development in Europe is important. At the same time, it is also worth bearing in mind the differences in the development of social work in the various EU Member States. These, together with the current state of social work in the individual countries, are also important conditions which the authors of this guide have taken into account when proposing the educational methods included in this publication.Social work emerged in the 19th century as a response to the “social question”, a term used to describe this period of pressing social issues (Zappi 2020).

The fight against poverty was the central concern. While it was linked to an idea of empowerment from the very beginning (Levy Simon 1994), it took a long time for this concept to become central. In the 20th century, social work professionalised with different foci in European states. The first schools for social work were founded in England, France, Romania and Poland, while it took much longer in other countries. Solving the social question was the main objective of the pioneers: “In their opinion, neither private charity nor state social protection were sufficient. They believed that the response to the difficulties of the working classes called for individualized support provided by social work professionals'' (Zappi 2020). 

After the Second World War and in the course of the expansion of welfare states, the role and self-image of social work changed.

With the emergence of a critical civil society in the 1960s and 1970s, the question arose as to whether social work should be understood as an instrument of control by the state or as a critical and emancipatory profession. Participation, empowerment and critical thinking become new principles of a progressive understanding and self-description. Social work now increasingly saw itself as a profession that supports human rights and social justice. This is also reflected in official documents such as the declaration of the International Federation of Social Work from 2014, which formulates a global definition of the Social Work Profession: “Social Work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people.

Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work” (IFSW 2014). Democracy is not explicitly mentioned here.

This has to do with the complicated relationship between social work and the institutions of representative democracy. In an official statement from 2016, the International Federation of Social Work commits itself to an active role in “building real democracy”: “IFSW promotes the development of legislation in all countries that recognizes the importance of community involvement in building real democratic structures.” (IFSW 2016) The statement also points out that democracy should not be reduced to elections. The mission statement of the European Association of Schools of Social Work refers to similar values: “In fulfilling its mission, the EASSW adheres to all United Nations’ Declarations and Conventions on human rights, recognizing that respect for the inalienable rights of the individual is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace. Members of EASSW are united in their obligation to the continued pursuit of social justice and social development.” (EASSW Website 2021)

In recent years, some authors have pointed out that the relationship between social work and democracy has remained undefined (Geisen et al. 2013, 9) and emphasise their interdependence: “[...] it is not only social work that needs democracy, but also democracy needs social work” (Kamiński 2015, 139). This is where a pedagogical and educational approach comes into play. “The educational dimension in social work is crucial to conceptualise democracy as an open and ongoing process and not as a predefined project” (Bie et al 2013). This perspective on social work fits well with the Council of Europe's reference framework of competencies for democratic culture that will be described in the next sub-chapter. In 2015, the Austrian Federal Ministry for Families and Youth defined out-of-school child and youth work as a place of learning for democracy and participation that should contribute to self-efficacy (BMJF 2015, 11).

At a time when developments that threaten democracy are very relevant and when both authoritarian politicians or parties and anti-democratic extremist groups are professionalising themselves to misuse and recruit young people for their own purposes, social work has an important role to play (another example of posible activity is “cultural social work” performed in local communities – see Jonas Büchel in Makowski, Pazderski 2011, 90-96). 

However, while highlighting the new areas of activity for social workers, we must bear in mind the different conditions of their work and the different models according to which social work has developed in individual countries. Their comparison was the subject of research undertaken in the first stage of the REDE project. It was observed that in Austria nowadays social work is more broadly understood as a "human rights profession" and the idea that social work has a "triple mandate" to fulfill is becoming more and more accepted. The third mandate (mentioned above) is based on reference documents on human rights and refers to professional standards, especially ethical ones, which were adopted by social workers in various international forums and formulated in professional codes (see: Staub-Bernasconi 2018, 114ff). However, it has to be noted that there is a wide gap between aspiration and reality and between practice and effectiveness (Fritsche/Wigger 2016). Moreover, as it is observed for Austria, while there are very concrete and explicit links between social work and human rights, there is no such relation in terms of citizenship education or competences for democratic culture.

In France, social work has developed according to several separate genealogies (social service, specialised education, animation), each lineage having its own axes of cleavage and historical traditions.

Social workers are present in a wide variety of institutions: social centres, early childhood services, institutions for the disabled and elderly, etc. (Autès, 1999). They are employed by state and local authorities, but may also belong to associations. What brings together such varied missions, practices and actors is undoubtedly their aid or service relationship.

However, social work in the country faces a number of challenges, namely social workers’ loss of sense of purpose while being trapped in segmented and accounting logics and being stuck between systems and professionals who no longer know how to take into account their overall situation. It is only an indication of a wider problem boiling down to a lack of coordination of social policies in the country. In order to respond to these challenges, an inter-ministerial Action Plan for social work and social training has recently been adopted in the country, although its results have yet to be seen.

Social work in Poland has come a long way – from institutions established after the First World War based on European standards referring to the idea of "democratic upbringing", through the abandonment of these principles during the communist period to the construction of a new system in the 1990s after the political transformation in the country. Nowadays, the vast majority of social work in Poland is performed within public welfare institutions and faces significant challenges. The role of most of its functionaries is still reduced to the distribution of public allowances or material help and the completion of other bureaucratic tasks. Social workers, although often very competent and aware of the deficiencies of the system, have little space and time for performing their functions properly (Kozak 2012a). They are overburdened with tasks – each year an average Polish social worker works with 105 individuals from 45 families (NIK 2019). They also deal with inadequate working conditions (such as lack of space for individual meetings with clients) and insufficient salaries. The Polish social assistance system can be described as an emergency welfare state – it is concentrated more on reacting to problems than on preventing them. Polish social work within the official system is based mainly on the method of individual case work. Other methods, like group work or community work, are virtually non-existent (for more information see: Kobylińska, Pazderski 2021).

The Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture (RFCDC)

As it was already mentioned above, the most important challenges democracies are facing around the continent and beyond have been recognised by European institutions. In the annual report of the Council of Europe in 2016, then-Secretary General Jagland highlighted the importance of democratic and human rights education for the challenges of today’s societies: “Democratic citizenship and human rights are […] increasingly important in addressing discrimination, prejudice and intolerance, and thus preventing and combating violent extremism and radicalisation in a sustainable and proactive way” (Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland in his annual report Council of Europe 2016). Based on this conviction, in 2017, the Council of Europe launched the Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture, which since then has become the flagship project of educational policies within the Council (learn more at

Graph 1: Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture

In this model, essential dimensions of democratic culture are broken down into competences and descriptors. They systematise citizenship education and show that it is not only about knowledge, but mainly about competences. Values, attitudes, knowledge, critical understanding and skills of citizens should be strengthened. This “butterfly” model was initially developed for the more formal setting in the school context. There, it is already being  applied, tested and further developed. However, it undoubtedly also provides a suitable framework for less formal educational processes in social and youth work.

This is demonstrated in the documentation of the first pilot projects carried out in the framework of a respective focus group on the Reference Framework established within Network of European Civic Educators, NECE (see: More information on the Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture and its applicability in the practice of educational activities in the non-formal sector can be found in Hladschik et al. 2020. Further methods and material can also be found on the website of expert Rebecca Welge (

Teachers and non-formal educators do not use the same methods and do not always share the same understanding of democratic competences.

Teachers have to follow curricula and give grades; students are obliged to participate. Non-formal educators work with learners who take part voluntarily. They have to be well-oriented regarding the interests of the participants because they have to recruit them. So, sometimes, when teachers and non-formal educators meet, they use very different languages. For example, when a schoolteacher combines her teaching activities with a non-formal offer. Here the RFCDC can serve as a mediating tool (Lorenzen 2020). It seems that the RFCDC can help to find a common language when it comes to preparing such activities.

Teachers can describe the needs of their students and non-formal educators can describe what they want to achieve through their activity. Both can then agree on criteria how the impact of the activity should be manifested.

For all the reasons mentioned here, we adopt the Reference Framework as a baseline for the educational methods presented in this handbook. Each of them allows, to some extent, the development of at least one of the competences included in the model proposed by the Council of Europe and often they refer to more than one of them. In the following sections of this handbook, we try to relate the Framework of Competences for a Democratic Culture to the reality of social workers' everyday work.

RFCDC role in daily social work

Social and youth workers face even greater challenges than non-formal educators. For one thing, the delivery of civic education is not part of the core area of social workers. They are busy with a range of challenges and problems that stretch them to the limit and not infrequently overburden them. Very often, they work with limited resources of time and money. To force on them a further task as democracy educators is actually an unacceptable overload under these circumstances. It is, therefore, extremely important to emphasise at this point that no such claim may be derived from this project and this handbook. Only on the condition that policy makers and institutions improve the framework conditions for social and youth work can they be expected to play a role as civic educators. Apart from that, it is of course very desirable if social and youth workers – as is often the case – take on a role in terms of political empowerment on their own initiative. Very often, they contribute largely, but implicitly, to a fostering of democratic competences of their target groups. This handbook is intended to support them in this endeavour.

As mentioned, youth workers and social workers do not see educational activities at the core of their work.

Therefore, they sometimes – or maybe even often – do not reflect that what they do is fostering democratic competences in young people. They know that project-based work strengthens young people and helps them to develop transversal competences, but they do not realise that this is about competences for democratic culture. The Reference Framework of the Council of Europe can help them to understand the democratic impact that their work has on young people.

It can contribute to making the great potential for democratic learning processes in the fields of youth work and social work more visible. Moreover, it can help to strengthen the process of self-reflection and professional understanding.

Among the competences that are important here, some stand out in particular. Respect for others and tolerance of ambiguity are particularly important to avoid dangerous polarisation processes. Strengthening self-efficacy is central to equipping people for political participation. Knowledge and critical thinking are necessary to understand power relations, to identify injustice, authoritarianism and one's own position in the political arena.

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