Ethical dilemmas in policy practice: a Conceptual Framework

Idit Weiss-Gal, Sarit Smila-Sened, John Gal*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Policy practice refers to the engagement of social workers in policy processes as part of their job. Over the last decades the discourse on policy practice has expanded significantly. However, missing still is a comprehensive and systematic discussion focused on the ethical dilemmas that emerge when social workers engage in policy practice. The aim of this article is to offer a novel conceptual framework that identifies and categorises the diverse potential ethical dilemmas that emerge when social workers engage in policy practice. The framework draws upon the general conceptual and empirical literature on ethical issues within social work, the more specific macro practice literature which discusses ethical dilemmas, and our experience as teachers who have instructed social workers and social work students in policy practice. It combines two axes: the first axis relates to three prevalent types of ethical conflicts common both in direct and macro social work practice and the second relates schematically to three explicit or implicit decisions that social workers are required to take either prior to, or during, their engagement in policy process. The interactions between these two axes create 19 policy practice ethical dilemmas that are presented in the article.

Translated title of the contributionדילמות אתיות בפרקטית מדיניות: מסגרת מושגית
Original languageAmerican English
JournalEuropean Journal of Social Work
StateAccepted/In press - 2023
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Initially, a conflict between loyalty to service users and loyalty to the employing service and policymakers, can emerge when social workers are convinced that their service users` problems stem from social conditions or flaws in organisational, local, regional or national policies. They believe that in order to fulfil their primary responsibility to service users, engaging in policy practice in order to address these flaws is required. However, their supervisors, managers or relevant policymakers oppose this engagement (dilemma #1) (Aaslund & Chear, ). This is reflected in a case reported in Banks and Nohr () (case study, 6.1). It concerns Jennifer, a social worker employed by a refugee settlement agency funded by the Australian government. Jennifer was increasingly concerned about Australian government policies towards asylum seekers who arrived by boat and were mandatorily detained in immigration centres where they sometimes languished for many years. She deliberated whether to speak out publicly about detrimental policies despite the tacit rule in her agency that employees should refrain from expressing criticism of unjust policies because this might jeopardise funding for the programme, thus putting another group of clients at risk. Dilemmas that stem from competing loyalties also emerge when social workers engage in policy practice in order to affect the policies of their own, or other, organisations (Levin et al., ).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • Policy practice
  • ethical dilemmas
  • macro practice
  • social policy
  • social workers


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