Researchers bring much more than a lit review
The goal of the regulatory research request for proposals that ASWB issued in 2020 was clear: Conduct a literature review of extant social work regulatory research. The reality of whether the goal could be accomplished was not as clear. As it turns out, once the research got under way in August 2021, the research team awarded the contract, from Rutgers University School of Social Work, discovered it had a lemon.
The team initially explored a dozen research topics, including the purpose of regulation to mitigate harm, professional practice standards, enforcement, continued competency, and reciprocity. Team members compiled more than 400 references relevant to occupational regulation in general and specific to the social work profession. From this preliminary literature search, principal investigator Jeounghee (Joy) Kim reported two months after signing on: “While some conceptual discussions on social work regulations were documented in the literature, there is very little documentation and research on specific regulatory practices in social work.” In other words, the reality was much bleaker than ASWB expected.
Regulatory research will help provide the information needed to address issues such as workforce shortages and the need for bringing more skilled, licensed people into the mental health professions without putting the mandate of public protection at risk.
The team could have gone ahead and worked with the limited research it had found. Instead, Kim and co-principal investigators Myungkook Joo and Laura Curran turned their lemon into lemonade. Kim proposed to shift from a literature review to a series of articles that would “present a summary of empirical evidence (or lack thereof) on certain regulatory practices and discuss future research agendas.”
Jennifer Henkel, senior director of member engagement and regulatory services, quickly accepted the modified plan. “The pivot Joy recommended makes a lot of sense,” Henkel said. “It allows the project to continue, with the initial research focused on identifying future projects and outlining what we know and what we don’t know. Kim’s work will help guide ASWB in determining best next steps for regulatory research.”
After getting the green light, Kim and her team identified three topic areas: licensing exemptions, social work competence, and reciprocity and interstate compacts. As Henkel points out, “From ASWB’s perspective, the research has to inform best practices for membership and provide guidance for legislators, to help legislators better understand regulation.” These topics cover those objectives and more.
“Regulatory research will help provide the information needed to address issues such as workforce shortages and the need for bringing more skilled, licensed people into the mental health professions without putting the mandate of public protection at risk,” said Henkel. “Our researchers can provide a broader perspective on such issues, and this broader perspective can help member boards make regulatory decisions based on research to develop and highlight best practices.”
Kim’s first article, titled “Effects of social work licensure exemptions: Theoretical propositions, evidence, and research agendas,” has been accepted for publication in a special issue of Research on Social Work Practice dedicated to social work regulation, expected to be published in October. The journal is sponsored by the Society for Social Work and Research. According to the journal, the special issue “seeks to provide a comprehensive overview of the issues currently affecting social work regulation, such as the licensure landscape, best practices in regulation, and current regulatory issues and challenges facing the profession.”
Two other articles are in progress, both authored by the team of Kim, Joo, and Curran: “Promoting competence: Reviewing articulations of competence, empirical evidence and current controversies to inform a future research agenda” and “Interstate compact of social work licensure: What should (can) it achieve for practitioners and consumers?”
The research team is also developing lists of published articles that provide empirical research on social work licensure and key research on competencies and compacts to add to the literature review. The articles and research lists comprise the deliverables the team will turn over to ASWB at the end of the 18-month contract, in December 2022. The team will present its findings to membership at the 2022 Annual Meeting of the Delegate Assembly in November.
Regulatory Research Task Force to benefit from research project
The COVID-19 pandemic created an unexpected roadblock to continuing ASWB’s regulatory research initiative outlined in the 2019–2021 Strategic Framework. ASWB’s Board of Directors established the Regulatory Research Task Force in January 2022 to do the groundwork supporting this initiative going forward.
Task force members will help ASWB staff think through what research at ASWB looks like, setting the foundation for defining the concepts and guidelines for how research functions at ASWB.
The task force is charged with developing ongoing charges for a planned Regulatory Research Committee. The committee will have responsibility for reviewing research on professional regulation and assessing regulatory research needs and priorities of membership. “The research that Joy Kim and her team are engaged in will identify gaps in research that can help ASWB set its research agenda,” said Jennifer Henkel, senior director of member engagement and regulatory services. “The timing is also excellent as ASWB is beginning its largest research project, the practice analysis,” she added, referring to the Social Work Census, slated to launch in March 2023.