Abstract: Q Methodology As an Organizational Tool to Study Employee Discretion (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Q Methodology As an Organizational Tool to Study Employee Discretion

Thursday, January 17, 2019: 1:30 PM
Union Square 16 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Kyle Caler, PhD, Assistant Professor, California State University, Sacramento, Sacramento, CA
Background and Purpose: Research completed under the theoretical guidance of street-level bureaucracy has shown for decades that how social workers, and other public servants, use their discretion is an unavoidable piece of many social service delivery systems. While consensus has coalesced around the essential traits of street-level bureaucrats (SLBs), the processes by which their discretion use becomes patterned, and the types of discretion (i.e., strong and weak) they employ; a common issue still unaddressed by the literature is the development of methods and techniques to measure and study discretion within organizational settings.

This paper helps fill this gap by presenting Q methodology as a mixed methods tool with an ontological and epistemological stance well-suited for studying the subjective nature of social worker discretion use in agency settings. Using the example of direct support professional’s (DSP) practice of discretion in group home settings, Q is shown to be an ideal approach to look at organizational behavior within the context of service delivery systems.

Methods: 30 semi-structured interviews and Q sorts were completed with DSPs from two different support agencies. All study participants were over the age of 18 and had at least 3 months experience on the job. The sample was predominately female (60%), Black/African American (90%), and having over 3 years of experience as a DSP (60%). Participants were given 48 statements developed from previous qualitative research looking at the intersection of front-line staff discretion and the implementation of agency policy/procedure. The Q sorts were analyzed using PQ method software in three steps: 1) correlation, 2) factor analysis (principal components analysis with varimax rotation) and 3) the computation of factor scores. Interviews completed after the Q sort were transcribed verbatim and coded thematically using Atlas.ti Qualitative software and used in conjunction with the factors developed in the quantitative analysis to reveal 5 distinct ways staff practice behaviors, discretion, and agency policies interacted in an organizational setting.

Key Findings: The results of the factor analysis and qualitative thematic analysis revealed five factors explaining 60% of the variance among the individual Q sorts. The five factors showed consensus on how DSPs used their discretion (both strong and weak) in a routinized fashion: (1) by focusing on levels of recognition for the client and strictly following agency policy; (2) by focusing on barriers to work and solutions to circumventing them; (3) by focusing on being a role model for clients; (4) by focusing on self-referential thinking to inform their use of discretion; and (5) by focusing on pushing back against agency policies conflicting with staff’s personal/professional values.

Conclusion and Implications: These findings highlight the usefulness of Q methodology to study organizational behavior and specifically discretion use within social service systems. This method is also able to give SLBs an exercise to reflect on their practice. Additionally, these results provide insight into how policy at the macro level is interpreted by groups of program staff at the mezzo level and put into practice at the micro level of staff to client interaction.