Abstract This paper presents findings from a research project in which needs-led assessments and care management were examined during the early years of implementation of the 1990 NHS and Community Care Act. The findings are analysed in relation to a model of social work processes, i.e. phases of assessment, intervention and evaluation. A purposive sample of 24 cases was used, spanning elderly, physical disability, learning disability and community mental health teams in two divisions of a ‘county’ social services department. Practitioners, providers, users and carers were interviewed. The research illustrates the enduring importance of social work values, knowledge and skills in situations of rapid organizational change and policy development.