I’ve worked in human services all my career – with kids with problems; with kids and adults with mental health problems; with kids and adults with lifelong disabilities; with people who, often as a result of the institutional abuse and neglect they have experienced, have been stuck with ‘extremely challenging’ reputations; in and with devalued and impoverished communities – and can assert, without reservations, that none of the above has been successfully assisted to a better life by service interventions alone. Indeed, reinforced by the experiences of every working day, I would assert that too many folk who are dependent upon the good offices of public services alone are in a lonely and vulnerable position. Over 40+ years I’ve learned that there are few circumstances that cannot be remedied or at least much ameliorated when our service response, as John Seddon so aptly puts it, is ‘person-shaped’, and primarily concerned with helping each person to describe and pursue their ‘them-shaped’ solutions in the context of their family, friends and associations – that is in the context of past, present and to be forged relationships, in other words their social capital. Indeed, until not too long ago, this would have been explicitly a description of social work; and then the foundations of social work resided in the taking of a case history rather than completing a predetermined assessment of needs and deficits where the need to demonstrate fairness in determining relative entitlement has, quite unintentionally, priority over helping people make the best of their situations.
There can be few circumstances that are not made worse if we don’t take time to get to know what each person, family or community really wants by listening in order to understand, don’t support them to take power and responsibility, and don’t recognise and utilise the power of relationships and the social capital inherent in them. Listening and critical friendship are, for me, at the core of the co-production relationship. This is equally the case when your partner on the journey is an individual or a community.
Public services systems are, in the main, not concerned with listening, let alone challenging thinking and generating multiple possible solutions. They pay lip service to self-determination, autonomy and the abundance of gifts, talents, ingenuity, tenacity, resourcefulness and energy that still, despite our ever more pervasive consumer culture, inhabit our communities; and then systematically continue to contaminate civil society (that is, citizens acting in voluntary association) with mechanistic assessments and standardised solutions that are reinforced with arbitrary penalties for non-compliance. John O’Brien has dubbed this approach Cogworld. Indisputably, the imposition of the market on public services has been a major factor in this dysfunction, promulgating the dangerous myth that public services and institutions are both there to do our living for us.
It is not many years ago that Social Work was statutorily described as a profession that assists people – in the contexts of their families, friends and communities – to address and resolve the challenges they are confronting in consequence of disadvantage, poverty, ill-health, disability and so forth. The role is defined as enabling, educative and, as Al Etmanski so succinctly says, ‘supplementary and complementary’ ensuring that power and responsibility lies essentially with the citizen. Today, should you be exploring the possibility of a career in social work, the advice from agencies like Skills for Care frames the job fundamentally differently:
‘As a social worker, you would provide advice and support to vulnerable individuals, families, and those living on the margins of society. You would also be responsible for helping them to get access to the services they need to improve their situation and well-being.’
‘A social worker is expected to assess, review and maintain records of specific cases, all within certain timeframes whilst achieving set standards of care and providing service users and their families with the help they need.’
There is nothing more disabling and demoralising, as I see it, than being identified as a member of the devalued part of society that the next generation of social workers are being trained to ‘fix’.
Time was when citizens who come together with a common goal of improving or ameliorating some aspect of their lives, in their neighbourhood or on a wider basis, might solicit a grant from their community (administered by their local authority) in order to benefit that community. We are now at the stage of commodification of services where citizens can only bid, in competition, to provide services that have been previously specified by someone else, the Commissioner, who, it stands to reason (?), knows best. If Commissioners are really impressed with your idea they may ask you to write a specification for a competitive tender for the provision of your idea and then permit you to bid for it if your little association meets pre-tender requirements which may include having a strong balance sheet, secure financial history and insurances for millions of pounds. The Commissioner is, however, just as likely to take your idea, mangle it, compromise its principles, let that contract, and tell you that what you have promoted is being done. The simple idea that it could be sensible to keep what resources we can flexible and back great initiatives that can demonstrate the support of the people or communities they are designed to help seems just too simple?
In Wales, people who are deficit assessed to be entitled to social care can have a Direct Payment. The Direct Payments system has a stated purpose. It is about restoring control and choice to citizens but, in the large majority of situations, even the most peremptory of enquiries leads one to the conclusion that the notion of trusting citizens and their potential to utilise resources far more effectively than standardized service solutions was bureaucratized out almost immediately and often in advance of implementation. When challenged the administrators invariably quote the mantra that system must be accountable to the taxpayer. This, for them, is the end of the matter rather than the opening of a detailed discussion about what taxpayers really want from the care system and how they account for the taxpayer’s money that they both consume and expend.
At LivesthroughFriends we’ve learned over long careers that just about everyone has gifts and talents, the need to contribute, and gnawing desire to really take control of their own situation. As we’ve turned our principles into purpose and learning by doing action we’ve been helped by so many others on the same journey – those of us who see so much more value in what folk can do and contribute who may label ourselves a co-producers, time bankers, network/circle builders, ABCD’ers, Local Area Coordinators, promoters of Self Direction and Individual Budgets, Systems and Creative Thinkers, and so many others who we see as strengths-based thinkers and doers.
Over the years we’ve borrowed, stolen and now and again conceived some clear practice principles and a Framework within which journeys may unfold:
LivesthroughFriends’ Core Principles
- The people who are going to benefit from our work and those who love them are active commissioners of what we do based on what matters to them.
- We make decisions together based on knowledge not opinion – if we don’t know we find out and attend to creating lots of possibilities.
- We make progress together through learning what works – “experiment, rather than plan.”
- We are supplementary and complementary.
- Ask HOW ‘you’ want to live? Help people vision the life they want to live.
- Be Supplementary & Complementary.
- Strengthen/build reciprocal relationships and social capital – who is going to muck in?
- Become expert at effective and creative thinking, generating possibilities & problem-solving.
- Help folk contribute to and receive from and build ‘community’.
- Remember – it’s a journey – not an episode.
- It’s not (only) about the money! Never start with the money!
- Your job is to show another, better way whenever that is required.
Thanks and acknowledgements are due to far too many individuals and organizations to list but must include the folk at PLAN, GoMAD Thinking, Vanguard Thinking Systems, ABCD Institute, The Centre for Welfare Reform, and so many more – especially the people who have helped us help them.