Friday, 31 December 2010

I told you so

Well, it's been an interesting year in politics and social policy. There would have been few prizes on offer for the prediction that Cameron would be PM, but as head of a Con-Dem coalition??

Before writing this I re-visited the predictions I offered last year to see if I could produce a scorecard. Unfortunately I seem to have been far too vauge and long-term - more personalisation was one of my conclusions this time a year ago. Well, yes probably and being a long-term trend it will probably continue. So I award myself null points for that one.

I'm hoping to do better with my 2011 predictions, or rather one prediction. In a sense I'm cheating because it has already happened. The stories are finally beginning to appear linking cuts with their less than desierable outcomes.

So far we have had the ideological sell. Cuts need to have been made we have been told and we seem for the most part to have bought it. For the Government this was the easy part as time is needed reveal the consequences of these decisions. This is now beginning with the Guardian reporting that a £609 000 saving from scrapping a flu awareness campaign has now been reversed as it has been decided in the midst of a flu ourtbreak that it was probably not the best idea.

Another piece in the paper carries a warning from a campaigner, Lucy Cope of Mothers Against Guns, that public spending cuts may result in an "era of terror". Rather a chilling prediction, but one which firmly holds the Government to account. Like the Health Secretary is finding out to his cost now; if individual ministerial decisions to cut funding can be linked to a negative event or set of outcomes the result is highly politically damaging.

The government is sure to be seeing many more 'I told you so' moments in 2011

Monday, 27 December 2010

Ragged trousers

Back in my council employee days days we received a monthly e-mailed newsletter. A cynic like me generally regarded this as mere propaganda, back-slapping by senior managers on hitting a target which meant nothing to anyone remotely near the frontline, but one feature I loved was where another member of staff would pick their top ten books. Most interesting was the senior managers picks. The Executive Director tellingly plumping for Machiavelli's The Prince among his ten, recommending it as an excellent manual for any manager.

The Prince did not appear on anyone elses list, but one title seemed to be almost de riguer: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Spotting it for £3 in a branch of HMV it has lain on my bookshelf for several months just waiting patientley for the right mood to take me. That mood would come folowing this particularly vacuous read (even by the standard of football books) by Colin Murray which left me gasping for something a bit more heavyweight.

My initial reluctance to read the book was inspired in part by the fact that I felt that it would, at over 100 years old, have little relevance to today.

How wrong could I be. The book shows how little has changed in 100 years. I am only a third of the way through and it has already dealt with how people in poverty are blamed for their own predicament rather than any blame being placed on the system. Perhaps if anything the book is more relavant today than ever as it shows how (despite the protestations of current and previous governments) work alone is not necessarily a route out of poverty. It also shows how the system leads to a grossly uneven distribution of wealth, again a lesson becoming more and more relavant as workers earn minimum wages whilst company directors protect their already huge profits by tax avoidance.

The book also reminds us us why we need a welfare state. Its all very well to knock it and to say that 'hand-outs' result in dependency and reduce the incentive to work, but do we really want the alternative?

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Christmas shopping

Whilst we are all busy with our Christmas shopping; please spare a thought for the workers who produce the goods we are buying.

I will not write much on the subject; it is all explained much better in this article

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Grim statistics

It's been impossible to get away from the news content generated from the fees demonstration. It left me wondering today why as my younger self would have headed to central London, or at least marched round campus, my older self is happy just to watch it all on TV. I tell myself that it's because I haven't the time, work, family and university meaning free time is now a rare luxury.

Besides, the forces I am currently doing battle with are statistics; more specifically assignment number two and all its logistic regression analysis.

Statistics has never been my strong point and having just finished a book about the Tour de France I can't help but draw comparisons between myself and the riders as they approach the Pyranees.

It feels as if my degree is the race. I've had some good results on the flat stages of Northern France, but as I look at Mt Logistical Regression towering above me I know I'll be spending the next few stages in the autobus; the group of riders at the back straining just to stay inside the race cut off time whilst dreaming of the finish on the Champs-Elysees

Thursday, 9 December 2010


There's something I'm deeply ashamed of.... for as long as I can remember I've voted Lib Dem. Still, I can be confident that I will never again repeat this mistake.

Sentiments which I'm sure would be shared among the small throng of protesters gathering on campus as I walked home from my early morning lecture today.

As I passed by I recalled a conversation I had with some of my colleagues at the call-centre yesterday. We'd all felt short changed, even depressed, by the fact that our first degrees had led several years on to a low-wage call centre job. We're not isolated cases either. Research has suggested as much as one-third of the call-centre workforce are graduates

The answer we all concluded is either returning to university to do a more vocational degree giving entry to a profession, or like me to go down the postgraduate route, but higher fees closes this door as older students and post-graduates also have debt, family committments and opportunity costs from giving up what employment they do have.

Students are being asked to pay ever more for their education, yet at the same time the rewards for that education are becoming more uncertain and dare I say unevenly distributed...

Saturday, 4 December 2010


From the look of all the pictures on facebook (the most original being a re-creation of the ice world Hoth in a back garden) I'm guessing there has been a bit of snow in the past few days. I also beleive this to be the case as I heard a couple of snow related features on radio two yesterday.

One feature consisted of a lady attempting to name and shame her local authourity. The issue was a request for a grit bin. The lady in question seemed rather well to do and in line with the stereotype had it seemed harried her local councillor into making an over-rash promise that yes a grit-bin will be provided. Unfortunately when the lady called to "remind" said councillor of their promise two weeks ago she was told that no, due to the cutbacks, there was now no money for a grit bin.

The lady talked about how last year she lost two weeks holiday as she couldn't get out of her home for the snow and ice. The presenter then put it to her, why don't the residents club together and purchase a grit bin - cost £1000? Oh no, she said, we pay enough council tax, at a high rate, and see very little in return anyway. It was she argued clearly the councils responsibility.

It struck me as interesting logic. For well to do residents (unless we're talking the squeezed middle here) a £1000 grit bin between them, lets say there are 10, thats £100 each; probably not a huge stretch. A price worth paying for less disruption?

What really gets me though is that government is now asking more of preople in general; students are asked to 'make a contribution' to their education (in fact now a fairly sizeable contribution) and by the same philosophy the disabled are also asked to 'make a contribution' to their care.... in the future it seems more and more people will be asked to 'make a contribution.'

This is because the idea of a big state where we all pull together, where we pool risk and share responsibility, is in retreat to the neo-liberal vision of the small state; a state which asks us to 'make a contribution'.

Therin lies the contradiction in the ladies argument, on one hand she is critical of the level of taxation she in particular is on the receiving end of; no doubt she is at least receptive to the neo-liberal vision of a small state with low levels of personal taxation

Yet when it is suggested she personally 'makes a contribution' she suddenly seems to find the idea repugnant.

I wonder where she stands on tuition fees?

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Forbidden cities.

I've been at the Guardian website again. In between all this wikileaks excitement (Personally looking forward to hearing the diplomats candid views of Cameron) I've spotted an article on how the cap on Housing Benefit has been pushed back to January 2012 to allow local authourities time to deal with the ensuing displacement.

I'm genuinely terrified by the consequences of this policy. According to the article the number of households affected in inner London will be 18 645. Given that the average UK household size in 2008 is 2.37 just taking that figure means at least 44 189 individuals will be affected, however, the real figure is probaly more, as the households affected are more likely to be families rather than single people or couples without children so the average size of affected households will be greater than the overall uk average.

I am unfortunate to live in a city where rents are high. The reasons for the high prices are many, too many to be listed here, but there is a general rule of thumb that proximity to transport links and proximity to the areas where jobs are concentrated mean higher rents. Lower rents are found in areas far from jobs where public transport is poor and even if it does exist prohibitively expensive.

It seems strange to me that if you lose your job you will possibly end up moving to an area far from potential sources of work. It certainly seems counter to the IDS led reforms to unemployment benefits which are all about getting people back into work. I have a scary vision of the marginalized, being literally marginalized, dispatched to the edge of cities where a punative benefits regime forces them to undertake long journeys each morning and evening to minimum wage service sector jobs in the centre of the cities where they are not allowed to live. Forbidden cities.

Saturday, 27 November 2010


I've said a lot about personalisation in the past; on here, on the Guardian, on other blogs, in team meetings, on training courses, in seminars, so many places, so many times, I've lost count. I've even consciously tried to remain quiet on the issue for a bit for fear of just going on about it far, far, too much.

Today however, I caught this article by a person with a personal budget which quite neatly captures my feelings and concerns about personalisation.

That is: Personalisation is a good thing which can improve services, but there are many issues around it which still need to be addressed. The simple fact which is spelt out in the article is that quality care costs.

The issue is are local authorities prepared, or able to fund it and if they are not does it mean that people unable to top-up with their own cash are pushed into using their budgets to purchase care from one of the typical big care agencies personalisation was meant to spell the end for?

Friday, 19 November 2010

The privatisation of the public.

I've been arguing for some time that there is now no such thing as the public and private sector; that the divide between the two has become so smudged they can no longer be seen as distinct entities.

Finally some proof of this in the Guardian. In the first 5 months since the election Capita received 3.3 billion, which as the article points out is greater than the annual budget for the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

What's more shocking is that the figures seem to refer only to Central Government spending. If we looked at local government the scale to which firms like Capita perform the functions hitherto carried out by local authorities we'd no doubt conclude that somehow, behind our backs, the whole state apparatus has been privatised.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

an amendment

Just something I want to add on to my previous post.

Last night, whilst settling down to my first assignment of the year, I caught the end of a debate on Radio 4. I can't recall who any of the participants were apart from Michael Portillo, but one of the points which was made in the programme has resonated with me.

The point concerned the type of language used in the debate around the reforms to benefits, in particular unemployment benefit, and how it is playing a role in allocating the blame for their predicament onto individuals; a point I was at pains to make myself on this blog a little while back.

It all seems curious to me that in the middle of a downturn widely held to be caused by the actions of the finance sector, and affecting many economies across the world (particularly hard hit is our neighbour Ireland) that the blame for unemployment has been shifted from the whimsical vagaries of the international economic order onto the individual.

Is it me or is this counter-intuitive?

Friday, 12 November 2010

Active Labour Markets

Active Labour Markets; This is the technical term for the reforms proposed to unemployment benefit. Philosophically they adhere to the amendment to the ideas of social rights which formed the foundations of the post war Beveridge welfare state; From simple social rights to what Blair best termed 'rights with responsibilities.'

In historical terms the seeds of change emanated from the 'crisis' in the welfare state which arose from collapse of the full-employment economy in the 1970s. The social-insurance model Beveridge created was only intended as a short-term stop gap never a long-term solution so was ill-equipped to cope with the new phenomena of long term unemployment.

Some 40 years on and the problem of long-term employment has never really been solved. My old Exec director was often fond of saying that in our City there were now families where three generations had not worked.

Are active labour market policies the answer? As Polly Toynbee points out about 1.5 million people are expected to lose their job in the next 2 years. She also hits on another key point; that is what will happen to those most on the margins, will the most vulnerable be the most heavily penalised?

It is here that the devil really is in the detail. Per se, most people - even a room of left-leaning Social Policy students, will agree on the face of it with active labour market policies - so long as the carrot is as big as the stick. That is so long as the policy places emphasis on incentives and support to those most in need.

This DWP report, based on viewing other countries policies, published last year highlights some of the key conditions which need to be met:

1. Personalised support and early intervention for 'those most in need'

2. Adaquate staff/client ratios

3.Specific support for 'harder to help customers'

4. Subsidized work placements and on the job training.

It remains to be seen whether these conditions are met. If they are not all that remains will be an excessively punative system cutting benefits for the vulnerable and shunting others into low-pay, no-prospect Mcjobs

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Rage, rage

I must say that today's events in London caught me quite by surprise. As I was explaining to a course-mate today my first year of university happened to coincide with the introduction of fees. There were of course protests then as well, but the overall response from students was somewhat muted and apathetic.

This seemed to add to the general characterisation that unlike their long-haired and bearded forebears (who had become the politicians then introducing fees) subsequent generations of students, and young people in general, were content to shirk politics concentrating instead on the trappings of consumerism. Campuses far from resounding with talk of radical philosophers had become apolitical stomping grounds for brands like Red Bull and financial firms jostling for the opportunity to woo the Hollister clad students (See this Guardian article for a view on how University life differs from the 1970s).

I don't think there has been a drastic or radical re-awakening of the general student political consciousness far from it, apart from a few hardy individuals painting banners outside the students union it has been business as usual on my campus with the Red Bull beach buggy blasting its sounds into the chilly air.

Putting aside the scenes of broken windows which do more harm than good for any cause; For me the significance of today is that we've seen the truth in the theories which argue that any retrenchment of the welfare state will be heavily contested that people will indeed take to the streets. It certainly seems the welfare state will not be going gently into that good night

Friday, 5 November 2010


We are currently in a phoney-war. Waiting for the cuts to make the transformation from paper projections to concrete reality it appears that aside from a few opening skirmishes the real action is still somewhere further down the line.

Yet have we already seen the birth of one of the most important debates, one which may well come to define the new century.

Much has been made of the term the 'squeezed middle' which exploded into our consciousness following Ed Milibands election as labour leader.

On one hand this can be dismissed as simply the politics of Blair; Championing the middle ground occupied by the floating voter, but on the other it can be an astute reflection on the final collapse of the Post War Welfare State. Like Brighton's West Pier the Post War Welfare state seems to have lingered on an, a shell of its former self, gradually disintegrating back into the sea with each new storm.

It has long been said that the welfare state, founded on principles of universalism, benefited the middle classes, sometimes even disproportionately. They gained from an expansion in university education, the universal NHS and perhaps most importantly benefited from the jobs created by expanding state bureaucracies the legions of teachers, nurses, town-planners and social workers all needed to deliver the new universal services.

The impact of the disintegration of the post-war welfare state therefore means that, as Madeline Bunting pointed out in the Guardian, the middle-class dream of university education, home ownership and the trappings of status are in effect now over.

There are of course many interestiong arguments about just who the middle class are. Melanie Phillips favours the term 'aspirational classes'. Aspiration is of course another word for dream; the dreaming classes. Whilst I do not wholly accept Phillips views about the finer points of the definition the dreams of the middle-classes, of a comfortable life, of a good society, of upward-mobility and fairness provide the template for the post-war welfare state and are intrinsically, inseparably linked.

The question this leaves is what replaces the dream? For its many faults the attempt to create a 'New Jerusalem' after the war was an act of dreaming par excellence. A dream of a better society which would somehow make sense of the sacrifices made to create the platform of peace and prosperity it rested upon.

The 'big society' just doesn't seem an appropriate replacement for the good society; something the Philosopher Slavoj Zizek (credit for the link goes to The Plashing Vole) hits upon when he argues, using some intellectual groundwork by Oscar Wilde, that charitable giving only alleviates and prolongs the misery caused by the overarching system; Charity per se is not necessarily bad he suggests, but what is needed is to attack the causes of the problems - to create a better society. To dream of a better world.

This is our challenge all the more urgent now the dreams of 1945 and the middle classes are over. Once the phoney-war has ended and the cuts begin to bite we need to ask ourselves what kind of society we want.

Just what are we dreaming of?

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Private sector job losses?

Some really interesting news in the Guardian today about the impact of spending cuts on the private sector.

I have long argued that the distinction between the public, private and even third sector has become increasingly blurred in the past two decades.

This is now so much so that the distinctions no longer really hold up; they are also ever more opaque. In my area it's certainly fairly safe to say that most people don't know where Capita ends and the council begins and we're not even talking about the private sector companies involved with highways, street lighting, running leisure centres, the voluntary sector running several academies and the presence of privately run NHS treatment centres.

This seems to be recognised, at least in part, by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) who assert that:

"The combined direct and inderect effect of public sector cuts will result in the loss of 650 000 private sector jobs."

I'm currently taking a fairly intense unit on survey methods at uni so I'm increasingly wary of any survey unless I'm familiar with its methodology, but this seems to be hinting in the right direction. It will definitely be interesting to see whether any more surveys reach similar conclusions.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Care Credits

I woke up this morning to the news that the Government is considering a system of 'Care Credits' which has apparently operated in Japan since 1991.

Just to summarize the idea is that volunteers providing care build up 'credits' which they themselves can use. In Japan this can be either themselves or a relative and the credits seem to be weighted towards tasks such as personal care as opposed to shopping and towards unsocial hours.

Even stranger on BBC breakfast none other than Professor Heinz Wolff (last seen in this Nintendo DS puzzle game). Presumably Heinz Wolff was there to lend some intellectual gravitas to what is a scheme worthy of a mad professor.

I don't know where to begin with picking apart this policy. It could be that Japan is a very different society to our own so the success of a policy there is little guarantee of success elsewhere. It could also be that the system will favour certain social groups above others; particularly those rich in both free time and cultural capital.

I would rather though focus on the role of professional carers. Whilst the voluntary sector in my area did take over the nicer aspects of care; shopping, hoovering, dog walking and luncheon clubs where (generally) elderly ladies would gather for a nice chat over a cup of tea, the professional sector did the hard jobs; the personal care which could be anything from changing incontinence pads to bathing or applying cream, helping to manage medication, as well as dealing with difficult clients and when I say difficult I do mean difficult.

The job of a professional carer requires a high degree of skill and dedication. This is matched by a high level of responsibility and accountability. Sadly the pay and social status (of both paid and unpaid carers) lag far behind. This has led us to believe that the carers job is something which could be done by anybody.

It isn't.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

lean and efficient?

A piece in the New Statesman recently caught my eye (yes I do read publications other than the Guardian!)

An interesting aspect of the piece is its questioning of the universities actions in seeking to appoint someone to what tends to be referred to as a 'non-job' i.e a role in a public organisation which serves little real purpose. All the more perplexing, the article suggests, is that this appointment is taking place amidst a back-drop of a major funding review. Fiddling as Rome burns.

It makes me wonder just how valid the arguments are that cutting funding, or the threat of, increases efficiency out of pure necessity. Is the reality somewhat more complex than this? It certainly seems a caricature that well funded organisations are bloated and inefficient; like a 18th century baron with a bad case of gout whereas less well funded organisations are by extention lean and effective.

Could the case simply be bad management and a failing organisational structure which fails to recognise its priorities? If so will funding cuts not make this situation worse??

Monday, 11 October 2010

the long-term view

Way back in 1997 tuition fees were introduced at the level of £1000 per course per year. Just over a decade later and fees are over £3000 per year. Tomorrow we may even see the cap lifted completely allowing top universities to charge five figure sums for courses.

Sometimes we need to take a long-term view of developments. Very rarely will the true extent of a change in policy be apparent at first; this especially goes in areas which are politically sensitive. Take the ending universality of child benefit. The argument is that top rate taxpayers can do without it. Of course they probably can, but the loss of the universality principle introduces the potential for the eligibility criteria to be progressively tightened leading to groups lower on the income scale losing out.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Dr Beeching returns

One of my great loves is cycling. I love the relaxation which comes from just being on my bike out in the back of beyond. Many of my routes make use of the railway lines which have been disused since the axe of Dr Beeching fell upon them. With their gentle gradients they make for great cycling, but one part of me always feels a hint of sadness. As a cyclist I'm all for sustainable transport and I can never get away from the feeling that the Beeching axe in its reactionary short-sightedness robbed us all of a future which would have been a bit better than today.

As I hear more and more political rhetoric piling up about cuts, the savings which need to be made, the fact that it can't go on like this, there is no alternative... this is the future. Part of me can't help thinking of Dr Beeching. Is this the fate which awaits the welfare state?

Thursday, 30 September 2010

A rising tide

I've made much recently of the somewhat abstract phrase 'public service ethos', but feel have failed to really capture why it is so important, how it works and why losing it will be a disaster.

Just now I have been reminded of a set of circumstances which illustrate the point I am trying to make. I was once told that whilst my Local Authorities in-house care agency would assist other agencies in the private and third sectors with improving standards by spreading best-practice the agencies in the private sector would not reciprocate as they did not wish to give their competitors any advantage.

In other words whilst the public sector took a co-operative approach, seeking a rising tide which would raise all boats the private sector with its ethos of competition has little interest in the bigger picture.

This is why we cannot let go of the ideals of public service.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

A vision of the future

On the topic of the perils of contracting-out another story about the care market. 40 homes of agencies shut down after involvement with CQC this year.

The strange thing about social-care is that for what is the Cinderella end of the welfare state (Most of my fellow social policy students interest being focused on 'sexier' topics like the NHS) it has been at the forefront of contracting-out ever since the NHS and Comm. Care act 1990 instituted the purchaser/ provider split. Helped by comparatively low-barriers to entry compared to other sectors the market in contracting-out has boomed in Social Care along with the associated problems.

A vision of the new kind of welfare state?

Sunday, 26 September 2010

On contracting-out

I am getting older. Despite a perspectives on ageing course I attended a few years ago trying to teach me that age is just a social construct there appears little doubt that I now use my personal stereo for listening to Radio 4 just as much as I do for music.

This Saturday I took the opportunity offered by possibly the last sunny weekend day of the year to get out into the country on my bicycle. As I wound my way down a hillside I was listening to a political show on the station which featured Lib Dem Chris Huhne.

One of the topics was of course the whole business of the 'virtual-council'. Huhne was firmly in the against corner. The point he made was that if a council needs to make changes to improve standards then it can take whatever action it feels is necessary. In a contracting-out system the council cannot act straightforwardly as actions can only be through the framework of the contract.

It seems contracting-out is like giving up owner-occupation for renting. Overall control of the property is lost; if I want to paint my room anything other than magnolia I cannot simply grab a brush and paint-pot I must negotiate with the owner of the property first as per the contract and there is no guarantee they will agree. Then there's issues like long-term planning. Is it worth a renter on a 6 month contract planting an apple tree in the garden or constructing a conservatory knowing they may themselves may not receive future benefit from these? Then there is the issue of increasing housing prices. The owner-occupier and landlord both benefit from increased asset value, the renter loses through higher costs.

There are of course benefits to renting. The Landlord bears responsibility for repairs and building insurance. They must also absorb costs from raises in mortgage interest rates which occur during the lifetime of the contract (though this is only in the short-term as these will be passed on when the contract is up for renewal).

Perhaps unsurprising that not many people who are in the position of owner-occupation would elect to switch to renting.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Virtual-councils: A threat to democracy?

I've seen this one coming for long-time. Ever since my former employers shifted several departments over to Capita with talk of the option of more in the future I had an inkling that councils of the future would consist of just a nucleus of key professionals and managers in an overseeing and strategic role. Front-line work would be carried out on a by staff working for a private sector contractor. Now what is being dubbed the 'virtual council'seems several steps closer to reality.

There are arguments, mainly economic, for this move. Cost-control becomes the responsibility of the contractor and council managers become free of the tiresome jobs of setting up and maintaining the systems and structures which will support their aims; instead they simply issue a diktat and leave the messy practical implementation side to someone else. At this point of course we come up against a economic argument against outsourcing; In a relationship governed by contracts any changes will need to be written into the contract, a costly business.

I don't intend to dwell on the economic however, what concerns me more is the philosophical. In particular the ethos of public service and of democracy.
Many people I worked with were driven by a desire to serve their community often the result of deeply held beliefs both religious and secular in origin. It is why they chose a career in social care rather than a potentially more financially rewarding option. Would this ethos survive in the culture of a private company and would the field be worse off for its disappearance?

Secondly there is the democracy argument. At no point in its history have the links between the public, council officers, and the elected representatives been more opaque and more tenuous. I read some time ago a piece about the proliferation of call centres in local government. Rather than improving contact between the public and those who serve them the article argued that contact centres actually made things worse by preventing the public from directly accessing officers. All this is bad for democracy and its bedfellows of transparency and accountability. Will a fragmented network of contractors make this already worsening situation worse? Will we know who to hold to account when things go wrong or when things happen which we don't agree with; or will our elected representatives shield themselves behind the likes of Capita?

Tuesday, 14 September 2010


There is one thing which has been troubling me above almost every other thing. I have noticed over the past couple of years there have been reported several of cases in the media where a vulnerable adult has been subjected to a shocking degree of abuse and even in some cases killed by people whom they regard as friends.

Despite their horrific nature the cases there is little outrage about who should or shouldn't resign, who should be fired or struck-off, and which systems should be changed so this never happens again. The media report these cases as they would any other crime story, as something of course shocking, but ultimately an isolated act; not a wider problem which calls for many difficult questions to be asked.

I have therefore been gladdened to see the Guardian showing signs of picking up on this issue, even using the term 'mate-crime'to describe what has been happening. I would recommend everyone read it. It raises a number of questions which we all need to ask.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Cautionary Tale of Connaught

There's two types of blog posts. There are the ones with a long gestation, a loose idea that time turns over in your head as it is whittled down to finely detailed perfection ready to present to cyberspace. These, for me at least, are rare. They are the type of blog posts I mean to write. Type two, the far more common type, are the type where a news story catches my eye during the day, not any news story, but one which inspires emotion within, maybe anger, maybe sadness, relief or even laughter. It instantly creates the urge to comment to just put something down on the page.

Today the story is about Connaught. Interestingly it crosses over with a post I've been meaning to write for months now, a post about the pros and cons of contracting out in the public sector.

My politics and past experience (school dinners in the early 90s) has led me to take a position of public-sector-good private- sector-bad. For me it was definitely a case of Crapita not Capita and my heart would sink a little everytime I saw the moniker 'working with' on a sweater, leaflet or side of a van. Even free entry to my local swimming baths last week didn't allay my narrow eyed cynicism that standards would plunge now the profit motive was introduced like a shark in the pool.

This is the crux of the issue. Our villain is the profit motive. Victorious in driving back the ethos of public service it eschews a logic of doing things only so far as they are profitable. This is why residential care is in such a mess. Standards cannot rise above the level at which profit ceases to be made.

Is this tough a too simplistic reading? Possibly it is true in some cases but, I find myself feeling increasingly sorry for private sector partners seeing them as victims. This is because in some areas the state drives a very hard bargain. Take residential care again, is the problem the private sector ownership of homes or is the problem of poor standards due to the local authorities who raise their funding for placements at below inflationary rates?

The attractiveness of a contract for a government department, or local authority is the ability to pass the buck. The contractor must decide what to cut when funding is squeezed and must also deal with the blame of any consequences from their cost-cutting. Connaughts demise also shows the risk prospective partners undergo. Government is a big player and now has a whole support industry which depends on it. Firms like Capita just did not exist a little over a decade ago but now generate large profits from public service contracting. Markets though shift and power with it, will government begin to assert its power in a not dissimilar was to a supermarket chain over a small producer, or will contractors find new strategies to fight back.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

All quiet in the blogosphere

It must be because it's August. Even the blogosphere has a hush about it as people are en vacances. No such luck for me. I can't even afford a UK break, let alone join the hordes (virtually every single person I know)who are jetting off to Turkey the new destination of choice for its ability to provide guaranteed warm weather outside of the eurozone. This has found me, perhaps rather sadly, commenting on the Guardian a lot, particularly on my second fave subject the big society.

One interesting debate has been around the issue of recruiting volunteers and how this is far more problematic than first assumed. Volunteers are unsurprisingly more likely to be middle-class types leading to some big geographical inequalities.

This led me to chip in with the suggestion that due to the changes in voluntary organisations in the past decade, particularly the changes leading to vol. sector organisations playing a bigger role in providing services hitherto provided by the state, there is less room for volunteers, particularly unskilled volunteers so this leaves the young and other groups at a big disadvantage as even if they want to volunteer there are actually very few openings.

The voluntary sector is just not what it was, no longer is it a bunch of do-gooding-amateurs mucking-in, but is now more likely to consist of highly skilled and more often than not paid professionals. One voluntary group I worked with employed ex-nursing staff to run the core part of the operation whilst tea was made by Social Work students on placement.

Openings which do exist are generally confined to the fund-raising side, though the top level work is again now in the hands of remunerated professionals and the ground work is carried out by contractors such as the infamous Chuggers. Charity shops and opening bags are therefore the only real things on offer.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

The problem with local government

Last weekend saw me have a very enjoyable meet up with some of my former colleagues. It was great to catch up with some people after almost a year. As I finished off my first pint I also managed to come up with a theory about just what is wrong with local government....

So many people are just unhappy in their jobs. This may not be a particularly unusual statement. Very few people I've met either in the public sector or private sector profess to love their jobs, but there is a much deeper sense of low morale and of feeling trapped in local government - I should know I spent a couple of years there myself.

The reason for this is simply the increment system. If you get appointed to a role at say 15k per year you will receive a £500 per year pay-rise automatically for the first few years, then for another few years you need to prove you have achieved set objectives before getting your raise. This continues until you reach the upper limit for that grade at which point you can continue no more, at 15k this would typically be about 19-20k.

The advantage of the system is that it rewards experience and loyalty. The disadvantage is that it can become for many a gilded cage as it makes a sideways move to another team, authority or even a move out of the organisation particularly expensive. I once worked with a very experienced care manager who confessed she would love to work in a mental health team but, after many years in her current post was at the top of her grade so such a sideways move would mean a fairly drastic pay-cut.

This all leads to a time-serving mentality with the attendant stagnation and resentment from unfulfilled dreams. People have a disincentive to move and develop so remain in post long after their enthusiasm for the job has faded. Their incumbency also prevents a new person with fresh enthusiasm taking up that post.

Experience of course is a good thing, especially in a field like social care where an experienced member of staff is invaluable, but it's a question of balance in a team. Too many time-servers and the team suffers.

Friday, 13 August 2010

A question of accountability

There is no doubt that there is just a pinch of politics behind the decision to publish details of what are being referred to as the spending 'excesses' of the Department for Communities and Local Government under the previous administration. There is also little doubt that groups such as the Taxpayers Alliance will be foaming at the mouth as they pick over the details whilst the media will be searching for what can be described as a 'duck island moment' - one item which sits above all overs for sheer folly.

For once I'm with all of them. In my time in local government I knew nothing, but grim austerity. Office downgrades, no awaydays for several years, no Christmas party, no nothing, well something, in 5 years the total sum we received was a £5 lunch paid for from money the a team member had received for taking a student on. I disagree with this approach too. Awaydays can be valuable for morale and for working out operational issues, even a Christmas party improves cohesion and morale. The problem is that when budgets are scrutinised you need to show added value and whilst it is easy and straightforward to say what something cost it is much harder to and infinitely more complex prove just what value it adds.

That said excess is excess. I remember hearing stories from my friends girlfriend who worked for UK Trade and Industry about all expenses paid trips, including a coach to Brighton for their Christmas do and inviting staff from SEEDA along for the ride. The team also underspent it's budget one year so a member of staff was duly dispatched to purchase a load of blackberry's so as to protect next years allocation. There couldn't have been anymore of a contrast with my own experience where we frequently struggled biros so poor quality they dried up after a few days if they were the black ink type or became unbelievably blobby if they were blue.

The reason for the difference was simple. In the local authority we were more accountable - to a local electorate who paid a locally set tax rate and so faced closer scrutiny not just from them, but from politicians eager to rein in costs wherever they could. For a central government department and even more so for the quangos which have proliferated the workings are more opaque and there is no clear link to the individual taxpayer.

I don't believe the issue is one of who the political masters are, after all quangos were a Tory invention, but one of governance. Whilst a commitment to publish expense details will improve transparency and therefore accountability it still does not address some major issues, particularly with quangos as to who runs them, what are they for, who sets their priorities, questions in general which need to be asked.

Ironically transparency overall has been declining. Commercial confidentiality can be invoked to cover a multitude of sins and many people do not know if the council officer they are dealing with is employed by the local authority or a commercial contractor. David Cameron's call for a greater Civil-Society also raises issues, charities after all are far less transparent than local government - although numerous efforts have been carried out to improve reporting and accountability, but with the charge that this was eroding what was distinctive about the sector.

As ever the answers are less than transparent.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

The Pinch

Last night I finished reading 'The Pinch: How the baby boomers stole their childrens future and how they can give it back' by the current Universities Minister David Willetts.

The main focus of the book is demographic; chiefly the demographic disruption caused by the baby-boomer generation. An ecxcellent review on the Guardian website captures the key points covered by the book. One of the most intriguing arguements the book puts forward is on the question of social mobility. For Willetts declining social mobility and rising inequality is explained by the discrepancy between individual behaviour and group behaviour. Whilst as individuals the baby-boomers do all that they can to assist their own children (via the bank of mum and dad), as a group they are responsible for monopolising resources and creating the conditions which leave subsequent generations with a rather poorer deal than the one they themselves took advantage of.

As one of the generation who has been hard done by ever since Maggie took my milk away followed by being the first year to have to pay university tuition fees and for whom home ownership is as realistic a dream as owning my own private island much of the book chimed. As a student of Social Policy I was also impressed. However, not all points were backed up with sufficient evidence; Willetts only alludes to the reasons why the baby-boomers have been able to get a good deal from the state via the ballot box not pausing to look at the kind of theories, such as median voter theory, which could explain this.

Overall it is a great text on the consequences of demographics upon the functioning of ther welfare state and poses many questions which will become ever more topical as the first baby-boomers begin drawing their pensions.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Health and Social Care; a happy marriage?

For the past few years the biggest buzz phrase among senior managers was 'joint working.' Unlike such derided management-speak phrases as 'blue sky thinking' Joint working meant something real, a long overdue acceptance that social care and health are inexorably tied together. The real initiatives which emerged from this were the rehab teams; jointly staffed by community nurses, Physiotherapists, occupational therapists, care managers and social workers. The teams also had access to rehab carers who were specially trained to provide assistance, but in a way which enabled the service user to maximise their independence; working toward a set of user defined goals which could range from running a marathon to making a cup of tea independently.

The teams were not without problems, one which stuck out was the cultural difference between health staff and social care staff with the former being used to far more status, professional autonomy, and possessing slightly different recording practices, but these were small and something which could be resolved over time. For me it always seemed these teams were the way forward, the sensible future for social care. Senior managers seemed to agree, the teams were innovative and with the emphasis on reducing dependence could potentially be far more cost effective.

This has led to me prophesy a marriage between health and social care. The organisational divide between the two, one PCT controlled, the other LA controlled has long seemed a bit arbitrary especially when joint-working has achieved real differences on the ground. The question was however, what organisation would give way. I long believed this to be LAs who I felt, certainly in my case, seemed to be disposing and delegating as many functions as possible in the name of cost-cutting.

But how wrong I was. It is PCTs who now see their days as numbered leaving LAs, as this Guardian article suggests, invested with the governance of health and social care.

Having not got my head round the proposed reforms to the NHS I'm unsure what this means for the future - (for my part the current system seemed to be working very, very well so I'm perplexed by the need to change it) but, the article expresses my chief concern at this stage; Can LAs handle the increased responsibility?

Friday, 30 July 2010

Social Care in the Media

The first thing I did this morning was read a few pages of the excellent Pete Davies book 'All Played Out'. Sadly it is now out of print, but without wishing to write a review a large part of the book is dedicated to the machinations of the press and the role they played in creating and perpetuating the hooligan stereotype. Davis himself not disguising his contempt for the gutter press.

The second thing I did was to switch on the television. Not being one for the endless re-runs of Friends and Top Gear I decided on BBC Breakfast just as the local news segment was beginning.

There are certain things which happen with a depressing regularity, late trains, disappointment with a well hyped film (Inception) and England losing a penalty shoot out. Added to the list should be abuse in care homes; so regular it is, even in social service departments, almost expected.

The media for their part have a standardised response to any breaking story of care home abuse and the first target is always social services. The report I watched today was true to form. A brief presentation of the facts then the camera switches to a person the caption identifies as the relative of a resident. What do they comment on, their horror that their loved one may have been mistreated, their concern for them and other residents. Condemnation of the home, or even surprise.....

Not one thing of it, this may come later but, first, now it is always the same. The people the relative condemns are social services. In this case the relative is criticising social services for their indecision; telling them one day they're relative would need to move in a few days, then later revising this to immediately. The implication is that social services are dithery and incompetent

Possibly these are some valid points, maybe the department could have communicated better, but is this relevant to the story? Is it even that preventable? I can picture the scene in the office. Frantic phone calls trying to arrange emergency placements, constant calls to senior managers, the police, CQC. Assessing risk, making sure people are safe and trying to keep people informed against the backdrop of a constantly shifting situation on the ground as well as phoning their own families to tell them they won't be home until 10pm that night, getting someone to pick the kids up from school and give them dinner. I can picture this as I've scene it many time; dedicated competent people competently doing their jobs to keep people free from harm.

One case I was familiar with the local rag criticised social services and the police for being incompetent and heavy handed. Column inches were given over to family members who praised the home and the hard-working, caring staff whilst raging against social services. The tone changed when the owner and manager were convicted by a court; both receiving prison sentences.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Reform don't come cheap!

Browsing my copy of the Observer today with a relaxing cup of tea I found this article.

In summary it speaks of the tensions arising from the short-term costs of reforming parts of the benefits system. Reform, unless it is simply a term applied to mask slash-and-burn policy, is a costly process.

Interestingly and worryingly the article points out that the aim of policy (to make work pay) can only be achieved without additional costs by cutting the benefits paid to the most vulnerable. Thankfully at the time being an option which will be politically difficult - unless the govt. succeeds in further demonising anyone in receipt of benefits.

I could write a whole post about the folly of a policy like Tax Credits which in effect subsidises employers who choose to profit from paying low wages. The other alternative on offer is to make employers cover costs of living, food, housing, transport etc by compelling them to pay a living wage. The chances of this coming from the Conservatives is however, very remote. No doubt they would cite job losses arising from an enhanced minimum wage, but could the reality simply be a redistribution within companies, less executive pay and fewer bonuses in favour of a living wage on the shop floor?

Now, where was I? Well, the article I think confirms many of the suspicions around IBs that the money needed in the short-term to make the scheme a success isn't going to be forthcoming. The problem then is not simply that the policy will have failed, but its potential to cause real damage to the very people for whom it purports to represent a new dawn.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

In search of the Holy Grail

I love the Guardian. For coverage of social policy, particularly social care it really is second to none.

I've just read another interesting article on Individual Budgets. It is over a year since I left front-line work behind yet the debate still rages and with even more intensity since the change in government and a chance in fiscal policy from prudence to pruning; or hack and slash depending on your political view-point.

The article takes the arguement far deeper into new territory. IB's should, it suggests be rolled out as a new model to replace the out-moded structures of the post-war welfare state. An interesting point, but one with which I disagree. As one commentor, anenome 6, points out we have come a long way from the kind of welfare state set up in 1945 and to suggest otherwise is a crude mis-representation.

I won't go over old ground here. My comment on the article was to once again harp on about the need to think about equality when it comes to IB's, something which always seems to be missing from the debate. In our rush to tinker with systems we need to keep sight of our core principles such as equality and fairness and make these more central to our judgements...

Anyway, perhaps the most telling part of the article comes in the final paragraph:

In future, the world might be different if Alan, Jane, Dave and others like them could get a single assessment of their needs,

Hasn't the single assessment process been a term bandied about in Social Care for a number of years? I certainly remember my department possessing glossy leaflets promoting it. One single multi-professional assessment so people didn't have to tell their stories again and again.

This was certainly the aim, but the messy reality was that some people would need to tell their story firstly to an untrained call-centre operator, then another unqualified member of staff carrying out a 'screening' assessment over the phone before a centrally based care manager would visit and assess and if not in immediate crisis a person would then be assessed again later by a locality team care manager. Single assessment it was not(and I am actually simplifying things here by leaving out Physio and Occupational Therapy assessments!)

So the single assessment process was, despite the leaflets proclaiming it a reality, as fictional as a chart of Soviet grain yeilds. Merely a half-harted quest for the unobtainable.

Monday, 28 June 2010


On the far edge of my desk in call-centre land sits a Vicky Pollard doll. The revolving door of the flexible labour market means that no one currently incumbent knows how or why it appeared there so there it stays rather like the dead man in Yossarian's tent in Catch 22; unchallenged except for the time it was stuffed in a drawer for the visit of dignitaries from an important client.

Generally I hardly notice it, but from time to time it catches my eye. When it does I ponder; How powerful are stereotypes like Vicki Pollard and how much do they shape the kind of welfare state we find ourselves with? Writing off the character as a crude stereotype is I believe to misjudge its power.

In my journeys through the blogsphere I have recently come across a neo-liberal blog titled: 'Burning our money'. I felt moved to comment on one post about IDS's policies as I felt a graph being used was misrepresentitive (lies, damned lies and statistics). In the process I have been able to see the other comments on the post where readers have turned to every stereotype about benefit claimants ever trotted out in the right-wing media. There's talk of "scroungers", immigrants, fraudulent incapacity claims, holidays, TVs and for a bit of comic relief among this cocktail of nastiness a link to a Daily Torygraph story.

All this in the midst of a down-turn where many people have been put out of work because of a widely reported economic downturn; yet in some quarters the unemployed are still portrayed as feckless and defective. It seems that stereotypes are very potent indeed and particularly useful to neo-liberals seeking to dismantle an already threadbare welfare state which pays such low levels of unemployment benefit it routinely sees workers losing their jobs gobbled up by debt.

Public sector workers too fare no better. Len McClusky of the Unite union making an excellent point in a recent Guardian article when he says of politicians:

"They talk about public sector workers as if they're devils. We're talking about people who teach our children, treat the sick, clean our streets, people who are responsible for building the fabric of the communities in which we live."

As a former public sector worker I was particularly aware of the gap between popular perceptions of gravy trains and reality of missed lunch-breaks, unpaid overtime and colleagues routinely burning out and as a former Social Care employee I saw many people who battled against negative stereotypes day-in-day-out.

If we want to defend our welfare state and ideals of social justice we need not be afraid to challenge stereotypes where they exist. Vicky Pollard doesn't need to be just stuffed in a drawer but confined to the dustbin.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Downloading responsibility

One of my former managers at social services had a legendary habit of pacing the office after hours to check people had correctly shut down their PCs and turned off their monitors. The rationale for this was not an environmental one, but a cost driven one. As our manager reminded us we were all responsible on a individual micro-level for the councils budget. Unsurprisingly the manager in question was soon promoted. Later they returned to the office to explain why we would need to move from our modern(ish) air-conditioned, open plan, town centre office to a rabbit warren like, non air-conditioned - and boy was it hot in the summer, older building on the edge of town cut off from civilisation by both a motorway and railway; an area so remote Tesco still hasn't even bothered opening a convenience store. The building was however, much cheaper being unoccupied for around two years after its previous occupiers the housing association who controlled the surrounding estate moved to plush new purpose built accommodation. Two years on a further accommodation rationalisation drive saw more staff quitting their town centre locations and squeezed into our building. Some of our grumbles may seem churlish (lack of cycling facilities, lack of toilets, temperature), but staff reliant on public transport faced nightmare journeys, we became inaccessible to service users, no longer being centrally located made journeys for home visits longer and the lack of an open plan environment affected team-dynamics with literal walls solidifying into metaphorical barriers.

In short this story shows austerity is nothing new to local government it has been the norm, in my experience, for years. It therefore seems hard to see just how much more local government can drive down costs without performance being seriously compromised and by this I mean increased risks. This is important as local government will be the arena where cuts are most keenly felt. Take this post on the excellent Fighting Monsters Blog. The example given is of ILF payments being affected. These are, very sketchily put, where central government assists with funding for people under 65 living in the community, but who have needs above the threshold for residential care. By scaling this back more pressure is put on local authorities. I make a similar point in an earlier post on the resilience of public spending; the bottom-line is that the needs will still need to be met; the state being unable to walk away from instances of need which would otherwise go unmet. In this case it therefore means funding must be diverted from elsewhere by the local authority. In other words the ultimate responsibility for making the required cut is downloaded from central government to the local authority. The luxury for central government is it can then distance itself from making real, tangible cuts and also importantly absolve itself of responsibility when services do break down. Add to this the prospect of a council tax freeze and Local Government is in a very. very tight spot indeed.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Time to give care workers their due

I've said it here before but won't ever tire of saying it. The undervaluing, underpaying and overworking of the staff who provide care is nothing short of scandalous and is the major barrier to improving standards.

I've seen many instances of how care staff are treated shabbily by local authorities keen to cut budgets and companies seeking to maximise profits. Job security, domestic arrangements, pay, conditions, and training all suffer. I'm also ashamed to say that the attitudes of some social care professionals towards front-line care staff were also pretty poor.

There is also the added dimension that this is gender issue as the majority of the workforce are female.

An article in the independent today captures some of these issues.

The message though is clear. The pay and condition of care workers matters to everyone in the social care universe; perhaps being even more important than subjects du jour like Individual Budgets.

Friday, 11 June 2010

The resilience of public spending...

University is now all over until October. I picked up my final mark, my best yet, 75% for my essay on the voluntary sector. Now the hard part; figuring how I'm going to pay my tuition fees next year. It really is a struggle particularly as post-grad there is very little in the way of support. Whenever fees are mentioned my ears invariably prick-up. So it was with interest I heard David Willetts talking on the radio yesterday. He actually made a really good point which summed up just how hard it is to cut government spending. If fees are increased then loans and other financial support need to be increased, as these are mainly funded by the government you are really only shifting spending around. In addition to this making anything means tested also results in a huge amount of admin, an appeals process etc which ends up making things very expensive.

Personally I favour a graduate tax. My first degree was almost 10 years ago and as I didn't do great in the earnings stakes I still haven't reduced the capital and have not yet had a year where I met the interest. Because the loan has grown by so much I'm also unlikely to in the next few years so I am in fact paying a de-facto 10% tax on my earnings over 15k and will do for quite some time. This perverse effect means people like me who do less well out of a degree end up paying far more over the long term. The fairest system would then seem to be a graduate tax. If you do well then great you pay a bit more. If you don't do so well ,maybe you're working in the public sector or volunteering, then you pay less. Seems fairer to me.

The big issue is also one of equality. My university is red brick and I must be the only person there not decked out in Hollister or A& F topped off with some flip-flops. That the institution is horribly middle-class, not to mention young, is painfully visible by the sartorial choices of its members. Personally I'd prefer more diversity. I'd like to see more variety of age too, in fact I think I'm gaining far more from university now I am older and have more experience. I certainly know what the price of a 2:2 is!

Monday, 7 June 2010


I'm very much with Alistair Darling. I don't profess to be an economics expert (B grade A-level Business and Economics), but I do remember the arguments in the 1990s about how economic globalisation meant the state had to shrink and employment protection laws had to loosen. These arguments usually professed that globalisation possessed the irresistibility and inevitability of a law of nature. As a result the argument was not about globalisation itself, but how to successfully adapt to it. The passing of time has led to some revision. It is now not just a fringe opinion to suggest that globalisation was in significant part a political project. Passing it of as an inevitability had been a cunning ruse on the part of neo-liberals in the US, Canada and UK to justify their attack on the post war welfare state.

In the UK Thatcher drew heavily on the intellectual foundation of Hayek who had critiqued the welfare state as detrimental to liberty and advocated instead a bare minimum safety net. The welfare state is however a resilient and thick skinned beast due to its popularity. In the UK our love for the NHS seemingly knows no bounds; we will happily volunteer, donate and run marathons for it. The neo-liberals therefore had a problem. How best to dismantle institutions without causing unrest and losing power?

The answer to this is to present what you are doing as an inevitability.

... such as the need to reduce the deficit

Thursday, 3 June 2010

I have long had a feeling that the people at the top have no idea how the organisations they are responsible for work. This was continually with me at the Council where it seemed there was a vast gulf between the front-line staff and the management strata immediately above the level of team manager.

Recently this feeling has returned as a result of reading Catch 22. The dark, resigned but comical accounts of the farcical manoeuvrings of the generals and senior officers reminding me more than a little of my former masters.

I'm glad to say I am not alone in my views. In an interesting piece in the Guardian a former front-line worker critiques IDSs knowledge of the system he is seeking to reform.

They really have no idea at the top!

Thursday, 20 May 2010


University life has a rhythm of peaks and troughs. You notice the change most in the library computer rooms. No longer is there screen after screen of facebook and you tube; replaced instead with complex looking graphs and charts of formulae which just looking at make me sigh with relief I chose the humanities all those years ago. Soon though it wil all be empty apart from a smattering of Phd students. The rest of us will have our feet up on the kind of tropical beach we try to visualise in our darkest times.. or more likely be working to finance the next years study (and don't get me started on tuition fees!).

For my part I'm just under halfway through my essay on the states approach to the voluntary sector. My task is to evaluate two thesis. One that the state is using the voluntary sector to save money on service delivery. The other that the state pragmatically recognises that the voluntary sector is just inherently better at delivering certain services.

There is plenty of topical material on this as despite (as suggested in earlier posts) greater government engagement with the sector as providers of services being the thrust of policymaking for over a decade it has now been all repackeged with the label of 'Big Society'. This is clearly for me quite a bad step as academics have been urging a more cautious approach to the merits of the sector. To be sure voluntary organisations do possess many advantages but there has been an over-stereotyping of the sector as 'innovative', 'flexible', 'responsive' and various labels which under scrutiny take on a more ambiguous complexity.

One issue issue now is whether we can really call the voluntary sector voluntary. I was on the receiving end of a friendly rebuke from a former colleague last year for using the term voluntary sector rather than the nom de jour of 'third sector.' Why the change? In the embrace of the state the sector has changed, become more professional and buracratic. 'Social enterprise' is another term which problematizes what we thought we knew about the sector the term enterprise implying that the profit motive is now no bar from membership of the sector.

Interestingly social care is at the fore-front of all this. The reason being that barriers to entry are low compared to say healthcare which requires considerable capital and expertise. Individual Budgets also present an opening for the sector to grow, particularly social enterprises.

My conclusions are not yet drawn, but my feelings are that there is indeed a need to be cautious and to not simply accept soundbites and stereotypes, but to look under rocks, prod and poke aropund and ask awkward questions.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The election.

It's even nice to see people so engaged this time round after the malaise of the last two elections. Even a keen political commentator like myself, who votes in European and Local Elections, failed to show at the polling station for the last general election.

For a while Politics felt as competitive as premier league in the 90s the team in red always going on to lift the trophy, but now politics is in the air, and more importantly on the web too (see this excellent article on myshittytwenties) and facebook coming close to resembling a Roman Forum (incidentally I wrote a piece on this for my Uni paper but, like everything else I've submitted it has vanished without any kind of acknowledgement - might post it on here in the next few days).

Governments always tend to look tired after a decade or so in power and after a change of face failing to induce a Dr Who like freshness there is an inevitability that they will lose power. There is however, much uncertainty over who will gain power, will it be the Lib Dems in a coalition government or will the Conservatives manage to sneak a majority?

I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a hung parliament and the promise of electoral reform. Hung parliaments are rarer than unicorns in the first-past-the-post system but society now needs policy making to take place in an environment of negotiation where minority views from the likes of the Greens are heard as well as those of just the median voter; Worcester Woman, Motorway Man or whatever incarnation they choose to appear in. This is my hope for change.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

and another thing...

Working in social care certain words get a great deal of use. One word which passes the lips of anyone in the field with a rhythmic regularity is 'empowerment.' Empowerment is seen as a universaly positive guiding principle. As an employee I saw my role very clearly, I was there to empower; to empower people who had little power, to enable them to participate in the community and society in a manner which they chose to, not one which was dictated by society's predjudices and iniquities. The reality of course was more messy, taking a step back I performed functions counter to this aim; gatekeeping according to the norms of the institution I worked for and implementing policies (most notably a highly punative charging policy) which arguably disempowered. Empowerment though was soley thought of in the context of service users, staff empowerment was something which received little attention.

I consistently used to argue that staff needed to be empowered (and still do in the private sector where the situations seems even worse - though do so in hushed tones). Staff need to have the tools to do their jobs and their views need to be heard above service manager level, rather than being treated as irrelevant. In my old authourity several policy changes led to a number of quite major issues which many staff had been flagging up as areas of concern long before. The impact on me was that I felt very disempowered. One aspect of the Conservatives plans, announced yesterday, therefore does appeal. Encouraging staff to take control of service provision seems to be a radical step and one which could potentialy see hierarchical 'buracratic' organisations flatten and become responsive.

But isn't this inviting an animal farm type scenario; replacing the farmer (in this case an exec. director) with an oligopoly of professionals. Hierarchies can be flattened but power dynamics will always exist. The alternative is a more pure kind of constitutionaly protected democracy which results in levels of arguement which are personally draining for all participants. There are also the usual unanswered questions, how will this all work in practice, will this be in the context of quasi-markets where staff collectives compete against the third sector and private sector to provide services not to mention the obvious question, is this just a ploy to buy off professsionals who would otherwise be hostile to a policy of pushing state functions onto the third sector, a sweetner to assuage concerns of declining areas of influence for professionals? Or am I being cynical again?

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

View on the manifesto

Are big centralised services so bad? The Conservatives seem to beleive so. Policy developments like Foundation Hospitals and Individual Budgets also suggest Labour feel the same so whatever the result of the forthcoming election we can expect the move towards smaller, localy planned and delivered services provided by a rang of providers to continue at either the same pace or an accelerated pace.

I'm uneasy with this development. On one hand I recall a conversation with a person from a Third sector organisation who talked about the ability they had to be able to provide services such as aromatherapy which their service users found valuable, but which would be unlikely to be made available by the authourity. This was clearly a prime example the benefits of the sector: closeness to service users means more responsiveness to their needs coupled with the ability to innovate free of burcratic controls.

The organisation was however, highly dependent on Local Authourity funding to provide itsservices and interestingly bemoaned the cutbacks which had been made within their service area in Local Authourity that had ironically been used to provide a chunk of their funding. The point of stating this is that the Third Sector is not a stand alone sector staffed by volunteers but is a sector dependent on funding which has been diverted from previously centralised services.

The experience of the last few years has been that the more involved Third Sector organisations become with service provision the more they need to dedicate time to funding bids, planning and reporting. This has led some to argue that the Third Sector has lost its distinctive character and now effectively many organisations ape the centralised, buracratic state bodies they are replacing. The opposing view is of course that closer working means more opportunity to influence the system (not disimmilar to the point made by Ben and Jerry's founders in the face of their take-over by Unilever that they hoped Ben and Jerry's distinctive values would influence the multinational rather than erase their own)

This leaves us with the disadvantages. Producer interest has been cited as becoming a problem in the Third Sector, increasing professionalisation means more professionals and more buracracy invariably increases distance from service users. The sectors advocacy function also becomes problematic in the context of closer working with state bodies. Most challenging though is the problem of inequality. The modern Third Sector has since it's emergence in the 1970s been a very middle-class animal, drawing on middle class volunteers and now professionals leading to accusations that it exasperates rather than releives inequality.

Of course many of these accusations can also be levelled at centralised state services. I do however, feel that rather than charging headlong alsong the course plotted for the past decade is dangerous, rather we need a period of soul searching in which we are realistic about the costs and benefits of all forms of welfare provision.

Thursday, 1 April 2010


I once saw Tony Blair in the flesh at a sixth form confrence in 1997. Held within spitting distance of the Houses of Parliament the other attractions on the bill were an impressive Paddy Ashdown who provided a fiery, passionate performance. The incumbent government busy staving off the by then clearly apparent slide into the electoral wilderness was only able to spare the embattled David Mellor who was fodder to some of the more snide questions eminating from the audience 'What does Mr Mellor think about the country being run by a bunch of adulterors and perverts?' jeered one public-school sixth former. Mellor like a bear chained at a medieval fete lashed out at his tormentors by responding to another questioner that you can't account for the electorate as 'there is one in every village.' Contrastingly the questions aimed at Tony Blair were positively fawning 'why do you want to be prime-minister?' one person asked resulting in Tony's trademark grin to appear, shining from the podium like a beacon of hope to the assembled room; most of whom had known nothing but Tory rule.The atmosphere in the room was one of love. Blair was our Obama. Even after our dissapointment we still love Tony, he is the archytype of the post-modern politician, free-floating and unencumbered by ideology - at least to the T.V cameras, a charismatic prescence. The reason we don't take to Brown is because he is the opposite of Blair and the reason Cameron struggles is because he, the natural hier to Blair (who was in turn Thatcher's child) fails to step out of his shadow and become anything more than Blair-lite.

And so to yesterday. Cameron outlines his plans for re-energising Civic-Society setting out a vision of how we all have responsibilities to become involved with our communities whilst waxing lyrical about the voluntary sector. Was this Communitarian perspective not Blair's baby? Forgive me for not having the wool pulled over my eyes but, The Compacts New Labour made with the voluntary sector in the late 1990s, the New Deal for Communities, Futurebuilders, The Supporting People Programme, Individual budgets... haven't all of these New-Labour initiatives been born from the idea that the Voluntary, or 'third sector' should have a greater role in society? Yep, everyone still loves Tony.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

In praise of the public sector

The past week has seen me reflecting on a conversation with a friend who has also worked in the public and private sectors. When asked which I preferred I had to say that my heart still belongs to the public sector. The one real difference I have noticed between the public/private sector is that in the public sector I felt as if my opinion was valued and that there was an equality between staff, senior managers and front-line workers being all equal under the rules of the organisation.

My observations in the private sector remind me of something I once read; explaining the failure of a respected English football manager in Holland it pointed to the difference in footballing cultures. In England players expected to be instructed by the manager, in other words all authority was invested in that one figure, but in Holland players discussed issues with each other and came to collective solutions. Thus it is also with the public sector.

Is it any accident the Dutch are envied the world over for their footballing culture?

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Did I get out of local government at the right time?

Sat in the comfort of my private sector call centre I came across a gem of a comment on the BBC news website (as you know the only website my employer allows non-supervisory staff to view - no doubt the Guardian is strictly off limits for it's revolutionary potential). The main article is one of a plethora about the subject du jour the impending dismemberment of the public sector (is that a bit grisly? - I'm currently reading a Japanese Horror/Thriller called 'out' so maybe thats why the metaphor springs to mind - we're constantly told it's going to be a brutal messy affair so maybe it's not too inappropriate after all.) Anyhow the comment itself is by a reader named 'departurelounge' and just seems to overlap nicely with my own experiences. The original can be seen here , it's the first comment at the bottom, but here is a copy and paste job:

1. At 2:06pm on 01 Mar 2010, departurelounge wrote:
Having recently left local government and soon to leave the country for good I've been reflecting on why my decade in local government seemed so fruitless. My time coincided with buzzwords like partnerships, visions, sustainable community strategies and the like. What tended to happen was that not very imaginative people drew up inconsequential plans which served only to distract attention from what could actually and ought to be done. Central government piled on initiatives and duties on local government to end child poverty, fuel poverty promote democracy etc when local authorities have very few levers to achieve these things (if any level of government can actually significanlty affect these thigns is another question). Local politicians werre either unwilling or unable to focus the minds of their administrative machines on improving services, controlling costs or really responding to local demands and the result is an expensive system tha, in practice, looks to central government for what to do next, not local people or their representatives. The frustrating thing is that local government isn't evne very good at doing the wrong thing, doing the bidding of central government.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Watching the world of social care at the moment is like watching a firework display. Ideas shoot into the sky painting it with colourful visions which last the briefest of moments before sliding into intangibility trapped within memory whilst the embers meet the embrace of the November mud.

Today the Conservatives fired their rocket into the sky. Headlines were set alight by the
spectacle of the Tories… yes the Tories… outlining plans for workers co-operatives in delivering public-services.

The use of the term workers co-operative, a term associated more with the political left was designed to make a big bang, but is it really as un-tory as it looks? If we cast aside the practical implication, which some commentators feel present serious questions, and concentrate on the core elements it begins to look very, very Tory and presents the real vision of the changes which will be made by a Tory government.

Looking at the heart of the plans it seems the Tories still harbour a hatred of centralised bureaucracies and feel that Labour, although continuing the work of the Thatcher and Major years, has not gone far enough, fast enough or been nearly radical enough.

An interesting concept I learnt at uni this week is the idea that privitisation is not a binary of public/private provision but there are degrees between the poles and three elements, provision, funding, and regulation: for example the state may not provide a service, such as residential care, but will regulate and/or fund it. IB’s interestingly represent a further move towards pure private as regulation becomes almost impossible in such a fragmented market.

But, this aside when we think of privitisation what has happened so far has only been a very few tentative steps into the woods, the state still retains the real power of funding and regulation. The building blocks are there. foundation hospitals, city academies, will the state remove the regulatory framework in favour of a market mechanism where the logic dictates that greater choice will mean poor providers will be unable to survive?

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Who killed free personal care?

Forget who killed Archie in Eastenders. If you want twists, turns, skulduggery and intrigue look no further than the free personal care at home bill.

It seems that what began as a pledge for free care has turned into a fairly large flat fee paid on either retirement or death

I freely admit to having lost track of what is going on. The thought of a flat-fee on retirement worries me; what about people who are not yet at retirement age, how does this affect IB's, what will the thresholds be? One thing I am certain of is that this is not the way to make policy. Service users, workers and carers all deserve more than this.

Friday, 5 February 2010

New Semester and Old Friends

I'm currently reading an excellent book called The Rider by Tim Krabbe. It's about cycle racing a sport which I have been intrigued about since heading to London a few years back to watch the Tour Prologue. I was led there by my love of simply just being on my bike, but my knowledge serbved only by faded memories of the Tour on Channel 4. This meant I didn't really know what was going on but the full-frontal assault of the publicity caravan with its shower of gallic gifts from Hotel Etap pens to Laughing Cow fridge magnets engulfed me in the atmosphere like a peloton mercilessly swallows a lone rider. The smudges of garish colour burnt onto the pixels of my too-slow camera and indelibly in my mind led me to read about the tragedy of Tom Simpson on the moonlike Mont Ventoux, the struggles of the unsung domestique and the pantomine that has always been the Tour de France. These however, are only background to The Rider. Krabbe, a cycle racer himself, invites you deep inside his mind during a fictitious race. This however, serves as a vehicle for an exploration of the real emotions of the racer. The garish colours are stripped away allowing the obsession, pain and determination to glow with flourescent force.

I know I can never be a cycle racer, I do not possess the masochism or ability to ignore pain that is the stock-in-trade of the rider. But, the emotions feel familiar - they should to all of us. We are all involved in our own cycle race. Sometimes we collaborate, sometimes sitting in anothers draft and sometimes we break out alone. We struggle up mountains and try to hold our nerve as we hurtle down the other side. We stretch our mental and physical abilities with an eye on the finish line. University certainly feels this way to me - essay deadlines being like the crest of mountains.

At the moment I am enjoying a section of the race on the flat where the rhythm is more relaxed. I've just been to an introductory seminar for my second unit this semester. The subject of this, and my other unit, is on changes in the delivery of welfare - particularly the involvement of the private sector and voluntary sector in welfare delivery. A subject I'm particularly interested in and intend to enjoy before I reach the next mountain.

I will also be seeing a lot of my old social-services colleagues tonight. It should be a nice get together as even though promises were made to keep in contact these were, despite good intentions, buried under layers of work and other commitments. I will however, have to try to refrain from getting too carried away in discussing social policy!

Monday, 1 February 2010

The Beeb reports

I'm currently paying my way through my uni course by working in a call centre three days a week. For some reason my employers provide internet access but this is limited to the BBC web domain. Exploring this is like exploring Wookey Hole caves with its hidden chambers slowly revealed by deeper and deeper dives into the dark waters. One of my best discoveries to date is a wonderful text based adventure game based on the Hitchikers Guide to ther Galaxy. My main stomping grounds are the news and sport pages. I'm not a huge fan of BBC news, but 9-5 it's all I've got. Today I also noticed an article directly related to the post I made yesterday about the Governments plans for free social care.

According the BBC report the schemes financial projections have been called into question by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS). It turns out the Government assumed that the average cost for a care package for someone meeting the criical criteria is around £100 a week. ADASS on the other hand estimeate it at £200. A figure which from my care management experience appears more realistic. The effect of this underestimate is, the article suggests a £500m funding shortfall which falls squarely on the shoulders of local authorities.

Interestingly elsewhere on the site is an article about a report by former civil-service insiders which in criticising poor legislation fingers the Personal Care at Home Bill as a possible example of legislation which is not sufficiently thought through.

Perhaps yesterday I overstated what I felt was the agenda behind the legislation. To be sure I beleive there is a long term trend for increasing white-collar privitisation in local government but, maybe and this is equally worrying policymakers in government are simply making it up as they go along informed by nothing more than their hunches. To me this is a proposition more worrying than the hypothesis I put forward yesterday.

There are certainly a whole load of logistical issues. One which springs instantly to mind is that care managers will find themselves pressured on one hand by service users and families keen to receive free services and the authourity on the other hand which wants to protect its budget. Has anyone thought of this?

Saturday, 30 January 2010


We all love the NHS. So much so that when it was slurred in the context of an American political debate thousands of people inventively hollered their support from cyberspaces newest technological rooftop.

We love the NHS for one simple reason. It is universal - Simply put it means the same to all of us; healthcare when we need it without regard to our material or social position. The NHS is the most true monument to the thinking which underpinned the development of the welfare state; All citizens, not just those who succeed via the free market, possessing rights; rights to education, rights to health, rights to live a fulfilled life.

Well, there are two reasons we love the NHS. The second is that despite Thatchers attempts at destabilisation in the late 1980s it delivers a high standard of care. Though to be fair to myself this is linked much more closely with universalism than is first thought. Universal services tend to be of higher quality and like the NHS are far more resilient to Politicians cutting funding. Cut Jobseekers allowance - the unemployed suffer. Cut a local hospitals budget we all suffer.

So what are we to make of the Government's suggestion for a "National Care Service". The name choice seems like a supermarket own-brand cola brands attempt at aping coca-colas distinctive packaging - in effect branding piggybacking; in this case suggestive of the national standard and universal entitlements of our beloved NHS. But will we be getting the real thing or a cup of water with a spoonful of sugar and a drop of food dye?

Social Care on the other hand combines universalism with it's opposite number selectivism. We are all entitled to an assessment and to services but when it comes to funding services this is by way of means-testing which varies across local authorities and can be in some cases quite punitive, by the Government's own admission penalising those on middle-incomes or with savings. The Government's plans keep this structure in place for the vast majority of service users but add an outhouse of universalism for the much lower number of people with the highest level of need. Local authorities will also still be in charge of delivering services which will mean that National standards will be logistically hard to implement and postcode lottery most likely to be the result.

As this article points out the National Care Service idea seems to have materialised from nowhere. There was certainly no talk of it when I was still in an authourity at the tail end of last year. Which all begs the question... just what is going on?

I beleive there is a divorce taking place between care management and social work. If the kind of initiatives I have seen piloted in the last couple of years such as individual budgets, self-assessment and care management being carried out by voluntary sector 'Brokers' works out as planned then Government can scale back their involvement in this area, concentrating instead on service users with high-level and complex cases which are primarily the realm of qualified social workers. A National Care Service encompasing only this latter area and which overlaps with the NHS and its universal ethos would certainly be a way of creating a framework in which this could be achieved.

This would be entirely consistent with what has been happening at a local level. Since the 1980s local authourities have increasingly outsourced. Beginning with workers in peripheral activities and/or at the bottom of local government pay scales, cleaners, cooks, carers, the tide has been rising higher up the pay grades, council tax officers, finance officers, IT technicians, HR, payroll are now likely to be found with ID badges bearing the tell-tell words of privitisation: 'working with.' The future is I beleive one where authourities will consist of a rump of qualified professionals involved in complex cases or enforcement functions; town planners, highway engineers, and social workers who will direct and supervise work carried out by outsourced non-qualified staff.