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.