An exclusive club no one wants to join

In my last entry, I reflected on some of the questions I was involved in debating at a seminar for senior social care colleagues who are all trying to embed ideas of community and citizen leadership into their local area. I suggested that there is no one way of achieving this, but a number of quite complex ways of contributing to it. Here’s an attempt to unpack that a little further.

We started the session by asking colleagues to think about the journey that people make in and out of the social care system. At present, that journey can feel like being presented with a succession of doors and the challenge to batter, argue or beg your way through each one, with the promise of a service at the end of it. If social care was a nightclub, it would have large bouncers, a strict door policy, a small range of rather expensive drinks and no pass outs: once you’re in, you can’t leave if you want any chance of getting back in later on. I was struck by something Lynne Elwell of Partners in Policymaking said recently: “I spent years trying to get my daughter into the system, and then as many years trying to help her escape again.”  

We can’t afford a social care system which is an exclusive and expensive club, particularly when it’s not a club many people want to be a member of. So, counter-intuitively, to reduce the costs, we need a system which is open to everyone, but which is just as easy to leave, and return to, as it is to enter. Derby have been developing a Local Area Coordination approach with Inclusive Neighbourhoods. LAC was developed in Western Australia and has been in use (and rigorously evaluated) for 20 years.  It’s based on having a worker in every area with an open door, small amounts of money to spend on catalysing lasting changes, and a remit which is to help people to find non-service ways of living a good life, with connections to a range of services for those with no other option.

This is not an either/or choice between state and community and it’s not a choice between giving people services or abandoning them in the vague hope that something will turn up. It’s the idea that lots of us, at times of crisis or change, might benefit from a little help to understand what kinds of support are around us, or to create networks of support where we have none. At the moment, this kind of conversation is reserved for those in crisis, who often have the narrowest range of viable choices and who arrive at that point having had to prove their dependence and their needs, not having been helped to gain confidence and to think about how to maximise their own skills and support networks. If people are to have a real chance of creating more of their own solutions, the state’s role in helping us before, during and after that planning process will have to change dramatically.

2 thoughts on “An exclusive club no one wants to join

  1. John Adams March 8, 2012 / 3:59 pm

    About 15 years ago Scope had Community Development Worker posts (about 20 of them nationally) whose job was very much like the idea behind ‘inclusive neighbourhoods.’ Of course the language and terminology was different then but in essence they were about promoting inclusion, engagement and that now out-dated term ‘empowerment.’

    Where these roles worked well (Swindon was one such location) they worked very well indeed, with individual disabled people and disability groups, playing an increasingly influential and integrated role within local communities. Again we didn’t call it this at the time but they were really about citizenship.

    Two factors were key to their success though; firstly the maturity, skills and creativity of the post-holder and secondly the size of the area and population they had to cover. A large town like Swindon was ideal, whereas a single worker trying to cover Manchester say was simply spread too thin. In many ways they were ahead of their time, but unfortunately were disbanded as a result of one financial crisis or another.

  2. alexfoxblog March 12, 2012 / 3:03 pm

    Cormac Russell comments:

    Some thoughts: The building of active community is a herculean task, but at the nub of the issue as I see it, this is not just about systems reform.

    Because of the scale of this task there is more than enough work for everyone to do regardless of their professional designation-but equally there is a lot for professionals in the Public sector and the Third sector to stop doing, for example both need to stop growing their client base, in preference for growing community resilience.

    In terms of the architecture needed to build communities in this way, my preference would be that we had dedicated community builders focused on building relationships across all labels and silos, working in neighbourhoods, and that their work would be complimented by Social Workers, beat Bobbies, Health Nurses etc who had the right balance of person centred care and community building, and who get that their best starting point in most instances is community building and invitation; not service based intervention.

    Currently neighbourhoods have little or no dedicated resource directly focused on building the neighbourhood for its own sake, if enlightened practitioners do community building at all the bridge is built from the labelled person back to the community, but rarely the other way around, and nearly never in a way that changes local culture or ensures that the legacy of the work is evident in the communities capacity to led the bridge building going forward. This I believe is the ground we must claim.

    Active communities can greatly expand the resources we need to build more caring connected communities, and it’s critical we figure out how we can help them, not to do what services can’t do any longer, but because there is no professional substitute for community when it comes to caring for one another, preventing crime, caring for the earth, responding to disasters, promoting health, ageing well, raising powerful connected children, deepening democracy, and demanding social justice.

    Unfortunately, today’s communities are weaker than ever. Individuals are feeling detached from community for a host of reasons including single land use planning, materialism, globalization, and longer work days, we know the list only too well, we’re a statistic in it. But increasing professionalization, specialization and centralization have played a particularly detrimental role. Some of the greatest threats to Community capacity ironically come from government and non-governmental organizations that are seeking to help-especially when they are in the throws of reform fever.

    The very organization of agencies contributes to the breakdown of communities, my fear is that reorganisation without power analysis and a deeper understanding of the role of community building will make that worse, not better. As we know only too well each agency tends to focus on its own narrow function-reforming an agency so that professionals do more community building, does a community make. For me the evolution of local government has some catch up to do here, I think that evolution will span three clear stages: 1. Organise by function; 2. Organise around customers. 3. Serve citizens to co-produce shared futures. I also think general practices are stuck in stage 1 and 2, while the general rhetoric is at 3, waiting for the bloated body politic to catch up with the emergent narrative.

    The reality is across the UK our most vulnerable individuals are being organized by agencies rather than by themselves and community so that so-called youth at risk, people with disabilities, older people etc are being segregated from communities by level of age, ability and dysfunction. Our commissioners in turn are commissioning for services to these target groups that all too often decommission the very assets that these people need: active caring capable communities. In so doing they are effecting profound mission creep in the Third Sector the vast majority of whom want to work within a asset based community building framework, but have to adopt a social services model just to survive.

    Another related thought on this is that even if all the professionals in the world balanced out the person centred care they provided with community building, it would still not hit the mark, that’s not to say such a balance is not need, it is of course necessary that such reform happens, it’s just not sufficient. The critical action that would be missing is building community for community sake not for people with disabilities but for everyone including people with disabilities.

    I think we need what Marmot calls proportionate universalism alongside targeted support-since if we are not intentional about ensuring people on the margins are included they probably will be left behind- aimed towards community building. In practice then I believe what’s needed in every neighbourhood is:

    1. Community Builders working in an asset based way to build connections, neighbourhood plans and citizen led inclusive initiatives which in turn inform Council planning, resource allocations etc.
    2. LAC’s coming along marginalised people to build a bridge into the centre of community life in the first instance and be responsive to other emergent issues in a way that puts the person in the driving seat
    3. Professionals of all kinds deepening their community building practice and working in an asset based way, linking fluidly with CBs and LAC, and of course providing person centred care and support.

    I think this structure would save billions… but more importantly bring the tool of ‘capable communities’ into commission.

    The new paradigm calls for agencies to focus on whole communities and neighbourhoods. By working across the many functional silos, agencies can take an interdisciplinary approach that is more likely to keep the community intact and engaged while leading to better outcomes. With respect to Social Workers this reform is not within their gift alone. I think the reform of the system is about the system creating some space for the second tool of social change and inclusion, namely, community, to flex its muscle. To achieve this I think the most important skill for Social Workers and other professionals is to learn to lead by stepping back. I start every mentoring session with a community builder, with the question: ‘What did you not do this week that empowered citizens to step up?’

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