Customer or citizen?

My colleagues have got the guest-blogging bug. Here is Lyn Griffiths, our National Community Organiser for our Shared Lives carer members, thinking aloud about a thorny issue which we have been debating in the team. Thanks Lyn! Lyn writes:

My local authority, perhaps responding to a nudge from Government, often likes to refer to me as its customer. This same nudge has apparently been felt by Shared Lives schemes. Many of them are beginning to instruct Shared Lives carers to think of the individuals they share their lives with as their ‘Customers’. Sometimes this reflects a wider adult services policy in the area.

This change can be seen by some as empowering: ‘creating a culture of choice’. ‘Customers’ are able to make decisions about which services they use in much the same way, apparently, as the decisions they make when they go to the shops.

Does it matter? Well, in my opinion, it does. It matters because this is more than a change in terminology, it is a change in ideology. When schemes call the people who live with Shared Lives carers, ‘customers’, they define them in terms of what they can buy, not in terms of what they can bring and what they can contribute.

So, if the people who live in Shared Lives are the customers, does that make the Shared Lives scheme the shop and Shared Lives – or even the Shared Lives carers – the product? Ridiculous as it might sound, when you define someone as a customer that is the logical extension.

This is important because Shared Lives is all about relationships. Change the nature of the relationship and you change everything. The relationship between a shop and its customers is fundamentally commercial rather than participatory. The shop wants to sell those items on which it can make a profit. The customer only has two options, to buy something, or not to buy something. The shop may offer a range of choices, but the customer has no control over what is on offer. If the customer doesn’t like the offer, all they can do is walk away (and hope there is an offer more to their liking elsewhere).

Now, if there were a range of Shared Lives “shops” with significantly different offers, so that the “customers” had real choice, then maybe the terminology would hold up. But is that really a route that schemes want to go down – to a fully competitive market for their ‘customers’? Would people want to become Shared Lives carers in such a reworked model?

The present Shared Lives model is about sharing family life. It is about creating a culture of ‘us’, of community. It’s about creating, debating, negotiating – about participating rather than passively receiving. It’s about being a citizen with a stake in society, not just a consumer.  Perhaps, ultimately, words don’t matter as much as what actually happens. But words can be labels, and the labels we apply to others can influence our behaviour in the roles we feel we have in a situation. And sometimes, they can smooth over the complexity within relationships to the point of confusing their real nature.

Yes, Shared Lives relationships are valuable – far too valuable to put a price tag on.

Lyn can be contacted on lyn@SharedLivesPlus.org.uk

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3 thoughts on “Customer or citizen?

  1. Freddie October 24, 2014 / 7:21 am

    You have hit at the heart of the problem Lyn. As long as LA’s and their representatives can treat people as ‘numbers’ and fit them into one of the boxes that they have to deploy, then they do not have to establish a real life ‘relationship’ with them, which brings with it responsibility that they can actually ‘feel’.
    Freddie.

  2. Freddie October 24, 2014 / 9:01 am

    On reflection, perhaps I have been a little unfair on my professional colleagues, some of whom have been outstanding. Perhaps I could illustrate this in a different way.
    One of my ‘service users’ passed away unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago. She was 22 years old and profoundly and multiply disabled requiring round the clock care. She had lived with us for 20 years and was much loved ! I don’t use her name out of respect for confidentiality – no matter how much this hurts me.
    She was a ‘daughter’ a ‘sister’ and an ‘ aunt’ within our extended family – definitely not a ‘service user’.
    Freddie.

  3. rich_w November 5, 2014 / 2:52 pm

    I’ve always been fascinated by this debate. Without personally adding to it here (Lyn’s post is excellent!) there are some fascinating and thoughtful contributions to this debate here: We, the People and Customers, citizens and claimants, from the excellent @pubstrat.

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