How to avoid real change: 1

Real change in public services is never easy, quick nor comfortable. If the people who are currently charge were the right ones to transform things, they would have done it, so real reform rarely rewards us with bigger budgets or more prestigious jobs: instead it often involves stepping back and letting others take charge. It’s no wonder we’re so adept at blocking real change. Here is the first of three blogs setting out common arguments for business as usual:

  1. Our challenges are urgent: there is no time to lose

My colleagues involved in Local Area Coordination, a community-development orientated approach to transforming services, often talk about moving slowly to move fast. Services typically task themselves with getting people in and out of the door as quickly as possible, so that each person takes up as little as possible of their expensive staff time. That’s a good approach to crisis reaction and symptom reduction. But to be of any use to an individual who needs to make a profound change in their lives, you need the time and space to get to know them at a deep level. You need to understand what their goals are and what they can or could do, not just their ‘presenting needs’.

The same is true of organisational and system change. It comes when systems and the communities around them get to know each other really well and understand what their shared goals are. Real change starts with a period of moving slowly and which is about getting to know a new group of people who don’t share your perspective. There are costs to this which don’t fit easily into existing ideas of what we spend money on and which don’t result in the kinds of return we usually associate with spending money such as bigger teams, growing empires.

The Post Winterbourne View Joint Improvement Programme, and all the related sector-led activity around it, was a great example of what happens when you prioritise urgent action to address a crisis, rather than the slow, careful work needed to release and build citizens’ ability to understand an issue from personal experience, and create real change. Everyone in the sector, from the Minister down, agreed that the abuse at Winterbourne View and the subsequent revelation that there were 150 small hospitals housing thousands of forgotten people for years on end, were unacceptable. We all agreed this needed fixing quickly. The pace of the change programme was impressive: thousands of hours of meetings and thousands of pages written by a dizzying array of agencies. Vast quantities of data gathered from every local authority. Three years later, there were slightly more people in ‘assessment and treatment units’ than before.

Then a group of people with learning disabilities called CHANGE gathered 100 people with learning disabilities from around the country to discuss what they thought should happen. This discussion was one of the first which was run for and by people with learning disabilities. This discussions and the subsequent ‘summits’ with the Minister and officials required more preparation than the others which had taken place and more time. They could feel slow in comparison to the usual pace of a packed meeting agenda. At the first summit, the group decided they only really had time to do justice to one of their four messages. They chose their message about the need to employ more people with learning disabilities in learning disability planning and services. In three years, none of the thousands of meeting hours nor report pages had, to my knowledge, even mentioned this as a route to change, let alone seen it as the most important thing to do. Without the right people moving at the right pace, everyone had rushed off in the wrong direction. If it had been suggested immediately post-Winterbourne that the resources should be put into supporting people with learning disabilities to engage with the issues and come up with their ideas, and that a programme of training and employing people with learning disabilities might lead to real change, the response would have been that that was too slow and long term, when what was needed was urgent action. But I believe the people from CHANGE and their colleagues were right: when people with learning disabilities are involved in inspections, advocacy, support work, peer education etc, it slowly forces a culture change that guidance and standards cannot. I’m proud that we’re recruiting our first colleagues who use Shared Lives at the moment: I think it will change us, slowly, but profoundly.

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