Is there any point to ‘Policy’?

Last week three of us travelled to Malta to EASPD’s semi-annual Conference and General Assembly. It was a wonderful networking and sharing event. The central topic was Quality of Life/ Service Quality – the same subject that had formed the theme of EASPD’s first Conference 27 years ago.

I, having been heavily involved with EASPD in the ‘90’s and early noughties, was moved to make the observation during the Q&A at the conclusion of the opening From Words to Action session, saying that it felt like we were reprising a 27-year-old conversation with less passion and little hope. I worried that I might upset people but the welter of folk who at the time and then throughout the gathering thanked me for making this intervention implies that people to feel ‘becalmed’.

It seems to me that it is self-evident that it is less challenging to negotiate a comprehensive statement of aspirations, motherhood and apple-pie than it is to actually address the simple fact that From Words into Action needed to be about getting underneath and understanding the impediments that perpetually seem to obstruct the realisation of those aspirations. This is true in what we’ve seen so blatantly exposed over the years in Ukraine and other parts of the ‘former defectology world’, but also and inexcusably in pretty affluent places like the UK where around 3000 people are publicly acknowledged to live devalued and often abused institutionalised lives.

And I am equally convinced that, wise and worthy as they may be, global pronouncements upon how we care for each other throughout the many nations of Europe and, indeed, the world have limited momentum if they are not linked to examples of how these essentially ethical and value-laden statements can be realised in very different economic cultural environs.

From our perspective, care is a societal construct and not predominantly a transacted commodity. And great care and support (i.e. social services of excellence) can and has to be achievable in circumstances where, for instance, drought and famine or life and limb healthcare inevitably has priority for public expenditure. If we are clear about our core values and principles there are no circumstances where it is acceptable to accord subordinate value and status to folk who are frail, disabled or otherwise vulnerable. This can only be done, of course, by seriously addressing any given challenge in the context of the gifts and assets available in any theatre and facilitating solutions.

In much of the so-called developed – we would assert, commoditised – world we have been suckered into the ludicrous belief that care is primarily something to be purchased. The consequence is institutionalisation (they don’t needs walls), poor lives for far too many ‘beneficiaries’, and unaffordability. It’s crucial that we don’t encourage the ‘developing’ world to espouse this failed and societally damaging model.

In part in the light of this analysis, I sent some thoughts regarding what amounts to a consultation by EASPD’s expert Taskforce on Quality of Services. This is what I wrote:

Some initial observations on the ‘Executive Summary’ report of the EASPD Taskforce on Quality of Services.

  • We would strongly recommend that the (EU Framework on Social Services of Excellence) Framework should insist that policy makers go further than ‘rationally’ adopting the human rights principles enshrined in the UN Convention and ‘normatively’ get to grips with the lives experienced by their national citizens (explicitly not redefined as Service Users or by deficiency labels) and assume responsibility for ensuring that are accorded equal value, respect and quality of life.
  • Quality of Life has inevitably differing components for different people but the following foundational criteria are common to all of us:
  • The centrality of loving, caring, intimate and truly reciprocal relationships to a satisfactory human experience cannot be overstated. While services can supplement and complement the satisfaction of these core human needs they cannot replace the real relational economy. Social Services of Excellence complement and supplement those things that kith, kin and community can only do or do best.
  • Social Services of Excellence are not transactional ‘goods and services’. They are embedded in, responsive to, and supportive of the communities they serve. They are implicitly creative, innovative, and flexible. They embrace collegiate professionalism and decry ‘painting by numbers’ processes and systems. They are ideally locally accountable and locally resourced.
  • In Europe, the ‘West’, and increasingly wider afield, little attention has been devoted to creating the systems conditions that Social Services of Excellence depend upon. In particular, competition legislation appears to have primacy of impact in most jurisdictions and this context tends to redefine everything in terms of commerce, commodities and transactions. This undermines the culture of openness, cooperation, collaboration, and the strong and resilient communities within which both true care and democracy may be nurtured. Many would argue (in accord with John McKnight) that social cohesion has been massively damaged by this naïve failure of policy. Person-centredness, self-direction, and strengths-based social services practice all depend upon working with all the resources, gifts and assets – not just the funded services! And competent social services play a key role in nurturing and underpinning social cohesion.
  • In response to those who would defend the commodification of care on the basis that this has freed women from the tyranny of primary caring responsibilities, we would assert that the current deteriorating situation – as the system collapses under the welter of failure demand and resulting unaffordability – is strong evidence that women have not markedly benefitted from the trade-off. More to the point, there are “lots of ways to skin a cat” and a plethora of examples of non-gender stereotypical community development and structural options, such as Universal Basic Income, that might be applied if the achievement of strong and resilient citizens, families and communities was the passionately adhered to goal.

The following summarizes a successful approach in translating policy into meaningful action:

We believe that assistance of this sort should be explained in the guidance to the Framework and offered as the basis of support available to National governments when the Framework is confirmed and published.

  • It was very evident at the Malta Conference that there is barely any acknowledgement of the differing economic and cultural realities of European jurisdictions. For example, the proposal regarding supported decision-making demands so much professional input and systematization that it would be undeliverable in the UK and off the radar for Moldova. We were very impressed by the example of our Moldovan colleagues in demonstrating that real progress can be made by engaging with all the resources, promulgating humanitarian values, and nurturing leadership. The production of a document that implies that quality can only be achieved through ‘big money’, an extensive professional bureaucracy, and transacted services is, in our view, both misleading and unhelpful.
  • In concluding this initial raft of observations we would stress that significant progress towards the realisation of good social services rarely occurs without the support of passionate and ‘normatively informed’ champions. In our experience, the necessary momentum most easily derives from persuading ‘curious’ leaders (including politicians) to the normative study described above. (see Chapter 5, People Centred Services, in Beyond Command and Control, John Seddon et al. Mayfield Press 2019).

In turn, I’d very much appreciate your thoughts. Is there any point to policy?

Bob Rhodes

President/Founder – LivesthroughFriends CIC

19th October 2022.