Why it's time to put the social back into services
05 May 2010
Is there an alternative to the seemingly inevitable cuts to public services? Hilary Cottam of Participle poses the question
The scale of the challenge to our public services is clear. The mainstream debate is all about cuts – how fast and how deep. At Participle, however, we are asking if there might not be another way. Our work is showing that it is possible to both increase social impact and reduce spending levels, by developing services that place relationships and participation at the centre.
Even before the need to make cuts, the limitations of current models of reform were evident to most at the front line. Our public services, rooted in a post war institutional model, have struggled to foster deep and lasting change in people's lives. As our work in communities across Britain has shown us, vast sums have been invested in services that sometimes meet immediate needs, but do not provide opportunities for people to grow into.
At Participle we believe the British welfare state is a success story whose time has come. The post war institutions have been remarkably successful at transforming society, but they are no longer fit for purpose. The arrangements we have will not deliver a more socially cohesive, fairer nation because the problems we face are so different.
We need a new 'Beveridge', a vision as bold and as imaginative as the original one was in its day. At Participle we are working towards just such a vision – one we call Beveridge 4.0.
Beveridge 4.0 is not about re-defining the giants but rather about a new lens to look at both new and entrenched social issues. We need to turn current approaches on their heads and start not with what is wrong with the institutions, but with people themselves, what is good about them, what they have to offer. In other words we start with the power of the citizen. If we were to distil our approach to two things we would say it is about participation and social contribution.
Take ageing. The so-called demographic time bomb is a global challenge, which the IMF predicts will dwarf the current financial crisis. In Britain this shift is viewed almost universally as a source of panic because our 20th century welfare systems were not designed for a world where 60 percent of the population would be over 60.
The policy dialogue has been one which focuses almost entirely on the current services on offer and how to limit access through targets, gatekeeping and so on – all in themselves further sponges of limited resources.
What is striking about the UK over 60s population however is their wealth. They own over 80 percent of the UK'S financial assets and are of course a huge well of talent, time, skills and knowledge. At Participle we asked what would happen if we built a system with older people, that could pool this resource and support participants to live a rich third age. The result is Circle, a membership organisation that is alive in London and currently scaling nationally.
Designed initially with 250 older people and their families Circle is part social network and part concierge service. Circle has a wide network of paid and voluntary helpers that help take care of members' needs from going up a ladder to change a light bulb, to accompanying someone on a hospital visit, to sorting someone's paper work. Members also take part in a wide range of social activities.
Nothing is too small, too large or too outlandish for the Circle team, who do not see themselves as running a traditional service, but rather supporting a wide participatory network whose members range in age from their 50s to their 90s and who come from across the socio economic spectrum. Members do not sit on boards, they actively collaborate to shape the Circle and its activities in real time.
A low basic membership fee encourages wide take up and members are attracted by a service that is universal and does not speak to them as either 'old' or 'needy'. At a time of financial crisis, Circle is actually multiplying the resources available on one shared platform: both monetary and non monetary in terms of time and skills.
To thrive and sustain themselves over time, these and other initiatives across Britain need a different framework in which to operate. Embedding change within communities takes time and cannot only be measured by economic indicators. It is all too easily strangled by expensive, bureaucratic frameworks – protection policies for example, that actively work against transparent, caring human inter-action. We need a culture that welcomes a broader set of ideas about problem solving – not a centralised, one solution fits all approach that we have seen over the last 20 years.
It is difficult work and those who support change at the front line need to be properly paid and emotionally supported – not fobbed off with the trappings of 'professionalisation'. This will not make it more expensive – quite the contrary Participle's work shows that significant financial savings can be made but resources need to be distributed right to the community level, harnessing the power of social networks and supporting people in leading the fuller lives they want to lead.
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