The disabled: the hardest hit?

As the Paralympics gets under way, I will be asking whether the disability rights movement can live up to the Paralympic spirit? Because It seems to me that far from encouraging people with disabilities to overcome the disadvantages they face, it has increasingly become little more than a variant of today’s stifling politics of pity. While there is much to complain about today, there is no problem so big that it can’t be made worse by the imperatives of competitive victimhood. There are no end of people claiming to be very badly done by, or should I say no end of campaigners and commentators claiming to speak on their behalf.

Whether its as victims of public sector cuts or the apparent excesses of capitalism, some are seemingly little more than the objects of other’s pity. This is particularly the case if you happen to have a disability. According to Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC: ‘No group of people is more affected by the government’s savage, ideological austerity than disabled workers.’ But it is not austerity that represents the biggest assault on people with disabilities. Rather it is the way that disabled people are portrayed by Barber and others that is most troubling of all. Not least by their supposed defenders. From the cuts to welfare to the closure of Remploy factories it is the disabled, we are told, who are the most pitiable. A high profile campaign organised by the Disability Benefits Consortium and the UK Disabled People’s Council leaves us in no doubt that they are The Hardest Hit.

Like I say, there is much to complain about. As Claudia Wood writes for Demos: ‘Disabled people are disproportionately reliant both on welfare benefits and public services’. Not only are 3.5 million people currently claiming cut-threatened disability-related benefits, Wood reminds us, many are also seeing the care services they rely on threatened by 28% cuts to local authority budgets. So the last thing I want to do is diminish the difficulties that people with disabilities are facing now more than ever. Quite the opposite. I will try to show over a series of blog posts here and in the Huffington Post, that it is only by challenging the diminishing of disabled people themselves, that the assault on their standard of living and on the quality of care they receive can be challenged.

Public managers should stop telling people how to behave

First published in The Guardian’s Public Sector Network

There is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the public policyagenda today. While on the one hand we are urged to build a big society where citizens run things for themselves, on the other we are told to ‘nudge’ them in this or that direction and make decisions on their behalf.

Something odd has happened to public services over the past decade or so. Services that were once a part of the social settlement that led to the creation of the welfare state, have increasingly become a tool for telling people how to behave. Whether it’s creating better citizens or trying to change their lifestyles, the only question raised is how best to do it.

The government’s approach to recycling is to fund local initiatives rewarding good residents with points redeemable at local retailers. “We want to see people helping us to boost recycling rates by putting out their rubbish correctly,” said environment secretary Caroline Spelman as she launched a public consultation on the matter, “but bullying them with fines is not the way to do it.” Opponents, particularly local authorities none too keen on reverting to the weekly bin collection, only object that scarce public funds would be better spent on other behaviour-controlling initiatives such as the cuts-threatened SureStart centres.

The world of social care, while rhetorically in favour of more independence, choice and control, for its users, is obsessed with vetting the behaviour of staff, volunteers, or anybody else that might come into contact with a vulnerable child or adult. The NHS, of Olympic opening ceremony fame, may be free at the point of use. But no expense is spared on posters in GP surgeries and hospital waiting rooms telling patients that they must change their lifestyles – stop smoking, exercise more, lose weight – or to remind expectant mothers that ‘breast is best’.

Housing associations are as busy managing the lives of their tenants as they are managing the housing stock and more interested in building communities than building new homes. Schools apparently cater more to the contents of children’s school dinners and lunchboxes and managing misbehaviour in the classroom, than filling young people’s minds with something that might encourage them to sit still for a moment. Meanwhilea mass movement co-ordinator for the Olympic and Paralympic Games’ opening and closing ceremonies is apparently using dance – in consultation with the Metropolitan Police and the Criminal Justice Board – to reduce youth crime.

Indeed for those driving public policy today the delivery of public services is not the point. It is all about shaping new ‘active citizens’ the better to meet corporate objectives. But surely this gets things back to front? A truly active citizen acts of their own accord and not according to the imperatives of public management. The good news is that by ditching the policing of people’s behaviour we might emulate the vision of a big society in which responsible citizens take the reins. This is why we should adopt an alternative approach: one that genuinely enables people’s autonomy rather than smothering their initiative.

Making a song and dance about redundancy

Its 11 months now since I was made redundant after more than a decade working in local government. As I wrote at the time, I had mixed feelings on my exit. Whatever the size of the redundancy cheque – and mine just about saw me through – in the current economic climate there is something slightly terrifying about being let go. At the same time I remember how I felt like one of the lucky ones. It was the poor sods left behind that I really felt sorry for. They would have to continue as before but in a working environment still less hospitable to their endeavours.

While the writing career hasn’t quite taken off – well, it still isn’t paying the bills – the sense of elation at being freed of the obligations of public service was undeniable. I hasten to add that I have since returned as a consultant and with a new enthusiasm for the day job. But such is the individuation of our working (and non-working) lives these days – that’s my excuse anyway – I had yet to take stock of the creative talents of those around me. It was only when I had all the time in the world to scroll through their Facebook updates that I discovered that they had so much more to offer.

So I thought as the lights were dimmed for the second night of a short run of the intriguingly titled Redundancy the Musical, written and composed by a former colleague of mine. That Naomi Lowde was able to find inspiration in what is the grey managerial world of local government is quite something. That she made it entertaining too was a bonus. So, while these creatives are being let loose on the world – and they’ll no doubt find ever more inventive ways of making art and making ends meet – I can’t help feeling that a public sector long past being able to harness such things is the poorer for it.

Why the big society should prompt a clean-up in the charity sector

First published in Guardian

The charity sector has lost its way and seems to have given up on its founding notions. We are seeing a rather unseemly scramble for funding as charities seek to retain what they can of their state hand-outs while public services are cut. Or fundraisers, particularly those pesky chuggers, seemingly unacquainted with the causes for which they are apparently campaigning. Volunteers are expected to be as interested in their own employability as they are in helping other people. And the sector is apparently more interested in contracts and compacts than campaigns and causes.

I don’t think we should blame the cuts or the “big society”, as many in the sector do, for the problems charities face. The whole point of the big society – and the reason why I welcomed it at first – was that it proclaimed itself to be against an overbearing big state. We were told it was for the idea that people are able to do things for themselves, and to run their own lives without being “supported” all the time. But it seems that the charity sector doesn’t see the big society in quite the same way, and the inference that it would not play the starring role in the coalition’s big idea really rankled.

“We are the big society”, it screamed. But is this true? At the same time that the sector has been claiming to represent us – to be the 99% (to borrow a phrase) – it has also boasted of its special relationship with the state. There is little pretence from sector leaders that it has any real independence, or indeed that this should be a problem. This “dual role” as both campaigner and service provider is described as a positive boon, allowing it influence that it wouldn’t otherwise have. But it also means that charities don’t stand for anything much anymore. The sector has no identity of its own, straddling both state and society. And so the promise of the big society, already held back by the prejudices of a parochial political culture, has become just another argument about funding, rooted in the charity sector’s historical sense of entitlement.

To the extent that charities have increasingly focused on providing services rather than campaigning, no matter how good a job they do they are no longer charities in any meaningful sense. The Shelters, NSPCCs and RSPCAs of the charity world bear little resemblance to their former selves. They struggle with their dual identity as very sizeable public servants, on the one hand, and rather compromised campaigners, on the other. Is it any wonder that public trust in charities is reportedly “second only in volatility to its trust in banks“? Nobody knows what they’re for any more. By shifting the focus of their work from tackling a social problem to managing their relationship with state bodies, they neglect what it is that gave them their reason for being in the first place.

My experience working with local government and the charity sector in one of the areas most affected by the August riots has been instructive. People have been coming forward, wanting to do something. The authorities have been going on about how uninterested and disengaged people are, and yet when they have come knocking on the door, are at a loss as to what to do with them. This has been interpreted by charity leaders as a problem created by the cuts – about not having the resources, and in particular the volunteer managers – to respond to this unexpected outpouring of community spirit. But I’m not so sure. I think it is their disjoint from the communities they claim to represent and serve that gets in the way of capturing that spirit.

The authorities – and I include the charity sector here – were taken aback that communities were rather more capable of building themselves than they’d imagined. That much-sought-after “sense of community” did what big society advocates and critics alike said it couldn’t – it emerged of its own accord. The clean-ups were organised overnight on Facebook and Twitter by impromptu “pop-up” community groups. Volunteers got their brooms out before the smoke – both metaphorical and real – had settled, and then went their separate ways. Some wondered whether we were finally seeing the big society in action, but not in a good way.

One way or another, the big society is doomed. The charity sector doesn’t have the resources to deliver it. We ordinary folk are not to be trusted with it. And, as some have noted, Cameron and his government have been talking a lot less about it anyway, as it has increasingly been seen as a byword for the cuts. This is a shame, not only because the big society preceded the cuts, but because its prospects should never have hinged on the cuts in the first place. It should have been a project for freeing up society, and creating a new culture of self-reliance, not a programme for government and its friends in the extended state sector to argue over. And yet, despite a sector seemingly intent on digging its own grave, we might try to breathe new life into the idea of charity. One more suited to today. And we might still resurrect some of the more appealing aspects of the big society, whatever we decide to call it. Maybe that way, rather than it being a clean-up for the charity sector, we can claim it for ourselves.

This is an edited version of a speech I gave at this weekend’s Leeds Summat

Breaking news!#opswp and #bigsociety buried by #notw

You may not be familiar with the first of these hash tags. I refer to the Open Public Services White Paper and not for the first time. I’ve also posted on the protests against public sector cuts and the pretence that only the Tories like them.  Indeed, I went so far as to argue that the public sector could do with losing a few pounds … it is crowding out initiative. Or so I said in a piece for The Guardian. Its hard to push through radical change when ‘submerged in the politics of U-turn, compromise and painstaking public reassurance’. That’s according to Gavin Kelly at the New Statesman. He says the NHS debacle has both ‘overshadowed it and undercut its ambitions’.  Its not radical, if the truth be told, either. Its just another reform in the ‘modernising’ tradition of Blair et al. The NOTW scandal has deemed everything else unnewsworthy. But still I barely noticed it myself. And we social policy wonks have supposedly been waiting on the proverbial tenter hooks for this moment.

Having said that, who can object to calls for ‘more freedom, more choice and more local control’. (These were the words Cameron used at the launch of the white paper.) From personal budgets to free schools and residents ‘taking control’ of local services, at least on the face of it there is much to recommend these reforms in my view. As I’ve also posted here, we are not victims, and campaigners against public service reforms, and against the cuts, need to remember that. Of course this sort of thing can easily become an apology for offloading the state’s responsibilities, but I’d rather side with those arguing for responsible, autonomous citizens doing it for themselves, than with those who hide behind ‘the vulnerable’ to defend underperforming services. Scepticism about easy rhetoric is one thing. But cynicism comes far too easily to those who oppose each and every coalition policy proposal as a matter of prejudice rather than judgement.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if the reforms really were a threat to the ‘cherished’ institutions that Polly Toynbee thinks we’re so smitten with. But in truth the reforms are, as the Telegraph puts it, a ‘modest step in the right direction’. A very modest step. They are timid and 5 months behind schedule, betraying a profound loss of nerve in government, even in that truly most cherished of notions, Cameron’s ‘big idea’. As Polly Curtis reminds us: ‘where once the white paper was described as paving the way for a “big society bill”, the phrase big society now appears only once in the whole paper’. That most beloved of brands is looking as toxic as NOTW, though I suspect its decline will be less spectacular.