Best of the frontline bloggers (week ending 28th September 2012) – ‘Plebgate’ special edition

We love public and voluntary service bloggers. At their best, they capture the day-to-day reality of public services in a way that Westminster-commentators can’t – and they have the real expertise and insights we need to improve social policy. Here’s our selection of the best frontline blogs we’ve read this week. Do send us your suggestions for great posts we’ve missed – and those frontline bloggers we should follow in the future.

Policing

Manchester police plebs are doubleplusgood

From Inspector Gadget

Posted on 22nd September 2012

“This current government’s dealings with us are becoming a charade. It might be that we have to try to do something about this, without giving any ground if possible. The deaths of Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone have shown both sides that this is not a game, as if we needed reminding.”

Inspector Gadget reminds us of the contradictions in the Government’s messages about the police force – praising the work of officers whilst cutting their jobs, pay and pensions.

Sense and senselessness

From PCBloggs

Posted on 23rd September 2012

“How do you write a piece about “what it’s like to be a female police officer”, when what it’s like is almost exactly like being a male police officer?”

Sgt Ellie Bloggs reflects on what life is like for policewomen on the frontline in light of the deaths of PCs Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes. She also speculates on what this means for the debate about arming the police. See also her comment piece in the Telegraph.

Education

Personal and professional conduct

From Teaching Science

Posted on 26th September 2012

“After all, they can hardly object to us holding them to the same standards they ask of us…”

Since teachers are provided with guidance from policymakers about their ‘personal and professional conduct’, why shouldn’t teachers provide the equivalent guidance for policymakers? And what would the guidance say?

Disability

The world is my activism

From Same Difference

Posted on 25th September 2012

“Our strength is our differences and where they overlap. It is unfortunate that at present we live in a society and under a government where the opposite appears to be extolled. We find that our basic rights are under threat, seen as luxury and privilege. The crips have had it too good, now we must conform to old stereotypes of being ‘the vulnerable’, in need of ‘care’ provided by a system that knows what we need better than we do.”

Guest blogger Penny Pepper reflects on how her activism informs her writing, and how changes in people’s thinking don’t always have to come from ‘loud aggressive action’.

Health

The looming crisis in the hospital sector

From Mark Newbold

Posted on 26th September 2012

“So we have a developing crisis in the acute sector. Hospital trusts must achieve 5% and upwards each year in efficiency improvements, without the annual income increases they have had before. They must also, according to received wisdom, reduce bed capacity as care ‘shifts to the community’. And they must do these whilst maintaining at least current levels of operational performance, quality, and safety. It is hard to believe the sector will survive the coming years unchanged. But what options do boards have?”

This week the Care Services Minister Norman Lamb admitted that care services are under “enormous strain”, following new Public Health Minister Anna Soubry’s acknowledgement last week that the Government “screwed up” its NHS reforms. In this post Mark Newbold casts a light on the growing crisis in the acute sector because of the Government’s £20 billion ‘efficiency savings’ and argues that a ‘whole system approach’ is needed to reduce demand.

Professionals, patients and social media

From The Not So Big Society

Posted on 26th September 2012

“Earlier this week I met up for a pint with Victoria Betton, author of the Digital Mental Health blog. This turned into quite an in-depth conversation about social media, and the way it’s used by people who work in or use mental health services. After we met I decided to jot down some of the thoughts and ideas we were bouncing about, and put them up in a blog post.”

Zarathustra believes that a chill has set in over the health blogging world, with professionals increasingly cautious in what they tweet or blog about and wonders whether professional cautiousness might swing the other way.

Mental health

One vision

From: Mental Health Cop

Posted on 25th September 2012

“I’m not sure anyone knows the size of the problem, regarding how many people with mental health problems become involved in the criminal justice process. I’ve stated previously that if we leave the police to their own devices, they will spot around 12-15% of detainees in police custody and suspect a mental health problem which needs at least the Force Medical Examiner’s attention. If the custody sergeant had fired off a list of all people arrested in the preceding 24 hours to the local mental health trust, they would have found that as many as 50% of those people arrested are known, have been known or need to be known by secondary care mental health services.”

Mental Health Cop argues that we need to better ‘co-join’ our criminal justice and mental health systems around a single vision of what they are trying to achieve, especially if we are to preserve public trust in their actions.

If you’re a frontline blogger, do send us your latest blogs on policy issues or posts from the past that you’re particularly proud of, and they could be included in next week’s round-up. Get in touch with us at: info@guerillapolicy.org or via Twitter @guerillapolicy 


Consultation can’t fix our broken politics – we need new ways to engage the public in policymaking

Is consultation broken – or is it our political system? Consultation seems to have become the lightening rod for general discontents about politics and policymaking. Let’s improve consultation  but let’s also rethink how we do policy and politics at the same time.

In the Open Policy project with the Democratic Society in association with the Cabinet Office, we’re exploring what ‘open policymaking’ means in practice, and how we make it effective and democratic. But we’re starting the project in consultation – what works, what doesn’t, and how it can be improved.

A widely held view of consultation is that it is a sop – an exercise that governments are legally required to undertake but which rarely changes policies that have already been decided. This might be both broadly true and largely unfair. Consultation is only one mechanism, one particular stage in the policy process; it was never intended as the sole mechanism for engaging ‘the public’, let alone to ensure that policies have a democratic mandate that other parts of the political process have failed to invest in them.

In our previous post for this project we suggested how open policy represents a challenge to consultation. For us, taken to its logical conclusion (to its greatest openness), ‘open policy’ means we need to develop a radically different approach to policy and research. In terms of social policy, this means developing approaches that enable public service practitioners and services users to conduct and engage in research and policy analysis directly. These groups are at the frontline of public services and social issues, and as a result they have practical expertise and experience that could be used to improve social policy, especially to make policy more credible and pragmatic.

Where does this leave today’s approach to consultation? Consultations are often about what government intends to do. It hardly makes sense to complain when government does what it said it intended to (indeed, we commonly criticize government for the opposite). In the case of particularly contentious policies or those that haven’t been sufficiently publicly debated, consultation will never be able to resolve the perceived lack of a public mandate.

As a thought experiment, just imagine a consultation process that was much more ‘open’ – one whereby policy did change dramatically compared to what was originally proposed. The problem immediately becomes apparent: government could in theory find itself in an endless ‘consultation loop’, with each new stage of consultation radically changing the policy in question, to the extent that a new round of consultation would be required to accompany it. Government would never get anything done, and quite rightly this would generate accusations of endless ‘dithering’ and ‘u-turns’ – of being in office but not in power.

In recognition of the devalued nature of consultations and possibly the ‘one-size-fits-all’ manner in which too many consultations are approached, the Government has announced it is moving to a more “proportionate and targeted approach” (this announcement produced what is perhaps the least thrilling headline ever on the BBC News website). The new guidelines recognise the need to “avoid creating unrealistic expectations” by making it clear where policy has been finalised and will not be subject to change as a result of the consultation. This makes sense – much of the criticism directed at consultations stems from unrealistic or inaccurate expectations among respondents. The guidance recommends instead that the objectives of any consultation should be clear, and depend to a great extent on the type of issue and the stage in the policy-making process.

However, the new guidance also risks replicating the current confusion about consultation by advising that: “Engagement should begin early in policy development when the policy is still under consideration and views can genuinely be taken into account.” From a democratic point of view this is unarguable – but the problem is that consultation can’t hope to meet these aspirations. ‘Public consultations’ in most cases aren’t – they don’t reach the public or garner many responses from them. They also aren’t really a form of deliberation; they’re not about policy formulation, rather they are more commonly about policy adjustment. Why be cynical about what should be obvious? Government sometimes makes the mistake of trying to appear as if it is engaged in open policy formulation when it isn’t, but we don’t have to collude in this and then blame government when this turns out not to be the case.

We need new forms of participation for early policy development, and for research, evidence-gathering and analysis. This isn’t and can never be the job of consultation. Unless we create a much clearer distinction between consulting on policies that government intends to enact, and developing new policy agendas where government isn’t sure what should be done, we will see much more of what we call ‘guerilla policy’ – grassroots policy research and development that people and organisations do for themselves without being given ‘permission’ by the policy establishment. There have always been campaigns and protests of course; what’s different now is that people can mobilise, coordinate and share information so much more quickly – including to overturn official policy (or at least severely undermine its credibility). We happen to think that we need more guerilla policy – but we recognise that government might not.

What’s important about this project is that it encompasses how we can improve consultations today, but also how we can develop radical new forms of engagement in  policy tomorrow. The extent of the crisis in democratic legitimacy suggests we need to do both. Sorting out which is which will be crucial to our work. So in the spirit of the exercise, let us know your view – are there aspects of consultation we should retain, or does ‘open policy’ require us to start again with a blank sheet of paper? Comment on this site or on the Open Policy forum for open policymaking and better consultation.


We don’t need secret recordings – the policy establishment’s disdain for public service workers is hidden in plain sight

“Best you learn your f***ing place. You don’t run this f***ing government. You’re f***ing plebs. I’ll have your f***ing job for this.” So ranted the Government’s Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell to members of SO6, the Diplomatic Protection Group guarding Downing Street, according to the Sun newspaper. Unlike Mitt Romney’s recent remarks we don’t have the secretly-recorded video footage, but whether Mitchell said these exact words doesn’t matter. The policy establishment’s disdain for public service workers is there for all to see – just look at their policies and how they develop them.

Andrew Mitchell claims he actually said: “You guys are supposed to f***ing help us.” Whatever his actual words, Mitchell’s tirade was especially tasteless given that the group of officers he swore at included a female officer, just over 24 hours after the murders of PCs Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes in Manchester. It’s also pretty special to verbally abuse the people who spend their working lives protecting you. Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation, said it was “hard to fathom how someone who holds the police in such contempt could be allowed to hold a public office.” Unfortunately, it’s not that hard to fathom at all – indeed such attitudes appear to be the driving force behind much public service reform over the past 30 years or so.

Much commentary has focused on the class dimensions of ‘Gate-gate’ (and whether or not Mitchell uttered the apparently politically lethal word ‘plebs’). As the Sun Says: “It is something a smug, fabulously-rich snob might say to belittle his badly-behaved butler. And as such it reinforces the view that millions of ordinary hard- working voters already have …That Britain is run by an upper-class clique — happily slapping VAT on pasties and freezing pensioners’ allowances while handing tax cuts to the super-rich.” Benedict Brogan in the Telegraph wasn’t alone in noting the potential toxicity of the incident to the Tories, but also that such behaviours aren’t unique to one party: “Labour is declaring itself appalled, though frankly that’s a bit rich from the party whose previous leader failed to shake the copper’s hand outside No10 and called an old lady a ‘bigot’.” Such incidents are cock-ups; they also indicate an underlying elitism and detachment prevalent in the political establishment.

Unlike Mitt Romney’s “47 per cent” remarks, we don’t have video footage (yet) of what Mitchell said. But like Romney, what the police offers claim Mitchell said to them represents an essentially dismissive attitude to working people – a worldview described by Paul Krugman in the New York Times this week with reference to the Romney video: “…the modern Republican Party just doesn’t have much respect for people who work for other people, no matter how faithfully and well they do their jobs. All the party’s affection is reserved for “job creators,” aka employers and investors. Leading figures in the party find it hard even to pretend to have any regard for ordinary working families.”

Much the same attitude seems to be prevalent in the policy establishment here regarding public service workers – that they are somehow ‘failures’ for not having had the entrepreneurial zeal to have established their own internet marketing companies (or something equally socially productive), having decided instead to fritter away their time serving others – educating children, treating patients, cleaning streets and so on.

In the case of Mitchell’s outburst, we don’t need to see the video footage from Downing Street’s security cameras, since the policy establishment’s view of public service workers is hidden in plain sight. If the policy establishment had a greater genuine regard for the people who provide public services, they might deign to engage them in working out how public services can be improved, and especially in how policy is developed such that it supports this improvement. Instead, public service workers are more typically regarded as the ‘problem’ to be resolved (and as interests to be battled) – part of the obstructive ‘state monopolies’ that need to be broken up, rather than sources of expertise and insight that should be recognised and respected. This explains why all the main political parties would like to ‘liberate’ public sector workers so that they run their own providing organisations as part of a competitive market in public services – at least then they might join the vaunted ranks of the ‘wealth creators’, albeit at a lowly rank.

The issue then is not so much social class as the types of social occupation now common in the political establishment. It’s probably not a coincidence that both Mitt Romney and Andrew Mitchell have backgrounds in management consultancy – Romney in Boston Consulting before moving to Bain, and Mitchell as a Senior Strategy Advisor for Accenture. In this respect, both are typical of a political establishment that comprises people who have never worked in public services but nonetheless feel they know how services can be ‘made’ to work better by (re-)ordering those who do.

Perhaps then the most helpful reaction to Mitchell’s outburst has been from an unnamed Cabinet minister, who suggested to the Telegraph that he should consider volunteering to work alongside police for a few days as a penance. “It’s what you do in this sort of thing, isn’t it?” the minister said. “A few days in a high-visibility jacket with the cops could be just the thing for Andrew.”


Best of the frontline bloggers (week ending 21st September 2012)

We love public and voluntary service bloggers. At their best, they capture the day-to-day reality of public services in a way that Westminster-commentators can’t  and they have the real expertise and insights we need to improve social policy. Here’s our selection of the best frontline blogs we’ve read this week. Do send us your suggestions for great posts we’ve missed – and those frontline bloggers we should follow in the future.

Health

A rare shaft of light

From The Jobbing Doctor

Posted on 15th September 2012

“Anna Soubry, the new junior minister at the Department [of Health], is reported to say that the Government screwed up by not engaging with the professions. She is right, although they never really intended to win hearts and minds: we are not idiots and could always see what was planned. This comment is a shaft of light in the murk of the plotting to break up the NHS.”

The Jobbing Doctor, a GP working in a large industrialised conurbation outside London, argues that the Government health reforms are not about empowering the professions but a detailed and planned assault on the service – supported by all the main political parties and a ‘tiny list of supporters’ to provide cover.

Education

A new summing-up

From Scenes from the Battleground

Posted on 16th September 2012

“The central contention of this blog is that our state school system is simply not good enough. It does not provide a decent quality of education for the vast majority, and most would avoid it if they could afford to. Too many people with power over education are content to provide a service that they would not think good enough for their own children.”

A dumbed-down curriculum and teaching methods, the ‘behaviour crisis’, and bureaucratic and incompetent management: the problems facing the education system as described by an ‘utterly dissatisfied’ secondary school teacher – and what the future holds.

Social care

Consulting on the CQC

From The Not So Big Society

Posted on 20th September 2012

“For a regulator to have public confidence, the public have to know what they do, what they are responsible for and what they are not responsible for. …Inspectors could have a greater visibility online and using broader social media to communicate with the public – not just through PR people. I want to know what inspectors do every day. I’d love to see a regular blog from an inspector (without needing to mention any specific services but just with broad themes – generally frontline blogs are more interesting than management blogs!)”

Ermintrude, a ‘social worker by trade but so much more’, reviews the new draft strategy for the health and adult social care services regulator the Care Quality Commission – and argues for a much more people-based approach.

Disability

Care is care. Let’s stand together for political and social change

From The Caregivers’ Living Room

Posted on 19th September 2012

“The thing is …we are all sitting around here talking about big ideas like nurturing leadership in our disabled youth population and whether we should lobby for more disability arts initiatives. What I think we should talk about is whether in ten years time, there will be anyone around to wipe our bums. I believe we are heading toward a time when giving care will be devalued and we will all end up being warehoused in institutions with lousy care and no one will notice.”

Donna Thomson, former actor, director and teacher, now parent to a disabled son and with a ‘second career’ as a disability activist, reflects on the challenge she once heard in a meeting of activists – and the need to think like a movement in order to achieve political and social change for the good of families and the future.

A perfect storm

From Welsh Wallace

Posted on 17th September 2012

“…according to the new test for the benefits I wasn’t disabled. I could pick up a pencil off the floor (regardless I had to feel around for it for a good five minutes first). I can walk (regardless I can only stand for about 5 minutes before my spine gives out) but enough in their words to walk from a taxi to an office. …So because I passed these “tests” I was refused on those grounds for disability benefit. Being blind was not an issue because I could still walk so with that logic walking a few steps enabled me to see where I was going, to read letters, to cross the roads without danger just as any sighted person could. It was a miracle! I was cured!”

A powerful post on what it’s like to ‘walk in the shoes’ of a blind man – and to undergo the disability test when you’re having a very bad week.

Welfare

Universal Credit – how is this simplification?

From DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts)

Posted on 16th September 2012

“Overpayments under the new system will not be subject to the same rights of dispute which currently exist, so many claimants simply won’t be able to properly contest an unfair decision. When government is asked about the problems all of this creates they stick to script and tell us all how ‘work pays’. The emphasis on work is backed up by an assurance that simplifying the benefits system makes it more possible to transition from welfare to work; the new highway for making the transition is Universal Credit which we are all told is ‘on track’.”

Universal Credit is meant to merge all working age benefits into a ‘single streamlined payment.’ Not according to this detailed analysis it doesn’t, originally from the MyLegal forum.

Previous reads

Here are a few more great posts from the past few weeks.

Welfare

Problem?

From This is My Blog

Posted on 12th June 2012

“The big line being pushed by our beloved government this week is about “problem families” and the need to “crack down” on them. …So what makes a “problem family”? How do we define the country’s “worst scumbags”?

Mary, a 30-year-old knitter living with her husband, a robot vacuum cleaner – and ME – finds the Government’s definition of ‘problem families’ uncomfortably close to (her childhood) home.

Policing

The high price of cutting costs

From Minimum Cover

Posted on 5th July 2012

“…there is sometimes a huge chasm between the headline saving and the bottom line cost. Some officers, including me, have resorted to sorting these types of issue at their own cost on more than one occasion. It’s just what we do to keep things running smoothly.”

M.C.’s blog – a “mixture of personal experience, factual accounts, [and] a modicum of fiction here and there to ease the literary process and protect the innocent” – reflects on how ‘cost-savings’ have turned replacing a 29 pence light bulb into a kerfuffle costing £100.

Standing outside the fire

From Cate Moore’s Blog

Posted on 12th June 2012

“I am telling you to play clever. And safe. You do not need to shy away from your ideals and the things that you care passionately about. Indeed you are letting the public down if you do. Speak truth, speak it fairly and speak it pleasantly.”

A retired policewoman encourages other officers to use social media to comment on government policy – but to do it carefully.

If you’re a frontline blogger, do send us your latest blogs on policy issues or posts from the past that you’re particularly proud of, and they could be included in next week’s round-up. Get in touch with us at: info@guerillapolicy.org or via Twitter @guerillapolicy


Open policy is a challenge to government consultations – and an opportunity

More than 40 years ago the American sociologist Sherry Arnstein developed the ‘ladder of participation’ to represent the degree of involvement by citizens in decision-making. Arnstein’s levels range from ‘non-participation’ at the bottom of the ladder – at worse, the manipulation of citizens – to ‘citizen power’ and true citizen control at the top. One of the challenges for government today is that many people increasingly agree with Arnstein’s view of consultation as basically a form of tokenism. More positively, Arnstein’s ladder points to the possibility of different forms of engagement that could contribute to a better, more trusting relationship between citizens and government.

The widespread skepticism about consultation reflects a broader context of course – the steady decline in the number of people who say they are engaged and interested in politics and who trust politicians. To its credit, the current Government has recognised the extent of the problem and is trying to do something about it. Its Civil Service Reform White Paper published in June 2012 announced the Government’s commitment to ‘open policy making’, that:

“Open policy making will become the default. Whitehall does not have a monopoly on policy making expertise. We will establish a clear model of open policy making.”

Our own project, Guerilla Policy, is about developing a radically different approach to policy and research. We want to develop a way for public service practitioners and services users to conduct research and policy analysis. These groups are at the frontline of public services and social issues, and as a result they have practical expertise and experience that could be used to improve social policy, especially to make policy more credible and pragmatic.

Unsurprisingly then, we agree with the Government that open policy is an idea whose time has come. Policy development has been too closed, to a too narrow set of participants, for too long. We agree with the Government that Whitehall hasn’t got a monopoly on policy expertise, and we’ve made some initial suggestions about the ways in which Government can make open policy a reality, including by making open policy itself an open and transparent agenda and by opening it up to new participants.

One of the challenges facing open policy is the widespread lack of confidence in consultation, and whether the conventional approach to consultation can be improved or needs to be ditched altogether. Two relatively recent examples point to how significant doubts about the authenticity of consultation processes can very quickly translate into very strong reactions against the policies being consulted on.

First example: more than 538,000 people took to social media to protest against the consultation which proposed to sell off England’s forests (this included a major campaign by the online community 38 Degrees). In the face of an avalanche of protest, Caroline Spelman, then Environment Secretary was forced to suspend the consultation and apologized in a statement to the House of Commons for the way it had been handled: “I am sorry. We got his one wrong. We have listened to people’s concerns.”

Second example: earlier this year the Spartacus ‘Responsible Reform’ report was researched, written and promoted by a band of disabled activists who felt that a consultation on welfare reform was being manipulated by the Department for Work and Pensions. The report, based on a rigorous analysis of responses to the Government’s own consultation on reform of Disability Living Allowance, revealed the overwhelming opposition to the Government’s proposed reforms. The report took the social media world by storm, including trending number one on Twitter.

It’s not hard to see why this is happening; research by the Consultation Institute suggests that in only 40 per cent of consultations is it possible to make a clear link from the outcomes back to the responses received. In response, we are witnessing the emergence of new forms of ‘unsanctioned’ citizen consultation and mobilization. There’s always been protest of course, but these citizen-led campaigns, supported by social media and the internet, are increasingly fast-moving, flexible and distributed. We call this ‘guerilla policy’ – citizens stepping into the gap when they think the political establishment is failing to recognize, let alone act on, their views.

Such campaigns are difficult for policymakers to anticipate, and hard for them to respond to. Fundamentally, these campaigns aren’t just calling for different policies in the areas they care about; they’re also calling for a different way of making policy. In this respect, guerilla policy also offers government the possibility of a more positive approach, one that enables citizens to shape and inform policy in a more meaningful way. Social media-supported campaigns have the power to overwhelm consultation processes if the public loses confidence in the integrity of these processes. But social media also potentially offers a cheap and easy way to engage many more citizens to improve policy.

For us, what’s especially missing in consultation (to quote from the Government’s own proposals) is how to “enable policy to reflect the real-world experiences of citizens and harness public engagement with the policy making process.” We’re not suggesting that government delegates its ultimate responsibility for policymaking – for full ‘citizen control’ in Arnstein’s terminology. But the challenge for government – and for the open policy project we’re conducting with DemSoc – is that unless we find new ways to improve how to develop policy such that it reflects the experience and insight of citizens, then citizens will increasingly do this for themselves, working against government rather than with it.

This blog is the first post for our new project, in partnership with The Democratic Society. You can get involved by visiting the discussion space for the project, hosted by DemSoc in association with the Cabinet Office – and of course you can also share your views on this site.


Open policy needs people to step outside of institutions to tell the truth

Christopher Hitchens used to evaluate the credibility of any person or organisation by their willingness to cite ‘evidence against interests’, that is, to acknowledge facts that are contrary to their own position. It’s a good test – and one that many policymakers, commentators and think tanks would fail regularly. With this in mind, we should challenge our own view that social policy would be better if it was informed by the people who use and provide public services – after all, doesn’t the Hillsborough cover-up show that we can’t trust bodies such as the police not to put their own interests before the public interest?

We’ve argued previously against the view, promoted in particular by right-wing think tanks and commentators but implicitly taken up by much of thinktankland, that public sector workers and ‘user groups’ need to be largely ignored in policy development because they are inevitably self-interested and self-serving. Our view is that social policy would be better if it was informed by the expertise, experience and insight from the frontline.

In the case of Hillsborough, as the publication last week of the report of the Independent Panel confirmed, the police engaged in an extensive and coordinated cover-up of the truth. This went all the way to the top of the South Yorkshire Police. Chief Constable Peter Wright authorised the alteration of police statements to delete words like ‘chaos’, ‘fear’, and ‘confusion’ in criticism of the police operation, in order to enable the police and others to blame Liverpool supporters for the disaster. 164 police statements were altered in the wake of the disaster, and 116 of these received substantial changes to remove comments “unhelpful to the force’s case.”

The coroner also took blood alcohol levels from all of the deceased, including children, to try to draw a link between the late arrival of fans and heavy drinking. Perhaps most sickeningly of all, police officers carried out computer checks on those who had died in an attempt to impugn their reputations. As one comment on the Liverpool Echo‘s website asked last week: “How could such a cover up have happened? So many different authorities getting away with lies. And to get away with it for so long is simply astonishing. They must know the hurt and the pain that they have caused for so long. And still they continued to hide behind the lies, carrying on with their own lives and careers.”

This type of behaviour is not confined to the police of course. NHS staff have abused and neglected patients, and hospitals have tried to cover it up and threaten whistle blowers. Charities have mistreated and ignored the vulnerable adults and children they claim to care for. Public sector trade unions have bullied their own members and failed to represent their real views and interests; they have also stopped managers from dealing with poorly performing employees or from improving services for the public. Given this, why should we listen to the people who provide services? Won’t they always represent their own interests first?

The problem is institutions, not individuals. There will always be some people who act badly and harm others, including inevitably in public services. But only badly led and managed organisations can effectively legitimize such behaviour and try to silence those who challenge it. When we argue that the people who provide public services should have a greater role in policy, we don’t mean a stronger role for those organisations such as large charities or trade unions that can already promote their views to policymakers, rather we’re talking about the individuals on the frontline who are ignored not only by policymakers but also sometimes by the organisations that claim to represent them.

Could the Hillsborough cover-up ever happen again? Some columnists have suggested that the ‘forensic transparency’ now offered by mobile phones and Twitter would make it much more difficult and that there is a danger of over-reacting to scandals such as the Hillsborough cover-up by not trusting any public institutions. But the best mainstream media article of the week for me was by Philip Johnston in the Daily Telegraph, who recognised the broader implications:

“Over the years, the police have been one British institution that has proudly stood comparison with the very best in the world: unarmed (though less so than they used to be), impartial, independent and largely incorruptible. Perhaps that was always a naive caricature; but it was a view so deeply ingrained in our national psyche that we were unwilling to give credence to powerful evidence that suggested otherwise. However, it was not only the police who let down the Hillsborough families: the very institutions that most of us trust to get to the bottom of things – the courts, the media and Parliament – were all culpable.”

This is perhaps a rather middle class view – many working class communities have always had a less trusting view of the police – but it’s a strange week when the Guardian tells us to ‘go easy’ on the establishment and the Telegraph reminds us to be ever-watchful of those in power.

Surely the Hillsborough cover-up demonstrates that policy can’t be left to the establishment – that arrogance and remoteness breeds bad policy and leads to tragedy (as Daniel Taylor argued in the Observer yesterday). It reinforces the importance of the individuals who provide public services having a much greater voice in policy, so that they can speak freely and honestly outside of institutional interests and constraints.

Perhaps what’s most frightening about institutional power is not its ability to make evil decisions but its collective capacity for ignorance regarding of the effects of those decisions. The answer to the question from the commentator on the Liverpool Echo site is that such ignorance comes most easily to those remain safely distant from the consequences – another reason why we should listen more closely to those at the frontline, both service users and providers, rather than the policy establishment. As C. S. Lewis wrote:

“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of Admin. The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid dens of crime that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see the final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”


Best of the frontline bloggers (week ending 14th September 2012)

We’ve written before about our love of public and voluntary service bloggers, and how we’d almost always rather read a dispatch from the frontline than largely warmed-over opinion from a Westminster-centric commentator. At their best, frontline bloggers capture the day-to-day reality of public services in a way that others can’t  including the dirty, difficult, and sometimes dangerous experiences that make for real expertise and the insights we need to improve social policy. So here’s our selection of the best frontline blogs we’ve read this week. Do send us your suggestions for great posts we’ve missed – and those frontline bloggers we should follow in the future.

Policing

Dishonor Among Ranks

From The Custody Record

Posted on September 10, 2012

“The actions of such officers tarnish us all and transcend through time to today. As an honest cop I am fed up of holding up my principles and morals for inspection only to have them cast to the ground and shattered by individuals intent on giving the police a bad name. There was no room for you then and there is no room for you now. Get out of the job.”

In the wake of the release of the Hillsborough report, one copper reflects on the divided loyalties that are sometimes provoked by working at the frontline of policing.

Suicide prevention

From Mental Health Cop

Posted on September 10, 2012

“The Government will today publish a new 10-year strategy for suicide prevention.  …what we can already say is that it will need to re-address gaps which we have existed for years and which we know are spoken of, time and again. I also fear that it will be unable to address the underlying political, social and economic issues which we know contribute to suicide levels, alongside medical and psychological factors.”

On World Suicide Prevention Day, Mental Health Cop explains why the police are often put in the position of responding when personal crisis becomes a public emergency.

Social care

In the shoes of Karen (2)… a daughter’s insights into life in a care home

From Whose Shoes

Posted on September 11, 2012

“In order to safeguard vulnerable adults, I have felt the need to share this with the management at [this care home], but this is addressed to you directly so you might develop some understanding of the impact of your words and your attitude on people’s lives. It seems only fair to tell you myself.”

Here’s a moving and challenging post from ‘Karen’ (who tweets as DazeinourLives). Karen’s mother has dementia. Here Karen shares a letter she wrote complaining about an incident she witnessed in the care home whilst visiting her late father.

Education

How is it possible that no-one in England knows what a C-grade answer looks like?

From LKM

Posted on September 11, 2012

“Somewhere Gove is sitting waiting to pounce on this to make a reform announcement and I am sure we will rake over his changes time and again. But among all that analysis I hope that someone asks him thisHow will the new reform help teachers know what C (or B, or A) grade quality is? Because if teachers don’t know then we are the blind leading the blind, and no matter how ‘rigorous’, or dull, or comparable-to-Singapore our new qualifications are, there is still the same risk of this happening all over again.”

After it was revealed that OFQUAL did in fact ask at least one exam board to reconsider their GCSE boundaries, many questions can be asked, including: How is it possible that no-one in England can agree what a C grade English GCSE answer looks like?

Probation

Smoke and mirrors

From On Probation

Posted on September 11, 2012

“Payment by Results is the coalition government’s new wonder answer to everything, in fact just like the Private Finance Initiative was to the last Labour administration. Of course the latter has proved to be an utter disaster… But so attractive is the idea proving to politicians as being the next ‘magic bullet’ that the idea is being rapidly promoted everywhere and before any research as to its effectiveness is concluded.”

Welcome to the personal thoughts of Jim Brown, an ‘ordinary probation officer’ struggling to come to terms with constant change, whilst trying to do a useful job for society. In this post, Jim explains why Payment by Results is just a new ‘smoke and mirrors’ way to run public services – yet another futile attempt to get more for less.