Best of the frontline bloggers (week ending 2nd November 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.

Social care

Is there any way to improve?

From How Not to Do Social Work

Posted on 31st October 2012

“So today when I was asked the question is there any way to improve? the answer was Yes, talk to Social Workers, understand what the difficulties are in social work and where the learning is needed to develop practise including investing in social work and acknowledging that specialist knowledge is learned over a long period of time not over a fancy title.”

How Not to Do Social Work, an experienced social worker, reflects on many years of discussions about how to improve social work for children’s services, and especially the difficulty of dealing with what is still the biggest issue: defining what a vulnerable child is and at what point intervention is needed.

Education

Sorry you got a C… No Sixth Form for you!

From The 99% Blog

Posted on 1st November 2012

“I suppose all we can do is wait and hope for errors to be put right as they should be. If this works then yippee, if however it doesn’t, then we as a collective; the generation of a new age, need to establish a way for us to voice our opinion and succeed in omitting errors in society that affect us and others.”

Aaron challenges the unfairness of the GCSE exam re-grading fiasco and how it has damaged the aspirations of thousands of young people, but notes the possibility of “one last shot at justice…”

Why all teachers agree with David Laws

From Pedagoggles

Posted on 26th October 2012

“Teachers refuse to work longer than the 9-3, and as we know, those six hours are dedicated to the systematic beheading of every child’s hopes for the future.”

Good news for the Government (or possibly not), as one teacher agrees with David Laws’ recent comments about the profession fostering ‘depressingly low expectations.’

Health

More wisdom from those who think that NHS IT has landed on the moon

From Northern Doc

Posted on 1st November 2012

“…when someone who works for an organization called the NCB tells you that they are “pushing for the end of 2015 to eradicate paper from the NHS” you can bet the smart money will be buying shares in paper manufacturers.”

Northern Doc shares his doubts about the ‘next big thing in NHS IT’ – or “hugely expensive white elephant”, depending on where you stand.

Time for an update

From Life in the NHS

Posted on 28th October 2012

“I predict that once the dust has settled and the ‘bureaucracy’ has been removed, some people will be very shocked by what is left. They will be surprised that the NHS isn’t actually being run by GPs (though they have a wonderful nominal role) but by rehashed senior managers some of whom work in Leeds and many more work out in the local areas.”

A welcome return to the blogosphere to a ‘nurse, manager, wife and mum’ – and a warning about the coming chaos in a changing NHS.

Policing

Backwards to the future – A scientific(ish) experiment

From PC Bobby McPeel

Posted on 30th October 2012

“Ok, this is probably the least scientific experiment in the history of science, and I’m sure someone much more intelligent than me would tear it apart. However, I wasn’t really trying to be scientific. I am trying to make a serious point that these piecemeal police reforms that fail to recognise the unique nature of policing…”

PC McPeel (“proud to be a pleb”) does some rough maths on the Winsor reforms to see the effect on police numbers – and finds they don’t add up.

Justice

To hurt or to heal

From Ben’s Prison Blog – Lifer On The Loose

Posted on 30th October 2012

“Criminals grow up in communities, they live in them and they then harm them. It is in communities that our best chance of reclaiming people lays. To shrug off our difficult members and hide them behind high walls is short sighted, expensive, and ultimately futile.”

Previously known as “one of Britain’s best known prisoners”, PrisonerBen challenges the policy focus on prison and instead proposes a community-based alternative.

Can the Tories – or any government – be trusted with human rights?

From Jailhouselawyer’s Blog

Posted on 29th October 2012

“See, if you’re David Cameron, prisoner votes are as close to a perfect policy as you’re likely to find. Opposing them makes him look like he’s finally getting tough on the ‘faceless Belgian bureaucrats’ and ‘unelected judges’ who think they can boss us about, which looks great in front of the wing of his party mostly comprised of the elderly and mildly xenophobic. …While this might make for a calming influence in the party, and an easy news cycle for Grayling, what it amounts to is a defence of widespread disenfranchisement.”

John Hirst argues that withholding the right to vote from prisoners is really a matter of fundamental human rights, not about Europe.

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 and @guerrillapolicy


Michael Gove’s approach to education reform is the opposite of open policymaking

Education Secretary Michael Gove has unveiled “rigorous selection” tests for trainee teachers in a move he claims will improve the status of the profession and raise standards in the classroom. It’s a pity his own approach to policymaking doesn’t live up to the same standards he’s asking of teachers.

Announcing the policy, Michael Gove said: “The evidence from around the world is clear – rigorous selection of trainee teachers is key to raising the quality and standing of the teaching profession.” Despite an apparent inconsistency with previous announcements – in July Gove declared that, like their private counterparts and free schools, academies in England could employ people who are not working towards qualified teacher status (QTS) – at least this policy was based on evidence and developed by a review group of headteachers and education experts. For many of his other reforms, Michael Gove seems to make policy in secret, ignore what teachers and other experts think, and go against the best available evidence.

For example:

Michael Gove’s colleagues have committed the Government to open policy making as well as open government. The Civil Service Reform White Paper published in June 2012 contained a commitment announced 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 project with The Democratic Society is currently examining how open policy making can be made a reality.

The Government has also promoted the evidence agenda, and is considering the case for new institutions that would perform an advisory role similar to the role that NICE plays for the NHS and the Early Intervention Foundation does for early years, to help ensure commissioners in central or local government do not waste time and money on programmes that are unlikely to be effective.

No-one seems to have told Michael Gove about either of these initiatives. No wonder teachers are starting to make their own education policy.


Best of the frontline bloggers (week ending 26th October 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.

Welfare

A4E? Who are they? What are they about?

From The Big Picture

Posted on 23rd October 2012

“What are A4E up to next? Well according to David Cameron they would make an ideal company, along with our old friends G4S, to become involved in the process of Rehabilitation… The scheme will see firms such as G4S and A4e, along with charities and voluntary groups, offered cash incentives to put offenders back on the straight and narrow. We already give these companies enough money, and now we’re going to give them more? Do they have a proven track record?”

Retired and Angry, retired from the Metropolitan Police Service, examines the recent history of A4E – and doesn’t much like what he finds.

Carers

If it works, break it

From Ned Ludd Carer

Posted on 24th October 2012

“Surely, if the carers and service users find these services valuable, that should count for a lot. But in the world of cuts, they don’t care what works, what’s valuable. They just want the overspend caused by their own unrealistically low budget reduced.”

Ned Ludd, carer, gets angry when ambushed by his local council’s plans to cut personally valuable “getting a life services”.

Social care

People with dementia need an independent voice

From The Age Page

Posted on 25th October 2012

“For a variety of reasons, most older people are unable to complain or express a view on the type and nature of care they need or want to receive. Worst of all perhaps, most are unable to influence the quality of service they have every right to expect or how or where to lodge complaints, if they have any.”

Sarah Reed reflects on the ambitions in the Government’s dementia strategy, and suggests this means we need to ensure that those who struggle to speak for themselves can be heard.

Education

This much I know about…an alternative to the English Baccalaureate Certificate

From John Tomsett

Posted on 21st October 2012

“If Jeremy Hunt announced a backward-looking reform to appendix operations which would be hugely invasive and leave patients in hospital for a fortnight (such as I experienced in 1977), the medical profession would deride him. Why aren’t we deriding Gove over his EBC proposals, which are the educational equivalent?”

Headteacher John Tomsett argues that educationalists need to begin an urgent campaign to provide an alternative to the Government’s proposals for an English Baccalaureate Certificate.

Things to know about ED Hirsch and the ‘Common Cultural Literacy’ idea

From Laura McInerney (@miss_mcinerney) writing on lkmco

Posted on 23rd October 2012

“ED Hirsch’s ‘Cultural Literacy’ has become quite popular in England this week due to him featuring on a Radio 4’s Analysis and also being the subject of a blog by Daisy Christodolou, Managing Director of The Curriculum Centre. Hirsch is the man who wrote the book ‘Cultural Literacy’ which he followed by creating ‘Core knowledge‘ an age-ordered curriculum with an emphasis on facts that, if taught correctly, he argues will give children the most important cultural knowledge. But to understand his work it helps to understand its American context, as the reason for his popularity in the States is really quite different to the way his ideas are being framed in the debate here in England.”

In this post Laura McInerny describes Hirsch’s model of ‘cultural literacy’ and its roots in the US – and questions how appropriate it is for the UK.

Policing

Re-offending – ‘Payment by results’ will not work

From Inspector Gadget

Posted on 22nd October 2012

“I have read the PM’s plans for ‘payment by results’ in terms of the re-offending rates of prison inmates with interest. This will not work. A bit like trying to use the wrong gate, ministers need to listen to police on this one. I’m sure it will be shown to have worked, but it won’t work for the simple reason that these days, criminals only go to prison in the first place if they are persistent offenders.” 

Inspector Gadget argues that the use of payment by results won’t work to reduce re-offending. He speculates that this idea probably came from a think tank who in turn have been sponsored by an organisation with an interest in securing ex-offender rehabilitation contracts. Inspector Gadget argues that the most effective way to deter ex-offenders from re-offending is a lengthy stay in a closed prison, preferably far away from home.

‘Re-inventing the wheel’ or just ‘Strapping two u-turns together’

From MinimumCover

Posted on 24th October 2012

“I want us to be bold and imaginative about transforming policing and the wider criminal justice system to save time and money and deliver a better service for the public. These are the words of our ‘beloved’ Home Secretary which she used to describe her latest improvement to the way Police investigate and prosecute offences. This bold and imaginative move introduces the power for Police to independently charge a number of offences that currently require consultation with the CPS.”

MinimumCover welcomes reforms to charging powers – but questions whether Theresa May can call these proposals ‘bold’ or ‘imaginative’ when they return powers that the police used to hold previously.

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 and @guerrillapolicy


Best of the frontline bloggers (week ending 19th October 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.

Social care

What I would say to Norman Lamb

From Ermintrude2

Posted on 18th October 2012

“What I see are cuts. I see respite narrowing in terms of ability to access. I see provisions which had been helpful, closing. I see a lack of beds in the local hospitals when they are needed and I see people who need support being denied it because there are no provisions left. So take your pleasantries and policy ideas and come and spend a day with me in the community and you’ll see why I am impatient and unbelieving about the platitudes that emerge from those who don’t seem to understand what is happening ‘out there’.”

Ermintrude, who works in dementia services, speculates on what she would say if she had the opportunity to meet with Norman Lamb, the new Liberal Democrat Social Care Minister. She argues that those in positions of power – be it Ministers of Senior Managers – need to take responsibility for their policies by listening to those who work at the frontline and are responsible for putting these policies into practice.

Not the Francis report

From Whose Shoes?

Posted on 17th October 2012

“Life can often only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.It is important and necessary to look back and understand what went wrong in Mid Staffordshire and ensure that the voices of those affected have been adequately heard. But it is also vital that we now look forward and learn the lessons to create a system in which poor quality and unsafe care can no longer be ignored.”

A guest post by Laura Robinson, Policy & Communications Advisor for National Voices, raises fundamental issues around patient care and patient safety, following the independent inquiry in Mid Staffordshire. There is already much collective wisdom and widespread consensus on what needs to be done to ensure that care is safe, effective and responsive to patients’ needs. ‘Not the Francis report’, published by National Voices this week, brings this together in a series of recommendations and urges the Government and NHS leaders to drive forward improvements across the whole system of health and social care.

Lead like lambs into his hands: Is light entertainment more important than child protection?

From Secret Social Worker’s Blog

Posted on 12th October 2012

“Child protection can never be a matter for just professionals but instead must be a concern for the whole community. Those who see or know about the sexual abuse of children should have little doubt about its destructive outcome and how utterly wrong it is. Therefore there can be few excuses for allowing it to continue. There is ALWAYS something you can do.”

In this post the Secret Social Worker argues that the Savile scandal reminds us that child protection is the responsibility of the whole community, not just statutory agencies.

Social workers have a duty to join Saturday’s anti-austerity march

From the Social Work Blog

Posted on18th October 2012

“David Cameron can tell us that “we’re all in this together”, but as social workers we know this couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Lizzie Furber, a social worker and member of the Social Work Action Network, argues that social workers are in the frontline when it comes to seeing the impact of cuts. Lizzie issues a call to action for all social workers to take part in the anti-austerity march taking place in London on Saturday 20th October. She argues that cuts affect all areas of social work, with caseloads soaring.

Health

“Return the money” – is spending less on healthcare the moral thing to do?

From @micmac650

Posted on 18th October 2012

“For me this has been crystallised by the impending Scottish independence referendum. Soon we may be making the decisions about our own country – what balance of expenditures will give us the healthiest and happiest population? I’m fairly confident that diverting money from nuclear missiles to healthcare would be a good thing. But how do we balance the competing demands of a universal high speed broadband network or higher teacher-pupil ratios?”

Mark MacGregor (@micmac650) is an Associate Medical Director and consultant nephrologist in NHS Ayrshire & Arran. He is also a Health Foundation fellow. In this post he argues that clinicians need to put the days of campaigning for more resources behind them, and instead devote energies into addressing the ‘health productivity challenge’ – how do we maximise health gains within existing resources?

Democracy

From Dr Grumble

Posted on 14th October 2012

“I have never really thought that I live in a true democracy. The world’s oldest democracy is just a stock phrase I trotted out. It probably stems from the ruling classes intent on giving us plebs the illusion that we have some control over our lives. We don’t. Not much anyway.”

Dr Grumble describes how a threat of a hospital closure is being pushed through with little engagement of both GPs and consultants. The Chief Executive of the hospital states that ‘the hospital was not a democracy. It’s not. It never has been and it never will.’ Dr Grumble describes how people have been invited to take part in a formal consultation, but laments that ‘formal consultation processes are more about telling the populace what is going to happen than listening to their concerns.’

Policing

@craig2383 meets the Home Secretary

From Nathan Constable

Posted on 14th October 2012

“I told her that if she wants to make the Police political then this reg needs to go. Her response was that the Police wont be political but rather run by a democratically elected person. However I then told her that we as the Police can’t be part of that as either as Police or public as regs still governs our behavior in our personal life. I told her that we can’t publicly support any candidate in any way or even stand for election. This means that there is a direct conflict with the PCC process and the very core of Police regs. Its almost like this was a completely new thing to her.”

@craig2383 has spoken to his MP about Police Reform. It just so happens that his MP is none other than Home Secretary Theresa May. Craig shares his account of the meeting via Nathan’s blog. In the post, Craig shows the limits of May’s knowledge of the reforms that her Government is pushing through. He also points out the tension between politicisation of the police service and the rules governing police officers’ political activities.

Education

Mixed ability

From Frank Chalk

Posted on 16th October 2012

“Let’s not pretend or mince our words here – Miss Jones is simply wasting Brandon, Lee and Edward’s time. It’s not her fault – she is only human and cannot possibly deal with such a ridiculously large spectrum of abilities. Deep down, she feels that mixed ability classes seem to let down the best and the worst. All she has ever been told however, is how great it is that the school is so ‘inclusive’.”

In this post, Frank Chalk points out the challenges for teachers in meeting the needs of a diverse range of students in mixed ability classes. He argues that the system is failing higher achieving pupils and those who require more support.

Previous reads

Here’s another great post published in the last few weeks.

Taking comms back to basics

From Carolyne Mitchell

Posted on 4th October 2012

“This is comms 1.0. It’s about getting back to basics and thinking about the way we communicate with the public directly, not through the media. It’s about plain English, cutting through the crap, getting to the point and making it as easy as possible to deal with the council.”

Inspired in part by the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team, Carolyne Mitchell, a communications officer at South Lanarkshire Council, considers how local government comms needs to be less about press releases and more about changing public behaviours.

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 and @guerrillapolicy


Built to scale: the Family Independence Initiative – Jane Mansour

In this post our guest blogger Jane Mansour showcases the Family Independence Initiative in Boston, Massachusetts. The project is a good example of the principles of ‘guerilla policy’ in action. Jane is an expert and consultant in international welfare to work and the commissioning and funding of public services. She blogs regularly at Buying QP. Thanks to Jane for contributing the post, and we welcome your comments.

The argument for the benefits of user and staff involvement in policy making is considerably strengthened by numerous example of projects that have been successfully designed and delivered using this blueprint. These range from actual projects – of which FII discussed below is a great example – to the use of a crowdsourcing approach to gather solutions for identified and specific local needs. These raise questions about the extent to which this approach is scaleable, and how this can be done without losing what made them work in the first place.

This week I met Jésus Gerena, the Boston Director of the Family Independence Initiative (FII). FII families create support networks in their own communities rather than accessing help through a key-worker or institution. As an organisation it has impressive results – in the first six months of operation participating families in the Boston wing of the programme saw their incomes rise by an average of 13% and their savings by 22%.[1] These statistics and many others covering family finances, schooling (both adults and children) and health and activities are compiled monthly. The data is actively uploaded by the participating families themselves. They are paid for this, and for leading, counselling and facilitating the monthly groups they attend. These payments total in the region of $2000 a year per family.[2]

The FII was the brainchild of Maurice Lim Miller; he was honoured this week by the MacArthur Foundation with a ‘genius award’ which carries with it a grant for $500,000. It works by not helping people in poverty. No, that was not a typo. The FII do not help, staff can be (and have been) fired for doing so. What the FII does do is provide an environment in which people have opportunities to succeed. Families work together to problem solve, record their gains and losses and have access to resources should they need them.

There are the three fundamental values that underpin the organisation’s approach. Firstly, the families are in control. Secondly, there is a formal feedback loop consisting of monthly and quarterly meetings and data collecting providing peer accountability. The process of recording information in and of itself, impacts positively on behaviour. Lastly there is access to resources to move forward. These resources are often in the form of matching or doubling the contributions participants make towards education, housing or business goals, but they can also be used to meet urgent practical needs (eg. a car or dental work).

Listening to Gerena’s passion for the FII approach, it is difficult not to get excited about it, about the way that this organisation is not only challenging much of the way that social policy has been cast, but is succeeding in doing so. The scaleability of successful but reasonably small projects is fraught with difficulty. The world of public policy is littered with examples of innovative projects that are hailed, placed in the spotlight, enlarged and ‘replicated’, but that then fail to deliver on the bigger stage. This is then followed by a blame game that often focuses on delivery, sometimes on commissioning, occasionally on design.

In two years the Boston operation has grown from 35 to 200 families. Gerena thinks there is the potential to continue expanding to 1000 families but, and it is an important but, this expansion needs to happen organically through families introducing themselves and others – a combination of ‘core catalyst families’ and ‘ripple families’. Scaling up fails when the guiding values behind success are confused within the method in which they are delivered, when the ‘how’ is mistaken for the ‘why’.

There are broader public policy lessons to be learned from the work being done by FII. These are not that welfare savings can come from the wholesale removal of frontline staff, or that bids to deliver programmes should need to be scored on how often the words ‘family’ or ‘social capital’ occur, or that a new New Deal for Communities is the answer. The lessons are far more challenging than simply producing a shiny new programme.

Miller has written a brief paper identifying the changes he thinks necessary for substantial change in the outcomes for low-income families. It’s worth reading in full. His final call to action identifies four changes that need to happen:

“1. We need to more accurately communicate the resourcefulness, capacity, and caring that is the true picture of lower income families and communities

2. Funders must allow for program approaches that provide help based on family and community initiative and strengths

3. Policy makers, funders and leaders must seek direct feedback from the consumers of programs they create and respond to that feedback

4. The target families must self organize and advocate for themselves and their communities”

As I sat in the FII office, it was striking that there are clear echoes in the UK – in terms of approach, positive outcomes, frustrations with the system, but also in the difficulty in capturing the wins and replicating them either regionally or nationally. Successful, sustainable ideas are evident in individual programmes but somehow the key to why they work gets lost in translation when ‘reform’ or scaling up occurs. Why is it that successful local programmes so often fail on the big stage? To what degree would this failure be mitigated by taking a different approach to both entrenched social issues and institutional frameworks? What impact would the following considerations have on policy design?

Long vs short-term investment: FII is aimed at the working poor – those who are increasingly ineligible for state safety nets, face significant marginal tax rates on any additional earnings and are in real danger of sliding back into poverty (cycling between work and benefits). It relies on the safety nets being there, it is an extension of benefits rather than a replacement for them – any savings to the welfare budget will only be felt in the long-term as people move up the income ladder. When the focus is on cutting spending rather than raising revenue, and results are needed quickly the long-term nature of many interventions is overlooked.

Look for ‘A Duh’ rather than ‘A Ha’ moments (Gerena’s phrase). There is a tendency to look for exciting, new, revolutionary change but often small, practical, simple and obvious opportunities are overlooked. Users and staff are the key to understanding what these are.

It requires a significant power shift to trust in people to make decisions about their own lives, find their own support network and provide the resource to enable them to make positive changes. What could this look like and how can it be supported by the state?

The need to end funding silos for people with multiple needs has been much discussed. The introduction of the Universal Credit in the UK aims to streamline benefits. The focus is on simplifying the benefits people receive rather than on the way they live and how services they interact with are funded and delivered. Bringing funds for the latter into one pot (universal support?) would have a very different impact.

What and how do incentives work for middle and high earners? Can the rewards for initiative they receive be extended to benefit claimants and those on low incomes? Skills policy and funding is an area that immediately springs to mind.

Feedback and data are both vitally important and often overlooked. This involves a change in perspective, from the compilation of simplistic league tables of outcomes towards rich seam data mining of the information gathered on the journeys of individuals as they bounce around the system.

There has been a tendency in policy design in the UK and elsewhere to believe that successful programmes will only come from providing more intensive external support. The experience of FII is that the ongoing cycling between work and benefits can be prevented through the creation of long-lasting social structures and support networks, underpinned by feedback and resources. The challenge is in reproducing co-operative policy making and delivery on a regional or national stage.


[1] These outcomes have improved over time and the experience of the two Californian programmes is of an income increase of 20%.

[2] These sums are not included in the increased income calculations


The power of Mumsnet – for Blog Action Day #PowerOfWe #BAD12

This post is about Mumsnet. We believe that sites like Mumsnet could represent the future of developing public policy. They point to the potential of mass membership online platforms to engage thousands of people in practical consideration of policy issues and so radically widen participation in policy – or as we call it, guerilla policy.

This post is also part of Blog Action Day, held on 15th October 2012. Founded in 2007, Blog Action Day brings together bloggers from different countries, interests and languages to blog about one global topic on the same day. Past topics have included water, climate change, poverty and food with thousands of blogs, big and small, taking part. The theme for 2012 is ‘The Power of We’ – something ably demonstrated by Mumsnet and its peers.

Now in its twelfth year, Mumsnet was founded by Justine Roberts, a former investment banker and sports journalist, and Carrie Longton, a television producer. The site is now Britain’s busiest social network for parents, receiving nearly six million visits a month. It is the 460th most popular site in the UK – much, much more popular than the Labour Party (5,057th), the Conservative Party (15,040th), or the Liberal Democrats (19,346th). With more than 600,000 registered users, it also has a bigger membership than all of the main political parties combined. In May last year, Mumsnet also launched a site aimed at grandparents, Gransnet, which already has 70,000 members and rising.

On the day I’m writing this, the most popular discussion thread (with more than 1,000 posts) focused on welfare reform, specifically the proposal from George Osborne at the Conservative Party conference to limit the number of children people can claim for as part of the Government’s aim of cutting £10 billion more from welfare (the thread was titled “to be fed up of George sodding Osborne and his Knobbish Ideas”).

As Mumsnet itself states, it’s a community, not a lobby group, and has “no particular political axe to grind”. Despite this, it has been highly active about issues it (or rather its community) feels strongly about. Mumsnet has initiated several national campaigns, and publicly supports a number of causes related to parenting, for example:

  • ‘We Believe You’, a campaign showing the hidden scale of rape and sexual assault in the UK.
  • A campaign for better miscarriage care and treatment, including the Mumsnet Miscarriage Code of Care, a five-point code that proposes a series of simple changes to current health service miscarriage treatment.
  • Successfully challenging major retailers to ensure that lads’ mags are kept out of children’s sight on newsstands, and its Let Girls Be Girls campaign against the commercial exploitation of children’s sexuality.
  • Monitoring how much money local authorities are spending on short breaks for families with disabled children.
  • Opposing cuts to Legal Aid.

This compares pretty well to any think tank or lobby group, even though it’s not Mumsnet’s core business. As a result, Mumsnet has come in for some criticism, which really boils down to two main points.

Firstly, critics question how representative Mumsnet is. The site has been labelled “a bunch of Guardian-reading, laptop-wielding harpies” (by Toby Young, of course, in the Daily Telegraph) “…peopled almost exclusively by university-educated, upper-middle-class women” – in stark contrast to the paper’s own readership of upper-middle class men. The site has also been called “smug, patronising and vicious” by the Daily Mail, of all papers. This reaction is seemingly motivated by competitive jealously, both because the Mail makes a business out of being vicious but also in umbrage that anyone else would dare speak for (middle class) mothers. This also betrays an old media take on new media, in that it completely misses the point. Mumsnet allows mothers to speak for themselves, in contrast to the Mail’s brand of misogynistic ventriloquism. And Mumsnet is just one site – if it’s not representative, there’s Netmums and many others.

Like any online community, Mumsnet doesn’t have to be – indeed it can’t be – representative of anything else but its members. Even though it doesn’t think of itself as a political organisation, Mumsnet realised that it would be remiss not to use its “authentic voice” to engage in issues its members care about, without determining on behalf of its members what these are. If its members didn’t support a campaign, it wouldn’t fly, the site’s leaders would get it in the neck, and its members would just go elsewhere. As Justine Roberts notes (in a recent New York Times article), “The power is in the democracy of it”.

In truth, Mumsnet is probably more representative of its members than the CBI or the TUC is of its members, but it doesn’t claim to be the “voice for employers” or the “voice of people at work” in the way that those organisations do – merely ‘for parents, by parents’. It might be much more illuminating if these organisations such as the CBI and TUC radically re-thought how they represent their members – away respectively from their committees made up of big businesses and conferences with their arcane voting rules, and towards the direct deliberation that online forums enable – so that their members can represent themselves rather than being represented.

The second criticism is the flip side of the first – that platforms like Mumsnet, because they are so large and hence potentially powerful, are somehow a threat to politics as usual (which is surely not a deal breaker). Some commentators (prematurely but perceptively) labelled the last election the ‘Mumsnet election’ as all three main political party leaders took part in live chats on the site. Again, professional jealousy might partly explain this reaction – ‘how dare ordinary people be allowed to question policymakers, that’s our job!’ But it also indicates a recognition that the location of real politics is shifting, away from the Westminster bubble and empty town hall meetings, and towards alternative spaces including online platforms.

Should we turn away from people wanting to participate – or towards them? Politicians have to go where the people are, and that’s the way it should be. People don’t need to be ‘engaged’ – policymakers need to recognise the ways in which people are already engaged and go with the grain of these, using the same approaches and language that ordinary people use. The recent party conferences were indicative of the increasingly ‘empty stadium‘ of contemporary politics. Just like bank robbers and money, places like Mumsnet will increasingly be where policy takes place because that’s where the people are, and where people are is where the personal experience and expertise is that could be used to inform better policy. That’s the power of we.


Best of the frontline bloggers (week ending 12th October 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.

Welfare

Cutting housing benefit for under 25s is indefensible, immoral and criminal

From DrTimCB

Posted 10th October 2012

This week George Osborne outlined plans to slash housing benefit for people under the age of 25 in both his conference speech and a Daily Mail article. This is part of a wider £10bn cut to the welfare bill… I’m presuming the subtext here is that if you’ve never paid into the system, you shouldn’t be able to take anything out. This shows such a profound lack of insight into the lives of many young people in the UK.”

Dr Tim, a junior doctor working in Tower Hamlets, tells the story of three young people – Max (19), Bea (22), and Nelufa (19) –  that he has worked with and who would lose out if proposals to reduce eligibility for housing benefit for those aged under 25 announced this week become reality. He argues that these reforms would leave vulnerable young people like these destitute, homeless and isolated.

Ruth Anim and Liam Barker – Different Disabilities, Very Similar Situations

From Same Difference

Posted 6th October 2012

“Exactly two weeks ago today, I heard and wrote about the case of Liam Barker. Eighteen years old, paralysed since birth, he breathes through a ventilator. His parents had just received a letter informing them that in order to receive Employment Support Allowance, he might have to prove he is unable to work by attending a Work Capability Assessment.”

In this post Same Difference describes the experiences of two disabled people with complex needs, Ruth Anim and Liam Barker, who have been subjected to the Atos-managed Work Capability Assessment (WCA). Liam has received a letter informing him that he will need to undergo a WCA, while Ruth’s mother has successfully appealed the findings of her daughters WCA which found that she was fit for work.

Health

Medical power

From Abetternhs’s blog

Posted 5th October 2012

“I have written this because like many, perhaps most GPs I feel very uneasy about power. I aspire to a partnership with my patients, teamwork with my fellow health professionals and a more equal society. I feel very strongly that power is a privilege and medicine is a vocation and a public service, or as Iona Heath recently described it, ‘a labour of love’. Usually medical power is viewed in negative terms, an unreasonable acquisition of privilege and abuse of patient trust and public respect for personal gain. Whilst I don’t deny that medical power is abused terribly in this way, I am concerned that power is shifting away from professionals and democratically accountable government, and I am not sure that this is in our patients’ best interests…”

GP Jonathon Tomlinson challenges the current orthodoxy in healthcare by considering the implications of the power that healthcare professionals hold.  He argues that notions such as ‘patient independence’, ‘self-care’ as well as regulation and outsourcing, are reducing the autonomy of healthcare professionals and disempowering patients. He speculates about what this could mean for the future of healthcare.

High sounding words but privatisation marches on

From Mike Broad, on Hospital Dr’s Dr Blogs

Posted 9th October 2012

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming the private providers – indeed I’m not against the use of the private sector under certain circumstances. They’re not snatching these cherries, they’re being offered them by commissioners desperate to reduce costs.”

Mike Broad argues that the Government is rushing to privatise parts of the NHS to ensure that its reforms can’t be unpicked by any future incoming Labour administration. He outlines his concerns that the Government is not sufficiently addressing the risk that the private sector will cherry pick the most lucrative procedures under the policy of payment by results in health.

Policing

The Real Big Society

From PC Bloggs

Posted 5th October 2012

“Reading media reaction to Hillsborough, to Ian Tomlinson’s death, to all the other negative news stories, is galling at a time when we also feel let down by our own management and the Home Office. I am sure many police officers up and down the country have been wondering just what we are doing it for.” 

PC Bloggs describes how the outpouring of grief in the wake of the untimely deaths of PCs Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes has brought hope that the police service still commands public support in the wake of cuts and negative news stories. PC Bloggs argues that Big Society isn’t a replacement for public services, and that recent events point to a very different relationship where public professionals are valued and respected for the contribution they make.

Criminal justice

Cry From The Heart

From The Magistrates’ Blog

Posted 9th October

“Off to court yesterday morning. Standard kind of court list, three CPS trials listed, 2 in the morning, 1 in the afternoon. The subject of the charges also pretty usual, a couple of Assault by beatings (Common Assault) with domestic violence overtones and a Harassment without violence. In we go at 10 am all fired up having had some Case Management Training on Saturday…sadly it all went downhill from there.”

Bystander J, posting on the Magistrates’ Blog, describes three cases where the trials could not proceed because of bureaucratic barriers and lack of joined-up working between the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service.

Mental health

On Northern Ireland Backing the WRB and David Cameron’s cpc12 ‘Aspiration Nation’ Rhetoric

From The World of Mentalists

Posted 11th October 2012

“This idea that claiming benefits is a lifestyle choice is as hilariously preposterous as it is bullshit. Who would even entertain the notion of choosing this ‘lifestyle’? It’s a horrid way to go through everyday existence, as I can wholeheartedly assure naysayers. …Are there scroungers out there? Yes. Do they need weeded out of the system? Yes. Of course they do. But not at the expense of the vast majority that claim due to genuine illness. And it is a majority.”

To mark the passing of the Welfare Reform Bill by the Northern Ireland Assembly, The World of Mentalists spends the day listening to David Cameron’s speech day “in a state of raw terror [and] guzzling diazepam” – but at least it produces a good rant.

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 and @guerrillapolicy


Open policymaking: Should there be a ‘duty to involve’ for national policy?

As Edward Andersson from Involve noted in his recent blog reviewing the new consultation principles issued by government: “Today consultation has, for many citizens, become a byword for formalistic, tick box exercises, done to mask a decision which is already a ‘done deal’.” Edward rightly suggested that the new principles, while important, fall short of providing the solution to this widely shared view of consultation. Could one solution be a national ‘duty to involve’, similar to the requirement that some local public services are already subject to? In which case, national policymakers should look to their local counterparts for what works.

This post is part of the project on open policymaking and better consultation, hosted by the Democratic Society in association with the Cabinet Office. As Anthony Zacharzewski, head of DemSoc, has summarised it: “Open policymaking is the natural corollary of open data and transparency, requiring openness and allowing public participation at every stage of decision-making and implementation. It supports citizen action and positive involvement of the public in shaping laws and services.” This active engagement is obviously very different in scope and ambition to traditional consultation, but this doesn’t mean we’re starting from scratch. If, as the Government has said, in the future “all policies will be made openly”, we could learn from where there have already been attempts to achieve a different, more deliberative approach to decision-making – in local government and local public services.

Many of these local duties to involve citizens have been introduced through national policy. For example, Section 138 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 imposed a duty on all councils and ‘best value’ authorities to involve ‘local representatives’ when carrying out functions by providing information, consulting or ‘involving in another way’. Councils must engage with a balanced selection of the individuals, groups, businesses or organisations the council considers likely to be affected by, or have an interest in, the council’s functions (including children and young people as appropriate). For the National Health Service, legislation which came into force in 2003 placed a duty on certain organisations to involve and consult, but managers were not always clear when they had to involve people or how it was best to do this. The 2007 act aimed to make this clearer; the duty requires NHS organisations to involve users of services in the planning and provision of services, the development and consideration of proposals for changes in the way services are provided, and decisions affecting the operation of services. Section 242 of the earlier consolidated NHS Act 2006 was also supported by useful guidance on achieving ‘Real Involvement‘ from service users and communities.

The NHS’s operating framework further emphasised that this engagement should be ongoing, not just during periods of change. Primary Care Trusts and NHS providers should “…create greater opportunities for their communities to make their voices heard, raising awareness of those opportunities and empowering patients and the public to use them and LINks [Local Involvement Networks]; [and] take greater responsibility for communicating with their local populations and stakeholders to ensure better understanding of, and confidence in, local NHS services.” More recently, the NHS constitution underlines that public and user involvement should be part of the fabric of the NHS: “You have the right to be involved, directly or through representatives, in the planning of healthcare services, the development and consideration of proposals for changes in the way those services are provided, and in decisions to be made affecting the operation of those services.”

The reality of local engagement might only rarely meet these ambitions, and many local policymakers, managers and clinicians might question the extent to which the public can play a constructive part in decisions on reconfiguring clinical services. Views on the success of local LINks vary widely, and they are due to be replaced by Local Healthwatch organisations in April 2013 as part of the ‘new NHS’. But this gap between aspiration and reality may be more a matter of developing and using the right methods for engagement – and being seen by local communities to be making genuine efforts at this engagement – rather than a fundamental problem with the aspiration itself (these are after all public services, paid for by the public, and they should surely be accountable as such).

Organisations such as Involve (a partner in this discussion) have a wealth of experience about what works locally (Edward referenced some very useful resources in his blog) – surely some of these principles and practices could not only be better shared locally, but applied to national policy as well? As we’ve noted before, one of the reasons that the Government’s NHS reforms ran into such difficulty was the view held by stakeholders that the policy was developed in a fundamentally closed way rather than constructively and collaboratively. The Government says that empowering individual patients and increasing the local accountability of health services is at the core of its reforms; shouldn’t we apply the same principles of empowerment and accountability to the development of health policy as well as the operation of health services – and to any policy for that matter?

The Government’s Civil Service Reform Plan, where its committment to open policy was announced, makes no reference to existing local methods of engagement and how these could inform open policymaking at a national level. Nonetheless, national policymakers should look to the methods that have been used by local policymakers and planners to engage their communities and service users in decision-making – both the successes and the failures – and consider how the most effective approaches could be adopted and adapted for national policy. Open policy is an ambitious agenda. Making it real will require effective methods for engagement, but also ways of requiring that policymakers develop policy openly. As well as learning from local methods of engagement, do we need an equivalent national ‘duty to involve’ stakeholders in policy development?


Best of the frontline bloggers (week ending 5th October 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.

Local government

Graph of doom – fact or fantasy – an alternative perspective

From Mr Reasonable

Posted 1st October 2012

“Barnet Council have been pushing a chart …which has gained the rather unpleasant title “The Graph of Doom” to show how the Council will run out of money for any services other than Adult Social Care and Children’s Services by 2030. This chart has been used in Cabinet documents to justify the need for the One Barnet Outsourcing programme. It has also gained traction in the national press where it is seen as a revelatory document which we should all be accepting as the gospel according to St. Barnet.”

A ‘reasonable and respectable resident standing up for common sense’ in the London Borough of Barnet dissects the infamous (in policy circles, at least) ‘Graph of Doom’ – and shows that the reality is more of a ‘Graph of Choices’ instead.

Disability

Disability issues finally break through at Labour conference

From Diary of a Benefit Scrounger

Posted on 3rd October 2012

“No matter what we did, we had to break the consensus. We had to make sure that the opposition opposed. Just two years ago we had nothing and no-one. Today, we have a very different board to play on. Many will say it is not enough, and of course, they are right. But as a friend once said to me, “Don’t judge on where someone is, judge on how far they traveled.”

Sue Marsh provides a perspective on this year’s Labour Party conference where disability issues finally made it into the mainstream – after a massive effort by campaigners and activists.

Probation

Train crash

From On Probation Blog

Posted on 3rd October 2012

“As I’m writing this, there are civil servants down in London at the Ministry of Justice drawing up contracts for the benefit of private companies such as G4S. How is anyone to feel comfortable or reassured that they are any better than their colleagues over at the Department of Transport in being able to fairly assess the relative merits of different bids, and especially those that have to be measured against public sector bidders?”

Jim Brown speculates on what the West Coast mainline franchising fiasco means for the outsourcing of prisons and probation services by the Ministry of Justice.

Carers

Children shouldn’t be responsible for filling gaps in care

From Carers Blog

Posted on 1st October 2012

“One of the problems we face is that where local authority care budgets are cut, then if someone has care needs, that care still has to be provided by someone – and it inevitably falls to friends and family to provide it. This is hard enough for adults, and we know many are struggling to cope with cuts in services and family finances. We need to make the point crystal clear that it is never acceptable to expect a child to fill the gap in care which is left when services are cut.”

Moira Fraser of the Carers Trust reports back from the Labour Party conference and shares her concern that those organisations working to support young carers are not communicating their messages clearly enough.

Policing

National Police Air Service launches today – lies and spin

From Police Aircrew

Posted on 1st October 2012

“There are some basic facts that need to be cleared up. You wouldn’t think “facts” needed clearing up would you because they are facts; the truth and therefore should be clear to all. Unfortunately Mr Green the Policing Minister has either been misinformed or is not telling the truth.”

Welcome to a new frontline blogger, Police Aircrew. In their first post they debunk the facts that have been presented to rationalise the police helicopter service into the new National Police Air Service. The new service is designed to save £15 million a year; in this post Police Aircrew speculates about further cuts that are coming down the line.

If Michael Portillo forgets you…

From Catemoore’s Blog

Posted on 29th September 2012

“When Michael Portillo looks at a person in a uniform, he sees just that. A person in a uniform. If that person is driving a fast car with blue lights flashing and siren blaring, or if that person is involved in an active arrest, shouting at suspects or perhaps cuffing a prisoner, Michael Portillo’s brain recognises a Police Officer. If that person is guarding a gate or standing on a fixed point or chatting to the public, he just sees a person in a uniform. That person might be an armed officer but could just as easily be a PCSO or G4S guard or security at an airport. His mind does not differentiate any more.”

A ‘woman, mother, wife, carer and retired Met officer’ reflects on how the quasi-official appearance of private security company employees may have affected how the public perceive the police as just another group of ‘jobsworths’.

Previous reads

Here’s another great post published in the last few weeks.

Clustering and Payment by Results: The end of service user centred mental health care?

From The Masked AMHP

Posted on 27th September 2012

“Most mental health service users will be completely unaware that when they are assessed by Community Mental Health Teams or in hospital their mental health problems and symptoms are now subjected to an arcane system known as Clustering.”

The Masked AMHP describes the impact of the use of clustering and payment by results in the commissioning of local mental health services – and argues that the real ‘customer’ under this approach is the new GP consortia rather than service users.

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 requires open research – the CBI’s report on outsourcing public services doesn’t meet this standard

Last week the CBI published research that claimed that government could save billions by outsourcing more public services to private business. Ironically for a report titled ‘Open Access’, the main problem with the report is not its argument but its lack of transparency. For such an important issue as the future of public services and who delivers them, we aren’t given enough opportunities to judge for ourselves whether the report’s claims stand up to scrutiny. Open policy requires a much greater openness about the data and analysis used to support such conclusions – otherwise it’s just a press release.

The CBI’s Open Access report claims that “opening up public service delivery to independent providers” (that is, outsourcing public services) could achieve savings of £22.6 billion “or more”. For such a big claim, the research has a fairly simple methodology. The researchers (Oxford Economics) looked at 20 different service areas to determine the average cost savings from greater efficiency and productivity from outsourcing (a figure of at least 11 per cent, within a range of 10-20 per cent); applying the same calculations across the estimated £278 billion of public services which the CBI believes could be fully ‘opened up’ produces potential savings from outsourcing of £22.6 billion.

Trade unions have criticised the report for a ‘lack of evidence’ (for example, Unison) and for not taking into account any of the transactional costs associated with outsourcing including procurement, tendering and contract management, let alone when private providers fail to deliver. The Local Government Association called the report’s calculations “ludicrous” for effectively double-counting savings from services which have already been outsourced. Other commentators have identified specific flaws in the research (for example, for fundamentally misunderstanding who already provides what in the housing sector).

Beyond this, it’s also important to note that efficiency is not the same as effectiveness, which is to say, cheaper does not always represent real value for money. This is especially the case when it comes to public services where there are often broader considerations to be made regarding ‘public value‘ – encompassing not only benefit to the individual service users but also to communities and society as a whole.

For example, it’s unfortunate that the CBI’s report promotes the Work Programme as a model of good practice, both because of the identified risk of fraud in the programme, but also because of the significant concerns about the programme’s impact on charities. As the NCVO has argued: “The Work Programme continues to pose major issues for charities particularly around managing cash flow and taking on risk and very large contracts prevent smaller and more specialist organisations from playing their full part. More seriously it’s clear that the payment structures used continue to threaten the viability of contracts.” However ‘efficiently’ it achieves its objectives, if a programme undermines the diversity of provision including from smaller charities, can it really be regarded as generating better ‘value’ for society?

Further, while the report recognises the widely shared public concerns about outsourcing public services, it also effectively makes these problems that government needs to solve – as if government is to blame for them: “The Government must take important steps to ensure the public retains confidence in the opening up of public services by becoming a more effective market manager and ensuring that the best, most effective providers from all sectors have the opportunity to manage our public services. Providers too must work with the government to address the public’s concerns about value for money, accountability and service failure.” Certainly government has the ultimate responsibility to ensure that public money is spent responsibly, for example that providers are properly audited. But if they are to be given millions or billions of pounds of public money, private providers also need to do more to prove their worth and reliability, such that they can be trusted to provide public services (something not helped by last week’s further revelations about the G4S Olympics debacle). Of course, one way to avoid such problems would be not to outsource more public services – but this is a view that the CBI regards as “dogmatic”.

However, the main problem with the CBI’s report is that we can’t properly determine the accuracy or veracity of the research for ourselves. It seems particularly questionable to assume that the same level of savings can be achieved uniformly across different areas of public services, and yet to quote from the research: “If an average 11% of productivity improvements is achievable across just £24.5bn out of the £666bn annual public sector expenditure on services in the UK, then similar levels of savings must be possible: not just in the un-open proportion of the markets researched but in the unopened proportion of the estimated £278bn of public services spending which could practicably be more opened up to independent provision.” [emphasis added]

Unfortunately, it’s not possible for us to investigate this much further. The problem is the methodology – or rather its lack of openness. As acknowledged in the report: “There is as yet little published information on the scope and performance of services delivered by independent providers.” The average saving figure used in the report is based on “existing research, and information from public bodies and providers” – including crucially from a survey of CBI members. The CBI has produced a nicely presented summary of the analysis by Oxford Economics; the actual analysis (which is a bit more difficult to find) is pretty opaque, especially when it comes to this survey of CBI members. One phrase that keeps popping up in the original Oxford Economics analysis is: “The degree of potential cost savings that could be achieved through outsourcing these services is estimated from responses to the CBI member survey.” In other words, the most critical figure in the research, the basis of the argument made in the report, comes from what the CBI’s own members claim – a claim we are unable to judge for ourselves because we are provided with no further information about it (for example, how many of the CBI’s members responded, what size were these providers, what specific types of services they provide, etc). For an argument in favour of open public services, this represents a remarkably closed approach to evidence.

As the CBI’s report notes, we are in the middle of the biggest wave of government outsourcing since the 1980s, with more than £4 billion in tenders being negotiated in 2012 alone in services ranging from prisons and police to defence and health. Given this, we need much more robust and reliable research about the benefits and the problems that outsourcing more public services would produce – before we outsource these services (perhaps irreversibly). The research commissioned by the CBI may or may not be a useful contribution to this analysis; the problem is that because of the report’s own lack of transparency, it’s very difficult for us to know.