Personalisation occupies a central position in social work with adults today and was at first welcomed by social workers as a positive step forward, however, our understanding of ‘personalisation’ is somewhat different than governments. This is not a surprise when we look at the driving force behind its development. Personalisation was driven not by social work, but by the think tank DEMOS (favoured first by Tony Blair and more recentlyDavidCameron) and in particular Charles Leadbeater, a journalist and writer who spent ten years working for the Financial Times and who was an adviser to a number of major private companies, including Chanel Four Television and British Telecom. A key document from DEMOS should have set the alarm bells of social work ringing in 2004. The ‘Pro-am Revolution’ provided the rationale for delivering personalisation. The pre title blurb sets the direction of travel
‘The 20th century was shaped by the rise of professionals. But a new breed of amateurs has emerged….’
The central tenet of the Pro-Am Revolution is that with the advent of new technologies and educational systems we no longer need to rely on professionals to undertake particular tasks because amateurs are now able to operate at the same level as professionals, but without requiring large organisational structures. DEMOS looked specifically at areas such as web design and astronomy, suggesting the same premise could be applied to education and social care, going onto say ‘Pro Ams are creating new, distributed organisational models that will be innovative, adaptive and low-cost’ which will also be ‘light on structure and largely self regulating’. Hmm sounds familiar.
For DEMOS, a service user was a service user, no distinction was made between the needs of those with disabilities or mental health difficulties or older people (nor for that matter the difference between a web designer and older person with dementia!). This resulted in a flawed conception of the people who use services and their ability/willingness/desire to manage their care and the markets that would provide care.
The conception of personalisation in a think tank has never boded well for its implementation. However, it has been useful at a political level as it has acted as a mirage to conceal a very different agenda linked to the equally nebulous concept of ‘choice’.
Clarke (2005) suggests choice is the engine of public sector reform, with choice seen as desirable in empowering individuals to move from passive consumers to activated and responsibilised citizens. Choice as a concept remains controversial for some as it is also viewed as a route along which the marketisation of public services can travel without challenge. Whilst this is a logical extension of the previous government’s agenda for Cameron and Co, for many in practice a free market approach to service delivery underpins many of the problems experienced in social care today.
Government has exploited the ambiguity in meaning of words such as personalisation and choice to enable the social work profession to retain a semblance of loyalty to its own values, whilst unknowingly carrying out the bidding of politicians with very different ideas about social care.
Research has explored how organisations encourage workers to engage in an agenda they do not necessarily agree with. Courpasson (2000) introduced the notion of ‘soft coercion’ which induces, simultaneously, commitment and obedience to the organisation and its aims. Ambiguity in meaning is one such instrument of soft coercion, however, you also need to ensure the workforce accept your perspective. One strategy used by large organisations has been the ‘company song’, often represented by the company policy which provides an organisational mantra, for example ‘personalisation leads to greater choice’.
Maybe it’s time to change the company song and for the social work profession to choose its own playlist, if it does not there will be many in government who will be happy to do it for us!