The unbearable lightness of "evidence based" policy making.
Today, I had the pleasure to deliver a keynote presentation at BASW’s (ind) conference in Bristol. The Association kindly invited me to discuss the political dimensions of social work practice in the current climate. It was a well attended and interesting event.
I shared a platform with Sir Julian Le Grand (Tony Blair’s policy advisor and intellectual father of quasi-markets). Julian Le Grand is a pleasant man but his ideas are nothing short of market fundamentalism. Obviously, we agreed that we disagree. Two quick points:
When one asks the wrong question will unfailingly receive an irrelevant answer. This has been the issue with Blair’s “what work’s” agenda since its inception. It would be wrong to call this approach pseudoscience, as data generated is valid. However, it could be classified as bad science, due to its intentional distortion of the main research question's premise. Julian Le Grand's presentation reminded me of the contentious nature of the so-called "evidence based" policy making. In his contribution, he suggested that the dilemma we face when assessing our response to chronic failure in social services is between wholesale privatisation (Trusts) or the creation of smaller businesses (Mutuals). He claimed that evidence may support the latter. The problem with this approach, obviously, is that it is based on an entirely misleading premise. It doesn’t not adress the fundamental question “why do services fail in the first place” but it generates the ideologically charged question “what type of marketization would be more effective in dealing with failing services”. As one would expect there was no reference to aggressive cuts and diminishing resources that have impacted on the the welfare state disproportionately; let alone an appreciation of the effects these cuts have on social worker’s working conditions and service users’ lives. Paradoxically, a large body of evidence highlighting the damaging effect of austerity has been totally ignored in this quest for “evidence based” reform. It is important for the social work profession to always scrutinize the original question and motivation behind “evidence” gathered and presented.
One would expect that “independent” (ie freelance/ agency work based) social workers would feel flattered by the idea of being involved in the creation of “small businesses” or “mutuals”. After all, the suggested model embodies the Promised Land of entrepreneurship and innovation. Also, the ‘benign’ model of mutuals does not sound as aggressive as full-on privatisation. Unsurprisingly, most of the participants seemed unimpressed. References to the successful “John Lewis” example -where employee co-ownership contributes towards improved customers’ satisfaction- cannot resonate with social services. This is a caricature of an argument for it makes the assumption that marketisation, smaller or larger, is the only answer to failing services. The experience from makretisation processes of the last quarter of a century suggests that once a market is created then it is a matter of time until it is opened up to the larger hawkish corporations. The “mutals” model is only invoked here in order to by-pass trade union opposition and sweeten the pill. Most, importantly, we need to remember that people’s lives are complex and unpredictable; they cannot fit into commercialised targets and managerial models transferred from “John Lewis”. Social work requires patience, skills, trust and most importantly firm commitment to human rights. There are no shortcuts to this. Realistically, one can expect that the shambolic examples of probation services and fit-for-work assessments are much closer to the fate that awaits social work if marketization goes ahead. Profiteering over people’s lives, corruption, lack of accountability and reinforced managerialism would damage services irrevocably. Unlike “John Lewis” damaged social services will not result in dissatisfied consumers. Instead, it will ruin people’s lives.
Ps1. This discussion may serve as a strong reminder of the potential damage that can be inflicted through the notorious Clause 15 of the Children and Social Work Bill. Suspending human rights safeguards in the name of “innovation” in social services sounds like a bizarre argument. It becomes dangerous when one adds into the equation the governments marketization agenda.