Choice, Control and Obfuscation – How the Personalisation Dream is Dying

In the bold move towards a transformation in adult social care, it feels from where I sit, that control has completely overtaken any pretence of ‘choice’ in the so-called move towards more idealised ‘person-centred’ care and support planning.

I hope I’ve been clear over the years in which I’ve expressed a remarkably consistent view that I love the idea of people being able to choose the support plan they like from a wide menu of options with ‘professionals’ taking less of a role.  I am a massive fan of direct payments. I want people to have more personalised care and more creative care. Desperately. The options just aren’t there yet for people who lack capacity and that is a terrible disservice and inequity that is being served throughout the care system.

Removing care planning from my role doesn’t concern me – unlike those people on the training courses who bang the drums blindly about how wonderful and bright it looks when we allow people to choice whatever they like to put together packages of care, I don’t want ‘retain control’, I truly don’t believe that I, as a professional ‘know better’,  but likewise I know that with the user group I work with, it is rare that I can just hand someone a support planning tool and a list of potential providers and tell them to ‘get on with it’.

That is as far from reality now as it was 20 years ago in my work. While I can say that everyone I care co-ordinate who has a ‘package of care’ is now officially on a ‘personal budget’ and some even have direct payments, it hasn’t really increased choice or control for any but a couple of those people.

If anyone for a moment wants to ponder the duplicitious nature of those in policy making ivory towers who dribble down policies which they want to couch in ‘soft’ language so they are difficult to challenge, one only has to read a fantastic piece of research conducted and published on The Small Places site.

It is worth reading through the piece in detail. Lucy, the author, made a number of requests to local authorities to ask about how their Resource Allocation Systems (the link between the ‘assessment’ and the ‘cash’ – basically) was calculated.  She seemed to come up against a wall of obfuscation but it’s worth looking at her research in detail.

This reluctance for me, seems to relate to the lack and reduction in spending on care and support – the key ‘missing piece’ as to why a council can ‘reassess’ someone as needing less ‘cash’ than they did last year with a more traditional care package.

My personal experience is that the council I work in (and this is similar to things I’ve heard from people in other councils) probably doesn’t want to share it’s RAS because it’s ashamed of the utter dog’s dinner that it’s made of it. It doesn’t ‘work’. It doesn’t make sense. It is frequently changed. There is more emphasis on physical health needs as opposed to mental health needs and while there can be manual adjustments, some of the figures that are ‘spat out’ just seem nigh on ridiculous (and that works for sometimes calculating care ‘too high’ as much as a figure which is ‘too low’).  It comes down to everything needing to be qualified and fitted onto a spreadsheet when actually the needs of two people who might fill out a self-assessment with the same ‘tick boxes’ might have very different needs in reality – no RAS can account for that. One person might under-score because they are embarrassed by the process and don’t want to admit to being incontinent on an initial visit from a social worker because they haven’t been able to tell anyone other than their GP – another person might be anxious and think they can manage less well than they can. Sometimes and this is what local authorities and health services seem to find hard to account for, you just have to treat people and their needs as individuals rather than the subject of outcome measures, tick box performance indicators or resource allocation systems.

Shouldn’t personalisation be about putting the user at the heart of the system? Every user should have a copy of the RAS and how the figure was determined. Which questions are weighted and which aren’t. Without that, there flow of money and the control rests solely with the local authority.

I’m fully against ‘traditional’ care packages. Having someone anonymous and constantly changing pop in for a 30 min welfare check once a day isn’t about improving the quality, control and choice in someone’s life, it’s about a local authority doing the absolute bare minimum that they can get away with to fulfil their statutory duties of care.

The lack of openness about the ways that the RAS shows the true colours of the reasons for these pushes towards the Eden of ‘Personalisation’.

While I have no doubt that for some people, as I keep saying, those with advocates, family or who are able to voice their own needs clearly, have and will continue to benefit enormously from having direct payments – it’s worth remembering that direct payments have been available and accessible for many years now.

Forcing everyone onto personal budgets has only discriminated against those with carers by reducing the amounts of money they are entitled to through the RAS (that’s my own experience of how our local RAS works) and has discriminated against those who lack capacity by promising all sorts of ‘creative’ ways of exploring third party management of support plans but without providing any real ways of accessing it (this is my current bugbear as I have been requesting assistance with this for months for service users I work with but have been told it is not possible for older adults yet as only those with learning disabilities have budgets large enough to make it cost effective – thereby clearing discriminating on the basis of age and type of disability).

I have changed from a fervent advocate of a system which was supposed to be so much better for everyone to a bitter opponent of a system which favours some kinds of disabilities over others, some kinds of service users over others, some kinds of carers (those who are willing to put a lot more time in to manage and support plan where necessary) than others and all to provide fewer services under the guise of choice.

No wonder Burstow is pushing everyone towards direct payments. He is pushing everyone towards a system which masks the way that payments are determined and discriminates openly against people who lack capacity or who have the ‘wrong’ kind of disability or family support.

Now we know that the local authorities can hide the way they make financial calculations, it becomes much more obvious to see behind the facade of the ‘Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ who promotes choice as the final goal to achieve at all costs.

I feel tricked and betrayed by the implementation of the personalisation agenda and the lack of any of the services around it to tackle directly with the problems at it’s heart.

I was deeply disappointed, for example, that the Mental Health Foundation’s ‘research’ and work with people specifically with dementia only focussed on people who either had capacity or had family.  Their advice talks lovingly of setting up trust funds, appointing brokers – well, that is a fantasy rather than a reality and exists only on paper as a choice. They merely replicated a lot of work which was done when direct payments were rolled out around lack of take up for people with dementia and they hadn’t said anything new (I happened to write my dissertation about the lack of take up of direct payments for older adults so did actually do literature researches at the time..).

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

For now, I think it’s important that we who see through the cosy policy makers congratulating about a ‘job well done’ speak up and speak up loudly for those for whom the system is a further barrier for true individualised care because these self-same policy-makers see them as ‘too difficult’.

My title explains that the personalisation dream is dying but it isn’t dead yet. To be brought back to life, all those involved need to embrace the principles of honesty and openness and not blind themselves to their successes if they can’t see the continuing barriers.

Why I’m wrong – A response from BASW

I am not going to add anything to this post. After I wrote a post explaining why I left BASW, I was sent this as a response and agreed to publish it.  I’ll leave the questions and comments for others and I have asked that someone from BASW respond to any questions or comments that arise from this post but obviously they are very busy so here’s their post. – cb

I’m disappointed that you are leaving BASW and, as head of communications for the Association and editor of PSW, I’m equally disappointed about your assessment of this magazine.

BASW is fortunate that more members have been joining than leaving for some time now but retention is just as vital as recruitment so any loss is frustrating.

Most members leave because their circumstances have changed – they might have lost their job, left social work or retired. On those occasions when someone contacts us to cite a specific issue for why they no longer wish to remain a member, someone from within BASW will usually correspond with them to at least try to respond to their concerns. Whether it makes any difference isn’t really the point – the main thing is to secure a grasp of what we’re doing wrong and how to do it better.

Your departure, inevitably more vocal and more public, is no different except that it seems appropriate to respond equally publicly, given the platform you have employed to air your views.

You cite BASW’s launch of the Social Workers Union (SWU) as the reason for now deciding to leave the Association. Clearly, the odd gripe apart, you are happy with your union and with your local representative. Fine. Really, fine, BASW has no intention of encouraging social workers who are happy with their trade union to up-sticks and join SWU instead.

We hope members in this position will still reflect on the range of member benefits being part of BASW offers, and will want to be part of their professional association, but in no sense is it making a play to poach you and others like you from other unions.

There are two reasons why SWU can be a good thing for the social work profession generally without impacting on the social work membership levels of Unison or any other union.

Firstly, there are well over 40,000 social workers in the UK who are not a member of a trade union or a professional association, so have little of the security such membership affords a practitioner in need of support – from basic advice to prolonged representation. By no measure can this be a welcome fact.

To date, a standalone BASW, acting solely as a professional association and without a union arm, has not attracted these people into membership. Nor too has any trade union appealed sufficiently for them to consider subscribing. BASW’s launch of the Social Workers Union offers these people something else, another option which some of them, just some, might choose to take.

Secondly, and most pressingly, there is one significant factor in BASW deciding to establish SWU that shouldn’t be ignored. A number of local authorities were increasingly unwilling to allow our Advice & Representation officers to attend internal disciplinary or conduct hearings. Although in contravention of ACAS guidance, this was leaving some fee-paying BASW members without access to the sort of expert representation they were entitled to have.

The ACAS guidance, it would seem, is just that, and if you are not a trade union then you don’t have guaranteed access to represent members with employers in the way we would want. By launching SWU, for no extra cost to members, we ensure, among other things, proper protection for local authority staff. This has to be a good development for social workers.

And let’s be very clear about which social workers. You describe BASW as ‘less relevant to me as a local authority social worker’ and ‘focused on either students and newly qualified social workers or independent social workers’. Yet SWU is, more than anything else, about ensuring we can support local authority social workers fully and properly in the increasing number of cases we are sadly being presented with where members are being poorly supported by employers.

You do allude to something very interesting though on the issue of how BASW represents local authority social workers and where we can do better. You suggest that the one thing you would really welcome is the chance for informal social networks – ‘safe’ places, physically and virtually, where like-minded people can discuss the future of social work. It’s a very strong concept and one BASW has recognised but could do far more in developing.

In this instance it is fair to say that we have gone much further down this road with independent members than local authority workers, as illustrated by the number of very successful independent groups holding regular meetings around the country. These aren’t controlled propaganda exercises – BASW staff usually only attend the first meeting to help get things off the ground – but informal meetings of independent social workers which BASW helps facilitate and that participants themselves then take forward.

We have staged a host of ‘tours’ within all UK countries over the past three years, many of which proved to be useful two-way discussion sessions, but facilitating networking groups within local authorities would be a good step for our members and should be explored further, and soon.

One of the most notable aspects of your blog, and the one I felt most keenly, was your assessment of PSW magazine. In particular, you referred to ‘pages and pages of propaganda’ and that there is ‘no space at all for any kind of dissenting or alternate views’. I will respond to this at some length but in brief I do not feel this is an accurate assessment of this magazine or BASW’s approach to dissent.

I have worked for a trade union where the members’ magazine became solely a propaganda device, where every editorial item was utterly patronising and where opportunities for dissent gradually dissolved to the extent it was untenable for me to remain with that organisation. I don’t miss it and I wouldn’t go back into that same environment or remain in an organisation that developed such a mindset. BASW is not that kind of organisation. Not even close.

Look at page 11 of this month’s PSW and you can see that one of the three letters is a direct attack on the magazine for publishing an article the correspondent loathed about lessons to be learnt from the Baby P case. I might disagree with the contributor but his was a valid member’s view which we published without hesitation.

Go back to March when we published a double page spread of comments posted by members online after BASW launched its own College of Social Work (as you will know, the name has since been dropped as BASW and the SCIE-sponsored College work to establish a single organisation for 2012) and you will see two sharply critical views and one far from convinced about the move. As a proportion of the 200 or so responses we received online this wasn’t just a fair reflection of dissent, it actually represented a higher proportion of opposing opinions than were actually posted.

Go back even further to the fall-out from BASW’s decision in early 2010 to hold a referendum of members on the kind of college members wanted to see. We carried letters from one BASW Council member who had resigned and another from a member at the end of his term, both of which were sharply critical of any move away from the SCIE college. No censorship, just publication.

It may surprise you but we actually don’t get a massive postbag of alienated members wishing to air their ire. Far more correspondents focus on something specific they have read, respond to requests for comment on a particular topical issue or, to my inevitable frustration, highlight minor errors of fact or grammar.

As for ‘reams of pages about how important BASW’ is, this is a tougher one because to some extent you have a point – we didn’t used to highlight the Association’s work that much in PSW at all. And people would complain that they didn’t know what BASW did.

People used to wonder why they were paying their membership fees if BASW wasn’t more publicly prominent, more vocal about the issues that mattered to them. BASW is definitely more assertive, more opinionated and, sometimes, more bolshy and for a lot of members that is a good thing.

Now, should that entail using the magazine for endless self promotion? No, in my view it should mean members get to read what BASW’s position is on key issues, whether on the riots in England, adult protection laws in Scotland, funding cuts in Northern Ireland or a consultation document on the future of social work in Wales.

As a monthly title PSW can’t present you, in print at least, with the very latest news, but it can reflect on the past month’s developments by offering the facts and adding a BASW view. This doesn’t change the facts but it does enable members to see what BASW is lobbying for, using the membership subscription fees they pay each year.

News is only a small part of the magazine though, so too is The Chief, where the chief executive is free to write what he wants to the BASW membership. Elsewhere you can read content including features, book reviews, advice columns and interviews, none of which offers a BASW view or seeks to evangelise.

Incidentally, though not without relevance, 345 members replied to a survey on our communications output in early summer and 92% said PSW was either a welcome or very welcome member benefit. It’s not scientific and there are plenty of members who haven’t expressed a view but it’s not a bad statistic considering it is an anonymous poll and I haven’t stood behind anyone’s back twisting their arms.

And just to go back to the issue of self promotion, only a couple of days ago, after reading your blog, I noticed a comment within a Guardian story about research it was co-sponsoring into the causes of the riots, in which the editor-in-chief waxed lyrical about the ‘great strides in the field of data journalism’ The Guardian was continuing to make. Possibly true but certainly self promotional.

BASW is an active, growing organisation that is constantly developing new services. We need to talk about this if we are to sustain our growth as, to borrow from your blog, there is ‘strength in numbers’ and the more members we have the more we can represent the interests of the social work profession – whether you are a student, local authority worker, independent or anyone else.

Joe Devo

………

As for those Annual General Meeting numbers you wanted. Around 230 people attended the Practice Symposium in the morning and 164 remained for the actual Annual General Meeting. Of these, 134 supported the launch of SWU, 21 opposed the motion and eight abstained. Proxy votes totaled just nine, with five opposed to the launch of SWU and four in favour.

Would we like more members to take part in the decision about the future of their organisation? Absolutely and we are trying to learn lessons from our attempts to promote the AGM in May. Several advertisements and e-bulletins actually attracted the biggest turn out at a BASW AGM in my time at the Association, around five years, but we must continue to try and up the numbers further as clearly those who attend the event are clearly a minority of our overall membership – though this isn’t particularly unusual for any union or association.

Considerable effort will be made to alert members to the next opportunity to shape the future of BASW on 1 November when an Additional General Meeting in Birmingham will be asked to determine whether BASW should transfer its assets into a new College of Social Work. This will commence in earnest once BASW Council meets on 21 September to consider the latest position ahead of the Additional General Meeting.

Consultations

I was interested in this article on Community Care website yesterday that more than half local authorities did not comply with the twelve week period for consultation when setting their adult social care budgets for 2011-12.

I had to stop and think whether the authority I work for did this. I think they did. I have vague recollections of something like a consultation being circulated but we’ve been subject to a number of different consultations for a whole variety of things and I’ve lost track of which were for what.

Facilitator works with participants for final strategies

CWGL @ Flickr

I’ve probably been directly party to more consultations over the past 18 months than I have at any other point in my career and to say I’m disillusioned is an understatement.

Consultations, in my experience, are never about actually consulting. They are about presenting decisions that have been made in smoky rooms, behind closed doors as a fait accompli.

These ‘management consultants’ who are engaged at high cost to produce these consultations only do so to meet statutory guidelines about what ‘consultations’ should be but I’ve been party to consultations which seem to arrive during the Christmas period, at Easter, over the summer holidays – whatever time seems to be the least convenient to actually gain the opinions of those directly affected and in whatever way seems to stymy any kind of criticism the most.

Do I sound cynical? Well, maybe just a teeny bit. It’s because we’ve been blasted by some massive changes presented through consultations-that-are-not-real-consultations and I’m bitter. I’m very bitter.

One of the major issues I’ve noted is the short periods of time between the ends of the consultations and the publishing of proposals as if, by magic, all the submissions could be judged within a week.. oh, not many responses? Well, that’s awfully convenient.

I’ve seen documents accompanying the consultations which don’t even try to disguise what the final outcome to the so-called consultation will be.

I have no doubt whatsoever in  my mind that consultation is about the most misused term in local government and the NHS that I have ever come across and that’s saying a lot.

Large organisations don’t want to consult. Or rather, they want to consult with their own consultants. They want to consult with the same group of people whom they can explain and describe to at detail. Thinking about creativity, if there was a real desire to consult about changes rather than impose them, the organisations should be forced to use more creative means to garner responses. Questionnaires don’t always work. Public meetings attract the same time-rich people who will always attend. What is done in a consultation to seek out those who are least likely to respond? Is three months really sufficient time for this?

As I said, I’m a cynic. I can’t see the work ‘consultation’ without laughing cynically and reading the end of the document to see what is proposed and what will, no doubt happen.

I’d love more openness in the process of putting together proposals and garnering ideas rather than being given consultation documents which appear to be vastly resourced ‘fait accompli’ type documents justifying why ‘we’ are changing what ‘we’ are changing.

Does anyone have any positive experiences of consultations? I’d really be interested in hearing.

Panels

Since I’ve been employed as a social worker one of the constants in my working week has been the presence and existence of ‘panels’ in many different forms. There was a brief stage when we were told not to refer to them as ‘panels’ but rather meetings but it’s all the same thing at least, in the setting in which I’ve been working. They are groups of managers and professionals of a variety of provenances making funding decisions on behalf of the local authority or health service.  Of course sometimes they say it is about joint decision making (which is why the word ‘panel’ is frowned upon now) but that’s really a facade. I make recommendations but I have little authority over funding decisions.

Different local authorities often have different mechanisms so my explanations of the panels that I might attend come with the proviso that things are arranged and organised in a variety of ways.

We have panels which primarily make decisions about packages of care that exceed a particular baseline cost. That baseline has changed a variety of times but generally managers in each team are given a certain ‘threshold’ to which they can approve funding requests but above that and any application for funding for residential or nursing respite or long term care have to navigate a ‘panel’.

We have separate panels for high cost personal budget packages which would be provided for care at home and those which approve residential and nursing care/respite and continuing health care (which authorise applications for long term payment for care by the NHS )

Going to panel generally involves the transfer of reams of paperwork. I’d probably say it’s the most obvious way though that I provide the function of advocating for a particular service user or family member when I ‘present’ the situation to those who make the ultimate funding decisions.

Contrary to what some people might think, I have absolutely no vested interest in the local authority or NHS ‘saving’ money by not agreeing to a particular package – indeed, I won’t tend to bring something to the panel if I don’t wholeheartedly agree with it myself. I am a great advocate of money being spent where it is needed.  I have a general wish to see public money well-spent of course and I understand the need to ration resources but if I bring something to the panel and authorise an assessment, it is because I believe that that is what is needed according to my professional  judgement and as far as that’s concerned, balancing the rest of the local authority’s budget is not an issue I consider (which is obviously why these panels exist!).

Similarly with the Continuing Health Care Panels  I cannot conceive of a situation where I would bring someone to that panel if I didn’t absolutely want and believe that they should get that funding.  If I attend and collate a report it is because I and the multi-disciplinary team behind the report, believe in it.  I absolutely want people to get what they are entitled to and have no ‘secret instructions’ to try and deny the funding. The rules though are not altogether clear but it suits the funding parties and the governments to keep the rules complicated and unclear. There’s a lot of money at stake.

The panels are open to service users and carers but for me, personally, it’s very rare that service users or carers attend with me.

I have more often  had family members attend Continuing Health Care Panels with me and found it is a much better way of working as it allows a lot more transparency and removes one of those bars between me trying to put the words of others in my mouth.

By now, I know the people who sit on the panels and they know me. That’s a massive advantage in being able to persuade and cajole. It makes me realise how useful it is to have built up links and a reputation among the more senior management. I like to think that a trust develops.

Panels used to scare me because I’d be questioned, often in detail about the proposals that would have a substantial monetary implication for the local authority. My paperwork and assessments are examined in great detail and a level of scrutiny applied. Now that I’m more confident, I tend to take pride in presenting my reports and welcome the questioning as I know what to prepare, what to highlight and what to expect.

I’ve had panels where paperwork alone is assessed and where we are not required to attend in person.  I prefer being there ‘in person’ especially when there are any question marks that I feel I can clarify.

One of my favourite tasks in my work is feeling that I am genuinely able to advocate and navigate a person or family through the muddy mired waters of local authority funding streams and decisions. I wouldn’t say I enjoy the panel process although there is a satisfaction in having something approved especially if it is something you feel might be hanging in the balance, but I don’t dread them as much as I used to.

As for now though, it’s just another part of the process of seeing a paper ‘plan’ through to fruition.  I know they work differently in different areas – indeed, I’ve seen them in different forms in the local authorities I’d work for – but that’s how they work – whether they are called meetings or panels, the effect is the same.

And that’s the explanation of what the panels are – the other side of each discussion I have and each decision that is made by the faceless ‘management’ that I sit in front are that they are desperately important decisions to each person who is reliant on the authorisation of that funding to allow them to life their lives more fully, to allow their family to have access to respite services. My job as I see it, is to bring the paperwork and paper assessments ‘to life’. I am not only writing about a person on a pro forma, but I’m able to flesh out the requested questions and documents with a person, with a family, with relationships.

That’s why I don’t mind attending  these panels as much as  I used to. I’m not frightened of them anymore. I see them as an opportunity to take a crucially important role in someone’s life and to speak for them and not  just about them.

Commissioning

Yesterday, I caught up with a friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen for a few months. She works in commissioning. She didn’t work in commissioning when we first met but her career trajectory has taken a few odd side steps and there she is.

We talked about commissioning for a while. She doesn’t work in a part of commissioning that affects the services that would be delivered by my part of the service so I felt fairly safe moving into rant mode as I spoke to her.

I wondered, to her, why the process of commissioning is so far removed from the frontline service delivery.

But there are service user consultations, she added. Yes, I replied but they are narrow in scope and where are the voices of those who do not ‘self-select’ themselves on ‘panels’. Where are the voices of those who may not have the capacity to make some of the decisions related to their care needs? Where are the voices of the carers who don’t actually have the ability to leave their homes because of the lack of appropriate respite – particularly older carers? Where are the voices of the voiceless?

She had a good comeback of course and spoke to me about the reams of additional advocacy support she is involved with but it made my heart sink.

You see, all advocacy apart from statutory IMCAs (Independent Mental Capacity Advocates) and IMHAs (Independent Mental Health Advocates) have been withdrawn from the services that I work in. The voluntary sector agencies that might have helped have either been axed or cut back sufficiently that they won’t ‘work with’ people who enter our services.

But back to the commissioners. I wonder why I didn’t know the name of any of the people involved in commissioning services for our local authority in the user group I work with. Why don’t they come to our team and meet with us and talk to us, I suggested to my friend, while, of course, absolving her personally – I know she is both good at her job and dedicated to providing good quality services.

Surely we, who are involved in scoping out support plans, making suggestions about which care agencies might be better than others, we who receive the day to day complaints when services aren’t available or aren’t working, would be useful people for commissioners to engage with? But I don’t even know the names of the people who work in commissioning the services we are asked to use.

They make block contracts on the basis of cost which deliver poorly. Yet when renewal time came around, exactly the same contracts were dished out. Perhaps we should meet and discuss our respective jobs a little more often.

I feel angry towards the unnamed commissioners in our service. I feel angry because they drop services on us which are basically unsuitable but cheap. They say they ‘consult’ but as I have learnt over my time in the job, ‘consult’ does not mean discuss, it means tell.

I wonder how many of these faceless ‘commissioners’ would be happy to stand alongside me in a hospital as I tell a family they will have to travel miles each way to visit their parent in a residential home because we have nothing available locally. Or stand next to me as I apologise, in my role as a corporate ‘entity’ because the provision of respite which was promised is wholly unsuitable because its all we have to offer.  Or listen to the conversations I have to take about carers rushed off their feet because they are limited to these ‘15 minute’ pop-in visits to desperately lonely people or listen to the discussions about why we no longer do a hot meals on wheels service and deliver only microwaveable meals. Occasionally, I’ve been known to tap out a grumbly email to ‘commissioning’ about particular services – and why I think they work or what I think is lacking – simply because I am not sure what other action to take and I want to ‘do something’. I’ve never really had anything other than perfunctory responses. They seem to exist in a parallel universe of contracts and submissions and plans.

Who was consulted before these commissioning decisions were made? I’m sure people were. Or were they? What backgrounds to ‘commissioners’ have in human services – I honestly don’t know. I don’t know if they have ever had any professional expertise in the areas that they commission for or have just moved up through various administrative ranks without any frontline experience.

I know ‘back office’ is important. I know there are some people that need to commission services. I understand that. I just wish sometimes I knew who they were and the ways that they made their decisions. I wish sometimes they would show their collective faces in our offices to understand better the implications of the decisions they make.

I’m very far from an expert in organisational systems but surely it can only help when different parts of a ‘group’ come to know each other face to face through discussion and understanding rather than the continual barriers that are put up between us by people who feel it necessary to stay in their safe silos.

I don’t want to mistrust commissioners. I just want to know who they are. More importantly, I want to know they understand the effect of their decisions on the people I see every day.

Elaine McDonald, Kensington and Chelsea and Dignity

Yesterday, the High Court ruled in the case of R (on the application of McDonald)  v Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. This was a further appeal by McDonald against a previous decision at a lower court.

Elaine McDonald is 68 year old woman who worked as a ballerina in her younger days. The press seems to be a little fixated on her former career, and she does have a more glamorous background than many who come to rely heavily on social care so perhaps it is no surprise. Ms McDonald suffered from a debilitating stroke in 1999 and had a further fall in 2006 which led to very poor mobility.  Although not medically incontinent, she required assistance to use the commode during the night.  She had been provided with overnight support to meet her assessed needs related to continence during the night however Kensington and Chelsea were suggesting that this need could be met by substituting this assistance with the provision of continence pads during the night which would, by their nature, demand that Ms McDonald remain in these pads until carers could come in the morning and at intervals to ‘change’ her.

sulle punte

frabattista @ flickr

I wasn’t surprised by the decision by the High Court because there are precedents that led the access of local authorities to resources to be a factor in relation to the provision of services.

In my own working experience, it is impossible to access any kind of home care support overnight except in some very specific cases where there is very high need support and even then, it is much much more likely to be provided to younger adults with physical disabilities. I can count on the fingers of one hand the amounts of times I’ve come across local authority funded overnight support in the last 10+ years of practice.

Sometimes I have to take a step back from what I regard as ‘normal’ practice to understand the outrage at this decision. I realise how I become attuned to ‘local authority’ think and ‘budgetary’ think and that’s quite an uncomfortable thought.

We get used to applying different definitions of ‘dignity’ and what is acceptable because we are aware of the thousands of Ms McDonalds that require support and the existence of a  finite resource. So do you support the Ms McDonalds and assist them to provide a fuller and more dignified life at home or do you provide 8 Ms Smiths with respite care over the year. These are the realities of the decisions and it shouldn’t have to be so.

Perhaps that’s why I’m less surprised by the McDonald ruling and less surprised by it.

There are though horrendous inequities in our system of the provision of social care. Where Ms McDonald in Kensington and Chelsea may be receiving a vastly different service from a parallel Ms McDonald in Newham.  I would venture a guess that there are thousands of potentially very similar cases to Ms McDonald bubbling under the surface ‘in the system’ but because they are not ex-Prima ballerinas and don’t have the will, way and means to bring cases and involve solicitors, we will never know about them.

If anything is, quite literally, the ‘dirty secret’ of social care and health care provision particularly for older adults, it is this.

We have different standards of what we class as being ‘dignified’ for ourselves as for others. What might class as dignity to an older adult has less value and invites less spending to an equivalent younger adult with exactly the same care needs. Those who shout loudest get the most – as far as care is concerned and as far as public interest is concerned.  The shame and pity of the ‘personalisation’ agenda and the flawed implementation of personal budgets in social care have exacerbated this problem further rather than provided a channel to allow for a more equitable system of care delivery.

It sometimes feel cruel and harsh, because it is a cruel and harsh system that it perpetuated by discriminatory systems. Would the warehouse-style very large residential and nursing care homes with 100+ beds be acceptable for younger adults with similar care needs? I don’t think so.   I don’t mean to imply that every large care home is bad and every small care home is good. That isn’t the case. It’s about a fundamental reassessment of what is acceptable in the provision of care for older people in our society.

Lucy at The Small Places covers the issue of dignity through caselaw, in an excellent, thorough and educational post.

I make no apology for my less erudite post and thoughts.  The more I work and the more I reflect, the more interplay I see between the basic conceits of ethics and ethical judgement in the role that I play as a part of this system that condones this mealy mouthed interpretation of human rights merely on the basis of cost and resourcing issues.

It is accepted because our society is inherently ageist. We don’t want to think or pay for the care of older people. We care more about our collective inheritances and potential house prices than the more collective thoughts about where the boundaries of an acceptable level of care and dignity lie.

If anything, this has impressed on  me the importance of constant reflection on my practice and my work. I can advocate to an extent, from within the system, for the dignity of those like Ms McDonald and I try to. Some I win and some I lose but as long as I make my voice heard through every step of the process I can help to feed the voices ‘from the front line’ back to the more senior managers.

I make judgements and I am the mouthpiece of the local authority. I am an employee but the second that I become complacent, the  moment I stop reflecting on the effects the decisions I make have and the instant that I join that local authority ‘group think’, I lose my ethical compass and my professional judgement.

I talk a lot about important qualities of social workers and social care workers. Respect, empathy and to that I’d add advocacy. It might not always be seen in the internal battles that we fight, but we have to try to fight so as not to accept a ‘normal’ that is defined on the bank balance sheets of the local authority accountants.