The Privatisation of Poverty

It’s a brave person who declares the death of the voluntary sector but just look at what’s been happening.

Over the past few months I’ve been looking at the use of complexity approaches to social issues in urban settings. One clear message I am hearing is that traditional ways of tackling problems, such as local government interventions, simply aren’t making much difference.

One reason for this is that grant funding for community organisations is becoming a thing of the past. Local government sources of money and support have dried up with senior local figures now declaring that they don’t do that anymore. This shameful disavowal of responsibility means that local community organisations are either relying on volunteers or closing.

At the same time bigger organisations have secured large contracts that shut out smaller and more local organisations.If questioned, these bigger organisations often complain that they are having to compete with large private sector organisations and say that they are better than the private sector alternative.

This means that voluntary sector organisations that employ staff are having their funding squeezed or removed. The funders, sorry contractors, will pay according to the cheapest reasonable offer. The good old notions of best value and the contributions of social value are ignored in the fight to secure the biggest bang for the buck.

This also means the end of the voluntary sector group part-grant funded, part-volunteer run. These groups face a stark choice either to fold and be left with nothing or to opt for one of the private sector options such as the Community Interest Company or CIC (“kick”). CICs are in essence just like any other company but with certain breaks in recognition of their community contribution. ‘What community contribution?’ you may ask. Aren’t these people paid? Well yes they are. So what’s the difference between a CIC and a limited company? Nothing that directly benefits local communities, so far as I can see.

The march towards the removal of grant funded organisations continues and is nearing completion. People who could have volunteered for voluntary sector groups are now volunteering for private sector companies.

Since the Coalition government of 2010 grant funded organisations have faced two choices. The first is to go out of business either by ceasing activity or operating ‘below the radar’. The second is to somehow form themselves into private sector organisations such as CICs. This second choice, you will appreciate, is rather like telling a fish to ‘get on your bike’. Not surprisingly, very few local groups have managed this or at least managed this and retained their local specialisms.

Alongside the elimination of effective local community groups has been the economic rationalisation of larger groups. The most ‘successful’ of these groups have managed to secure enough funding to ‘save’ certain activities while diversifying and expanding their own business.

If we accept the value of local activity and the contribution of local people coming together for the betterment of society then we will find the resources not only to keep this going but to increase it over and over again. Don’t forget that it was David Cameron who praised the virtues of localism and his government that legislated to create legal powers for communities.

Before we get too misty eyed about Dave remember that he’s responsible for the very problem under discussion: The removal of local groups who help the poorest people in our communities by providing them with opportunities to improve their lives while treating them with decency and respect. That’s what this government is busy taking away.

So where can the money be found to carry out the necessary social activities that hold our communities together? Well the European Social Fund still provides a lot of funding for locally-run activities in places where they are needed. I’m not saying it’s perfect but it is an awful lot better than nothing. It’s interesting to see that no one on either side of the referendum debate, Remain or Leave, seems very keen to point this out. Nevertheless the European Union has a lot of money that could be used for investment in just the sort of local organisations that are desperately needed. Think about that when you put your cross in the box.


Council Budgets and Public Wellbeing

The Tory government continues to cut public sector budgets. In particular, the amount of money available to councils has been reduced and continues to be reduced. In response to this councils have been looking at ways to cut their budgets and reduce their costs while providing services in a way that is acceptable to the local population. Many have held budget consultations with local people about this. Some have gone so far as to look at restructuring the way the council works. All in an effort to balance the budget cuts versus service provision see-saw.

On top of this, while making cuts to council budgets, central government is issuing injunctions to maintain council services and releasing statements that give the impression there is plenty of money in council coffers. They have said, for example, that more than £3.5 billion has been made available to councils to support social care for the vulnerable and older people. At the same time and in the name of budget savings, many councils are commissioning inadequate services such as 15 minute social care visits. How much, you may ask, can be done in 15 minutes?

These central government actions are making things difficult for councils of every stripe. All the more reason for councils to include everyone involved and to think very carefully about the best possible ways to use all the available resources. This includes meeting with and listening to service users, residents and businesses in an on-going conversation. Apart from clearer budget setting, improved service design and better service provision, it is surely good PR to have the public on your side opposing central government cuts to their services.

So what is actually happening? Let’s look at one of the Core Cities, Newcastle upon Tyne. “Ambition in the Face of Austerity” sets out Newcastle City Council’s budget for 2016-17. It proposes reductions to budgets and cuts to services. These reductions and cuts appear alongside a set of broad principles and general commitments. There is, however, little connection between the principles and commitments, and the reductions and cuts.

Worse still, there is a gap between the council’s position and the people affected. “Ambition in the Face of Austerity” appears on the council’s website alongside a number of Integrated Impact Assessments and background documents. Taken together this documentation represents an internal service review. There is no place for people who use these services and no place for people living and working in Newcastle. This may seem surprising given the council’s role in governing, representing and being accountable to these very people. Take wellbeing and health, a major area of public concern. What the council documentation shows is that many wellbeing and health services are to be reduced and responsibility for the consequences is to be passed to health providers, community groups and families. Newcastle City Council no longer view local wellbeing and health as their responsibility.

Other councils have not taken such a ‘like it or lump it’ approach to their budget. Other councils have not decided that the wellbeing and health of their residents has nothing to do with them. Some have undertaken a revision of their approach to both budgeting and to budget consultation. Some have asked their public not ‘which services should we cut?’ but ‘how are we going to maintain and improve the services you need?’. By doing this they are able to reprofile their spending plans and reallocate their resources. Some councils have undertaken a whole systems review in order to reduce the impact of central government budget reductions and improve the suitability of the services they provide.

Considering the national situation and the necessity of public involvement it would be better for councils to think again and to reconsider their options. Indeed it would be better for the whole public sector to work with services users, residents, local groups and businesses to find both a different way of making budget savings and a better way of providing wellbeing and health services for local people.

Communities and Counselling

Counselling is often viewed as a therapeutic exercise undertaken as a medical treatment. However, the act of counselling may be used in a wider sense to address issues of social concern and to aid the development of relationships in a community setting. This is more than group therapy. What is required is a commitment from those involved to go with the flow, to be open and honest and to be assured that the outcome will be better than the starting point.

And it is rewarding. The people you meet will be attentive and interested. Valuable and productive working relationships will be established. But we’re racing ahead. The most important people are the community members. If they aren’t there then there’s no point in anyone being there. Plus there may be more than one side or there may be residents, employers, and council staff. As there are many sides to a community, so there are many sides to community counselling.

Here it’s important to realise that people’s words, actions and motivations may be understood in terms of the Scripts that they are following. These Scripts can give us a handle on their psychological make-up and an insight into their personality. From this we can understand how they view the world, what things mean to them, and what they value as important (Steiner, 1974).

This approach will allows us to explore the Games (in the technical sense) the community are involved in. Are they playing out a Game? Have they done this before? Perhaps they’ve involved others such as friends, ward councillors, or employers. It may also expose any impasses that are present that may slow things down or cause disagreements (Berne, 1964).

One thing we will need to consider is whether the people we are talking to are aware of what they’re doing. Do they know which Games they’re playing, even if they don’t use the word? If they are then how do they articulate this? Is this ‘them being them’ thereby discounting the importance of the Game? Maybe it’s something they want to be free from? Maybe I’m doing some or all of these things? Maybe we both are? So maybe it’s something to contract for?

So what do we say after we’ve said ‘hello’? How are we going to do something useful for the community in question? How can we be therapeutic in the general sense? If we’re going to do anything it’s going to be to help the people involved in terms of what they want to do and in terms of what others are doing. And that is quite a task! If problems were solved simply by talking then all we’d need to do is print off some cards and get those involved to read them out! There’s more to it than that. We need to know what they want to talk about and we need to help them to talk about it in the right sort of way, a therapeutic sort of way (Berne, 1972).

This means that it’s all about helping the people concerned, whichever organisation they come from, to come to the right sort of understanding in the right sort of way. And what is the right sort of way? Well, to put it generally, it’s about helping people to come to terms with things they have yet to come to terms with. Now that’s a clumsy sentence but one of the reasons it’s clumsy is that counselling can help all kinds of things, in many sorts of ways. To give three examples, it could be getting through a period of demolition, coping with loss of grant funding, or feeling that you haven’t done the thing you should have done and never will (Heathcote, 2009).

This is where things may start to go wrong. People may jump to conclusions, or miss what others are saying. They may read from Script, run along the lines of their Life Position and so on. But the important thing to remember is that therapy isn’t about being given a diagnosis and following a treatment plan. Therapy is, rather, about working together to reach shared understandings about what has happened, about what is important and about how to go forward. It’s about being in the here and now and it’s about adopting the Adult point of view. Then, and only then, can communities make fully informed decisions about how they are going to proceed. Only then will they be open to addressing their issues and discussing them in a therapeutic way. Once this space for discussion is opened they may choose to consider their Scripts and then they may come to reframe and redecide their thoughts, feelings and experiences (Culley & Bond, 2011).

Now why should a counselling approach succeed in engaging communities and officers in ways that other approaches have failed to do? Well, the counselling relationship is unlike any other discipline. First of all it’s not pedagogic or informative. The counsellor is not teaching the community to be happy! Nor is it advisory. The counsellor does not give the community solutions to the problems they are having. Rather it is based on mutual and level relationships. Furthermore and importantly the counselling relationship is based on attunement. The counsellor attunes to the community seeing the world as they do, feeling the emotions they feel and experiencing events in their life in the way that they do. This is much more than understanding their circumstances and sympathising with their positions (Geldard & Geldard, 2005).

Particularly important is the confidential nature of counselling relationships. This must be clearly stated before any counselling sessions take place. Those taking part need to understand and then sign an agreed contract. They need to understand not only the terms but the nature of the agreement (Bor & Watts, 2006).

Human relationships, however, are notoriously difficult and fraught with difficulties and dangers. It’s just so easy to offend somebody! Moreover, human beings are very different from each other. Not only do they come in different ages and genders but there are many distinct cultures, abilities and as many differences as there are similarities. Sooner or later there will be problems. These may be from following a false trail or talking about things they aren’t bothered about or they may come from being completely unaware of something very important. That’s why it’s very important to make sure that community counselling takes place in as safe and comfortable an environment as possible. And the key to coping with these issues is ‘understanding’. What a therapeutic counsellor needs to do is listen, reflect and then to listen some more; then and only then will they be in a position to understand and actively begin to help (Shadbolt, 2012).

The ethical codes of practice that apply to counselling allow the counsellor space to explore a wide range of difficult issues at the same time ensuring a safe and secure environment for both the counsellor and the community (BACP, 2010; UKCP, 2009). While this isn’t easy, it’s a question of setting out a clear field for acceptable practice with set boundaries. All counselling must take place on this field and within these boundaries. But that’s not all. The therapeutic imperative requires ground rules to be set that are clearly understood by all those involved. Once this is done a space is cleared in which productive relationships may be developed (Eusden, 2011).

Unlike physicians, or advisors, it is the task of the counsellor, my task, to assist the community members to come to their own views, set within their own perspectives. The things that are discussed may be other than those specifically contracted for as they may only arise once the counselling relationship has been established (Bond, 2015).

I don’t doubt that there will be some problems and some disappointments. But the successes and the positive relationships that are created will more than make up for these. I’m convinced about this because the counselling approach is mature and adult (and Adult) in a way that so many so-called community development activities are not. And in these difficult times for communities everywhere that is something worth holding on to (Yalom, 2003).

Berne, E. (1964) Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships. New York: Grove Press.
Berne, E. (1972) What Do You Say After You Say Hello? New York: Grove Press.
Bond, T. (2015) Standards and Ethics for Counselling in Action. Fourth Edition. London: Sage.
Bor, R. and Watts, M. (editors) (2006) The Trainee Handbook: A Guide for Counselling and Psychotherapy Trainees. Second Edition. London: Sage.
British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) (2010) Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy, Lutterworth: BACP.
Culley, S. and Bond, T. (2011) Integrative Counselling Skills in Action. Third Edition. London: Sage.
Eusden, S. (2011) “Minding the Gap: Ethical Considerations for Therapeutic Engagement.” Transactional Analysis Journal, Vol. 41, No. 2.
Geldard, K. and Geldard, D. (2005) Practical Counselling Skills: An Integrative Approach. London: Palgrave.
Heathcote, A. (2009) “Why Are We Psychotherapists?: The Necessity of Help for the Helper.” Transactional Analysis Journal, Vol. 39, No. 3.
Shadbolt, C. (2012) “The Place of Failure and Rupture in Psychotherapy.” Transactional Analysis Journal, Vol. 42, No. 1.
Steiner, C. (1974) Scripts People Live. New York: Grove Press.
UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) (2009) Ethical Principles and Code of Professional Conduct, London: UKCP.
Yalom, I. (2003) The Gift of Therapy. London: Piatkus.

What’s Really Going On?

DL - Northumbria Research 2015

How Complexity Science Helps Us Understand Communities
Northumbria University Research Conference, 20 May 2015

The application of complexity concepts to communities gives a rich and accurate picture of the neighbourhoods examined. This includes those living and working in the local area, the organisations involved and the infrastructure that is present.
This differs from standard approaches by using the knowledge of those involved to build the evidence produced by the research. This is done by applying concepts taken from complexity science as ‘interaction’ and ‘emergence’.
These are used to place those living and working in a community at the centre of the investigation and analysis of the community. Asking these people about their experiences yields a powerful sense of place and shows the factors that really matter. This is exemplified here by two communities, one in the west and one in the east of Newcastle upon Tyne.
Social factors, such as trust and willingness, are found to determine the success or failure of community activities. Though present, economic factors are found to be less important. Such a finding differs from the standard economic approach to community analysis and intervention.
Listening to the people involved, and using a complexity informed approach produces an understanding of how a community works that may be built on to improve life for those living, working and visiting the area.

The Care Act 2014: Easier Said Than Done

DL – Care Act April15

The Care Act 2014 is an important and difficult piece of legislation. The intention of the act is to give service users a choice over their care service provision. It also shifts the responsibility for care service provision from the public sector to individual service users.
So how is this working out? Well, as part of the Care Act, public sector bodies are expected to produce market position statements for the services they procure. This is a new procedure and consultations are taking place to determine what the statements will cover and the procedures that will take place.
Newcastle City Council, to take one example, is consulting about its draft Market Position Statement for information and advice, and advocacy. The document has already been drafted, presumably, by council staff.
This raises the question whether other public sector bodies will adopt the same old assumptive approach? Or will they take their communities seriously and carry out a genuine consultation?

Good Intentions

DL NCVS – Good Intentions published March 2015

Good Intentions is a complexity-informed study of Neighbourhood-Based Organisations (NBOs) in Newcastle upon Tyne. It was published in March 2015 by Newcastle CVS.
NBOs are unique in many ways. They have the ability to engage with communities in a way that cannot be easily replicated by public or private sector organisations or larger charities.
NBOs do this because they often reflect the communities they work with. They do this by providing a way for local people to get involved, to bring their own knowledge and experience and tp develop new skills and confidence. NBOs provide a trusted source of support and advocacy when people experience difficulties. They are agile in responding to changes and issues affecting local communities.
However, many NBOs are themselves in a vulnerable position.
In 2012 Newcastle CVS published a report on NBOs working with young people. The report found NBOs at a pivotal moment, grappling with an increasing marketisation of public services and an accompanying commissioning regime that for many did not fit easily with their values and actions. For Good Intentions, NCVS asked me to revisit those NBOs to find out how their circumstances have changed and what has developed. Along the way, I made new contacts and formed new views that are included in the report.
Good Intentions finds NBOs continuing to provide support and opportunities for local people. Working through a number of emerging themes, the report reveals some NBOs are ill at ease with a continuing shift amongst public sector agencies to contracting. Grant funding remains important and is generally preferred to contracting or trading.
Good Intentions highlights the pressures in funding core costs and the challenge of participating in networks, forums and training, to stay informed and connected when many NBOs have only a small staff team. Good Intentions finds a determination amongst NBOs to continue even if this means turning to largely volunteer led activities. The risk here is that NBOs become further marginalised from contributing to citywide initiatives or maintaining up to date safeguarding practices.
Good Intentions finds that NBOs have largely rejected the drive from policy makers and to some extent funders for voluntary sector organisations to become deliverers of public services, adopt social enterprise models and embrace new funding mechanisms such as social finance. What NBOs are doing is holding close to the needs of communities and seeking to meet local needs on local people’s terms. This may place NBOs outside of current policy, practice and finance frameworks, and leave some facing a bleak future. The challenge for public sector agencies and other interested organisations is how to recognise the value of NBOs, support them to continue in the unique space they occupy and involve NBOs so that the expertise they have informs wider policy and practice.

A Complexity Approach to Communities

David Large – Complexity and Communities 2015

This work applies concepts from complexity science to the research and assessment of communities, in particular, ‘adaptability’, ‘attractors’, ‘emergence’, ‘interactions’ and ‘self-organisation’.
Communities are noted for their ability to self-organise and to adapt to local circumstances. What is not so clear is whether they are able to adapt as easily to changing national and international circumstances. For example, attractors are factors pulling towards a certain state in the future. If a community organisation has received regular council funding in the past it may bid for council funding in the future. Many attractors are persistent and hard to displace. If they are removed then the community organisation may be left in a state of uncertainty.
The situation for communities is constantly changing. Consider, for example, the impact of the recent government-imposed austerity reductions. The complexity approach can be used to examine the current ability of communities to adapt and to re-organise. To do this their interactions with their neighbourhood, their service-users, their funders or others are assessed and a number of factors will be found to emerge, both positive and negative. In analysing these factors patterns are sought and the attractors are identified.
To do this an innovative, two-stage interview methodology is developed. The first stage involves asking people involved about certain topics. Here the conversation is free but not unconstrained for certain cues are provided for guidance. The second stage takes the key points from the first conversation and asks the interviewee to reflect and comment on them focusing on the complexity factors present, for example ‘self-organisation’.
The case study material is analysed using the complexity approach devised – interactions are sought, subsequent iterations are studied. From this analysis emergent factors are identified. All of this is done in the terms used by those interviewed and involved.
In this way the approach is shown to understand communities in their own terms, to engage with the issues that are important for them and to stimulate positive ideas for future development.