Thursday, 28 March 2013

On 'Social Inclusion' and professional addicts

"We don't need more joined-up thinking - we need therapy." That was the core of my contribution to the launch of Birmingham's White Paper on Social Inclusion on Tuesday. It got a laugh. Which was nice. I envy the ability of professional comedians and know that I can never be one. But I was actually quite serious.

I've written here quite recently about the big questions we need to ask of the language of 'social inclusion' - even if we may genuinely believe our hearts are in the right places, even if we may be passionately working to tackle financial and social inequalities in our city and our country.

But Birmingham's White Paper has a bigger language problem. At its heart is a call 'to work together and take a different approach'. To explain that 'different approach', it uses the fine language of moving from a 'deficit-based' to an 'asset-based' approach, of 'evidence-based' and 'targeted' work, 'early intervention', 'outward facing services', 'utilising co-production in the design and delivery of services', 'collaboration and partnership working', 'public procurement' and a 'social inclusion champion's network'.

The trouble is, when the group of 40 people I was co-facilitating (about a quarter of those present) got together, to start turning these fine words into concrete actions, it became clear quite quickly that very few of them had much of a sense of what the words actually meant. My co-facilitator and I began with what we thought might be quite a quick exercise to 'translate' the jargon into more meaningful language, and were met with significant numbers of blank and quizzical faces. So... if the 'great and the good' of the statutory and voluntary sectors in Birmingham don't understand the 'different approach', how on earth is it going to filter out to the colleagues they work with every day, let alone what I hesitate to call the 'ordinary citizens' of Birmingham?

The problem emerged with even sharper clarity when we set to tackle the 'case studies'. There's a bit of a story behind the case studies themselves - they were themselves on their fourth draft, having begun as pretty desperate stories of desperately needy (dare I say 'troubled') individuals, depicted in isolation from any conceivable 'assets' (internal or external), networks of support, or resourceful neighbourhoods. As they were though, our groups were able to identify some of the 'assets' that were mentioned explicitly, and imagine (with my slightly subversive encouragement) a few that weren't, but could have been. But when we moved to the question of 'what needs to happen?', the dominant reaction was fascinating, if predictable. 'We need to get a CAF in place.' The Common Assessment Framework: a paradigm of 'joined-up thinking'; a multi-agency meeting of professionals with different areas of concern and expertise, getting together (perhaps with the mother of the child in question), to formulate an action plan. Of course. We would be neglecting our duties if we didn't.

Thank heavens for one lone voice (I was trying to be a good facilitator and keep relatively quiet). 'Don't you think, maybe, for the mum, a room full of professionals deciding what they were going to do for her, might actually be quite the opposite of enabling co-production to happen...?' The shock. The immediate, gut-rooted resistance. The sudden sense of threat and defensiveness. 'What do you mean? This is what we have to do!' The lone voice describes an alternative approach. Identify who the key people are in the person's life: gran, friends, neighbours, maybe. Bring them together. Allow them - including the mum, crucially - to come up with a plan that draws on their own strengths and resourcefulness - but also calls on professionals for specific support where that is needed. Again, defensiveness. 'But you can't do that! You never know what they might come up with!' Yes. Quite.

There was a sense, in our group, of just scratching the surface of an alternative possibility that was about as far away from immediate grasp as learning a whole different language. But there was, at the very least, a desire there to do just that - and that gave me just a little hope. Our session finished with one group member voicing a want and need to get together and 'learn more about this "asset-based" thing, and try and work out how we put it into practice' - with nods of agreement from many others.

The other small sign of hope was the contribution from a relatively young man from a theatre group. He'd been listening intently, and spoke relatively late in the conversation. What the boy in the case study needed, he suggested, was something to spark his imagination: to glimpse the possibility that family, and life, didn't have to be like this, could be different, more... He was dead right, of course. But I think he spoke for us - and of us - as a group of 'professionals' too. What we needed was some imagination: to glimpse the possibility that the people we 'do to', or 'work with', are more than our default definitions of them, more than a bundle of issues and needs and problems.

We also needed, as I think was clear as the conversation unfolded, the gift of patience. So often we are governed by a sense of urgency, and urgency pushes us into default responses. Our group work itself was testimony to the time and effort needed for the more creative, the more imaginative, the more 'asset-based', 'co-productive' response to emerge. But our systems and professional processes are not geared to giving that time and effort and patience. And as money gets tighter, as 'efficiency' becomes even more dominant, that time and effort and patience will be in even shorter supply.

Finally, our conversations highlighted the need for humility. It's not, I suspect, a word much used by, or associated with, many of the professions of my colleagues in that room. To be honest, us clergy aren't particularly good at it either - although it should at least be in our vocabulary. But the kind of humility emerging as a need within our conversations was that of letting go of our identities as 'providers', to encounter our 'clients' not as 'clients', but as fellow citizens, as fellow human beings. Realising that the answers, ultimately, come from them rather than us. Acknowledging that we have needs too, and limitations, and anxieties - that too often we dare not admit to anyone, least of all those people we work with.

I think (and I'm probably speaking as a priest first and a community development practitioner second) that to discover those things in our conversation is probably the greatest thing we could have achieved with an hour and a half of group work. It doesn't really resemble the 'action plan' which was the objective we were given as facilitators. But it does, I'd suggest, invite a moment of profound pausing within a process which, however well-intentioned, has the danger of careering like a juggernaut towards its stated end-point, but missing its actual goals completely.

The language of 'asset-based', 'co-production' approaches is good language - even if rather technical. I've lived and breathed it for much of the past year and written about it here and here. We need to recognise, however, that it stands in tension with some of the other aspects of the 'different approach' that Birmingham's White Paper advocates: 'targeting' particularly - which so easily allows us to slip back into defining people by their needs and problems and focusing on the worst, in isolation from their wholeness as human beings, their support networks, and their communities. The trouble is, particularly when money is tight, money controls everything - even how we look at and approach people. We have to ruthlessly prioritise, so we 'target' those who have least money - and we approach them as if they have least of everything.

We also need to recognise that we can get every professional in the city signed up to 'asset-based', 'co-production' language, and it can make not a scrap of difference on the ground. We are addicted to our need to 'provide services' - our very identity depends on it. We have convinced ourselves (because the evidence seems to suggest it) that if we do not 'provide services' then we will be failing the most vulnerable in our society. And that is, of course, true. But what we struggle to even contemplate is the possibility that, weaned off our professional addiction, we might be liberated to approach those we genuinely care about most, not just as 'vulnerable' but as 'gifted' human beings, not just as 'isolated' and 'excluded' but as already embedded in networks of care and support, however fragile and fractious they might often be.

This is anything but neoliberal 'Big Society'. It's not abandoning people and communities to 'sort themselves out' and letting market forces have their way. This 'different approach' needs real investment of real money. But it needs more: it needs investment of imagination, patience and humility by the professionals and the decision-makers who, let's be honest, have the biggest stake in it.

The alternative - clinging on to our professional learnt behaviour and problematising and pathologising those people and communities in the grip of poverty as 'needy' and 'troubled' - is just a stone's throw from the demonising, the scapegoating, the excluding, and the ruthless abandonment of the most vulnerable, in which our current government is so deeply engaged.

As a manifesto, the Birmingham White Paper has much to commend it. My fear is that it is dangerously close to being an Emperor, parading around to general acclaim, but with barely a shred of actual, tangible, clothing. The vital first steps for an addict include not just wanting to change, but admitting you have an addiction. What we need is not more 'joined-up thinking'. We need addiction therapy. And urgently.


  1. Excellent post Al, keep it up!

  2. Great piece - thanks for highlighting our addiction - lots to learn but some wonderful possibilities.....