The Shift in the Responsibility for Change!

Every once in a while an article, a talk, a debate etc. comes along which helps crystallise nagging concerns/thoughts that I haven’t been able to pin down. Well, this has happened recently upon reading the recent thought provoking IPPR article and listening to debate on “The happiness industry: How the government and big business sold us wellbeing”.

Based on Will Davies’ book of the same name IPPR curate a fascinating discussion between the author and a representative from NEF on the growing medicalisation and how our emotions, psychology have become monetised. We can now apparently measure our happiness and wellbeing! By offering strategies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), Mindfulness and the plethora of “self-help” techniques around we are now apparently far better equipped to take control and “heal thyself”.

As individuals we of course ideally need to be independent, healthy, fully-functioning beings. Yet a primary contention of Will Davies is that the focus on the individual focus for change somewhat negates the need for the populous to put pressure on or for organisations and political institutions themselves to make changes which address root causes and not simply focus on symptoms. To give this particular Wellbeing area justice take a look at the IPPR article with podcast or video.

It set me thinking about other matters and work I’m either directly/indirectly affected by or involved in. Yes, in public service austerity and budget cuts remain all-pervasive, yet does this mean our models of transformation are going in the right direction or supported from the ‘correct’ perspective?

We talk a lot about changing the relationship between citizen and state, partly to break the so-called “dependency-culture” and partly because we require greater collaboration to meet increasing community needs with diminishing resources. There is undoubtedly tremendous potential in areas such as collaborative consumption but unless public institutions take the lead we run the risk of leaving a space within which, what I term, a mythical “free market” will be filled by profiteering conglomerates.  Far from being anti-business, I’m more concerned how we as public bodies support communities to be engaged and involved on an equal footing. In order to achieve this structural barriers need to be tackled alongside empowerment strategies.  Ideas explored more fully in Chapter 4 of an insightful paper by NESTA.

A strange and possibly trite indirect link here – I’m hopefully about to move house and as you know the paperwork to be completed seems endless. Proof of ID etc. for a mortgage is essential yet all the necessary documentation is on line meaning all the cost of production and effort to coordinate is placed on us as customers. Now, anyone who knows me will testify my belief in the power of cyberspace to be a positive force for good, nonetheless my current experience got me thinking about the inexorable move to Digital by Default a bit more.

Certainly as a strategy it will save money for local councils and for many make services easier and more available. To me though we have to avoid a consumerist approach and as referenced in an article entitled: “The Role of The Individual in ‘Digital by Default’ Public Services” local government must, as the LGA have stated –

  • Put citizens at the forefront
  • Give citizens real reason to participate
  • Co-design services that are affordable, are built around needs and make a visible difference

Self-service either externally or internally in an organisation has to avoid issues such as disadvantaging the ‘user’ in respect of overly shifting the burden costs and compromising service standards and the like.

Again the point being that we organisationally need to design with a citizen-led focus ensuring we avoid potential systemic problems like digital exclusion. Cost savings cannot be the only principal driver, it surely has to be about enhanced and improved pubic services.

On a digital note it is why I’m very excited and proud to be part of the #notwestminster ‘posse’. The latest phase of our work being coordinated by colleagues such as Dave Mckenna and others, focusing on “local democracy design challenges”. Dave’s blog explains where the ideas emanated from, how they have been built on an event earlier this year and a are being pushed forwards by a quasi digitally based movement rooted in local democratic engagement with the purpose to improve all aspects of collectively-based local democracy via a digital lens and grass roots development, buy-in and now active implementation.

To conclude…

OK, I could go on but let me try and bring these ramblings to a summation. The endless refrain right now is that public services must transform and constantly evolve. Hard to disagree with this on many levels. My concern is that we transform without a “public service ethos”. For me it’s a belief system, an approach to society and why many of us “got in the game” in the first place.

Public services have always embraced change that is not up for debate for me; it’s more about the basis and nature of the change. Local government has always placed tackling inequality, democracy and serving communities at the heart of what it does. Certainly many failures as well as successes can be cited, however the right raison-d’etre and ethos is still running through and being fought for by the public sector family.

Going back to where this piece began, the current dominant thinking about Wellbeing strategies and interventions (as an example) purports a very individualistic model. Dangerously for me, we run the risk of moving people’s dependency from a social interventionist sphere to a psychological dependency reliant on mechanisms like CBT or counselling without improving people’s quality of life and long term self-sufficiency. Neither positions are ultimately desirable, however the latter seems to be moving us further and further away from a strong ideological basis for tackling the larger societal and structural injustices that no individual citizen could hope to affect by themselves.

A generalisation but do we really want a USA-style “I’m in therapy” dependency culture?!

It may be viewed as counter-culture right now, nevertheless my belief is more than ever public services should adopt a  fully democratically mandated quasi-collective bargaining role in collaboration with its citizens.