About fifteen years ago I worked for a local authority developing a ‘user involvement’ strategy for social services. It wasn’t an authority noted for gung ho radicalism, so I had to put my disability rights background on one side and adopt a ‘total quality’ approach focussed on how user empowerment could be part of a wider quality system. I was then completely wrong footed when the Director of Housing and Social Services pointed out that in housing the local authority had been much more radical than anything I had advocated and were putting real power in the hands of residents by transferring all housing stock to a tenant management co-operative. The co-operative would take decisions about resource allocation including potentially sensitive issues such as which housing stock would be refurbished first.
So, fifteen years later, how far have we moved on? Are people who use social services in control of how those services are planned, managed and commissioned? The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a new report ‘Involving Older People in Service Commissioning – more power to their elbow’’ last week. (http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/involving-older-people-more-power-to-their-elbow). The report concludes that, despite increased policy emphasis on user voice and choice, there are few examples of older people having a real say in commissioning or service planning.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the report is it’s analysis of how local authorities are involving older people. This analysis argues that, broadly speaking, local authorities take one of two approaches, viewing older people either as citizens or as consumers. Citizen involvement seeks to involve the whole community, including older people who are now in good health and might find it difficult to anticipate future needs. It is not focussed on services but on how councils can promote continued independence and wellbeing. In contrast consumer involvement is more limited. It seeks to involve existing service users and the focus is on improving the quality of services. Consumer user involvement is usually initiated and led by service providers.
Current government policy does indeed seem to reflect a dichotomy between ‘democratic’ involvement. Involving the community (citizens) in decision making as part of the localism agenda and a ‘consumerist’ approach to personalisation, turning ‘service users’ into ‘budget holders’ who will be able to exercise power as customers. Reliance on the latter approach alone has been criticised by some, including Age UK, for failing to take account of the imperfections of social care markets or the barriers to service users acting as empowered consumers. It’s also a far cry from the emphasis on mutual and peer support which underpinned the philosophy of ‘independent living’ developed by disabled people from the 1960’s onwards.
The other problem with this dual approach, based on wide democratic involvement and consumerism is that it leaves out a third group – people who do not meet eligibility criteria for local authority care but who need support to remain independent or know that they are likely to in the near future. This group do not qualify as ‘service users’ but neither is their perspective that of the general citizen – the availability of good social care services is a much more important and pressing issue.
The Rowntree report includes in depth studies of two local authorities, Salford and Dorset, who are seen as models of good practice. In both cases one of the keys to bridging the gap between ‘citizens’ and ‘service users’ seems to be the involvement of Older People’s forums and of organisations arising from the ‘POPPS’ (Partnerships with Older People Programme) projects. Older people were involved influencing the planning and development of extra care housing, helping to redesign older people’s mental health services, and redesigning hospital and community services.
So there are a whole range of ways in which older people can take control of services. Rights, democratic control, involvement of service users and of groups representing a broader range of older people, personal budgets, good quality systems, with effective mechanisms for giving a voice to service users, mutual and peer support, and outright service user control should all be on the agenda.