Criticism of a complacent Fabian

Apparently I’m a complacent Fabian.  I’ve just got round to reading Peter Beresford’s book, All our welfare (Policy Press, 2016).  Throughout his career he’s argued consistently for greater participation and empowerment for user services.  This is not his best work – I wanted to see more about what he’s proposing – but it continues to make the case.  He doesn’t like conventional studies in Social Policy (he lays into Peter Townsend at some length), and he certainly doesn’t like what I’ve written.  He cites this section from my text on Social Policy.  To keep the comments in context, I’ve bracketed off some bits he’s left out.

[The recipients of social services are not only disadvantaged in terms of their relationship with producers … The stigmatisation of recipients, their lack of resources and status, and their vulnerability pose important problems for the social services.  The development of formal mechanisms for protection, and substantive rights, offers a means by which the people who receive services are not solely dependent on decisions made by the producers of welfare; these rights represent one of the most important means through which recipients can be empowered.  But the social disadvantages remain;] people who are poor, disabled, mentally ill or unemployed cannot be expected to overcome the problems they face simply because they have more effective control over services.  [There are then limits to what it is possible to achieve in the narrow context of service delivery.]  It is important, too, not to overestimate the potential effects of this kind of procedure.  Dwyer lists some of the key objections to user-based approaches.  There are conflicts of interest between users of different types; users are often in competition for scarce resources with others; user groups can lose touch with their grass roots; and the process as a whole can contribute to the exclusion of marginal groups.

Last year I posted some material from a text that was complaining that I was part of a left-wing conspiracy.  Now it seems I’m part of another one, to suppress people who are marginalised.  Beresford writes (pp 355, 363):

It is difficult … not to detect some degree of complacency in social policy academic writings.  These have shown a reluctance to take on the bold new ideas and arguments developed by welfare user movements.  A strong sense of Fabian ‘business as usual’ lingers.  … [This] leads to one, more privileged, group offering its prescriptions for another, marginalised and devalued, group.  How else can we explain the routine exclusions that books like Spicker’s seems to rest on?

3 thoughts on “Criticism of a complacent Fabian”

  1. I have come across this sort of ‘reactionary victimhood’ thinking before at meetings portraying the ideas that Beresford and others go on about. It is very critical of the welfare system because I think that what we are seeing is an adverse reaction from people who were able once to fend for themselves coming to terms with a system that (was) set up to help them. The traditional poor could be seen as un or semi skilled whose working lives can go up and down like a helter skelter. But now these are joined increasingly by well educated folk for one reason or another for whom the economy has little to offer or just do not need.

    I think that attitudes like this are indeed fuelled by ever increasing entryism of people becoming poor (without waged work and little asset base) – people who may come from what were untypical backgrounds to qualify for benefits or other State help (lower middle class perhaps?). If the middle class is indeed shrinking due to austerity and jobs being displaced by technology then this makes sense. We actually have a group of well educated people entering the state benefit system who find the system strange and unhelpful (which under the Tories in particular has got worse as they seem to think that by making the system worse, they will ‘nudge’ people into going a way in my view). They will have somehwat higher expectations?

    Beresford’s critique is also redolent of the neo-lib critques of the public sector – notorious of course for ignoring the fact that the private sector also does exactly the same sort of thing (empire building and making oneself seem indispensible – look at banking for example). But he does have a point. If our highly educated people cannot get work and need state help (as it was designed) does the system enable people to work within it or is just a blunt dumb service?

    Looking at the cuts to public services a lot of Beresford’s issues can be blamed on increased automation and self service of the welfare system which winds up existing and the new poor alike. John Seddon’s work on ‘failure demand’ needs to be more widely appreciated in the public sector but how can it be when the Tories want to make the PS worse?

    I worked in housing for around 11 years in tenant participation – a system that was meant to improve services for tenants and it did and still can. The problem is that landlords still love to create loads of structures (boards etc) to help tenants to help the RSL administer the service. This takes up loads of time and tenants very often lack the skills and time to be meainginfully involved relying on what Margaret Ledwith /Pablo Friere calls a ‘naive conciousness’ rather than the critical consciousness needed to actually improve services (they turn up and attend meetings they do not really understand and may indeed vote on making decisons that make fellow tenants lives harder). Tenants can also be used by unscrupulous managers and directors to help these powerful individuals acheive THEIR objectives.

    All that is really needed is that any public service just needs to sit down with its service users on a regular basis and find out how it is doing and then improve the service from there. The end user is the feedback loop. That is all. The social housing world has certainly made this more complicated. If you are a tenant your landlord may believe that you have the right to be on the Board. But why? I have a Nikon camera but that does not give me the right to be on Nikon’s Board. But Nikon do ask me about their gear an awful lot and they have loads of online reviews to look for trends in attitudes to their products.

    So I get back to my other objection to Beresford – that it is all about power and it is unfair that the user seemingly has none. This is just about one group adjusting to the fact that needing a job or income or medical treatment makes people feel vulnerable anyway so of course you are going to have to go to the welfare system at some point in your life where you are not going to be in control of what happens because you vying with other peoples’ needs. So what is the big deal? Beresford seems to want welfare and other public sector servcies to be ran like private hospitals.

    But what should that system look and behave like when you turn to it for help? I keep dipping into your book Welfare: A General Theory. If I was going to rebuild the system I would use that as the basis of a renewal of the welfare system – serioulsy now – I’m not just saying this because this is your blog. What we need is a good bunch of principals and more importantly people who are intellectually and financially committed to making a welfare system work (hate that word – how about ‘citizen support system’?). We do not have that at the moment.

    Anyhow that’s my POV on this matter.

    1. I started in housing, and for many years I would have said much the same as you about tenant participation. It does trouble me, too, that some of the arguments that are presented for empowerment – notably arguments for personalisation and personal budgets – have been made in terms equivalent to arguments for marketisation. Over time, however, I’ve become more persuaded of the value of user empowerment, partly because of the strength of arguments for co-production – “nothing about me without me” – but primarily because of the work that’s been done in developing countries. Amartya Sen links democracy centrally with welfare, and I’ve come to think that’s right.

      My thanks for your endorsement of The Welfare State: a general theory.

  2. I thought about mentioning co-creation myself but felt that I’d written enough. Co-creation would have been the next step up to me but when I mentioned it as a concept to senior managers it just went over their heads. I like co-creation because it can be a very efficient method of harvesting feedback and giving the end user very quick returns from their involvement and also fits in wiith the idea of kaizen – the idea that an organisation can change the way it works by making adjustmenst to processes without having to stop delivering a service.

    However, you have to have a good system upon which to co-create around – and again a revised and well funded citizen support system as put forward by you rolled out locally is still a necessity in my view.


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