My practice – Meic Phillips

Being over-consulted has become as irritating as being under-consulted for some supported housing residents, says Meic Phillips 

“The problem with being a service user in a supported housing setting is that one is ‘consulted’ into overkill.”

This comment by a service user at an elders’ group was greeted with a resounding chorus of agreement.

In the past, social workers tried to enable a person who experienced disadvantage and lack of access to return to a position where they were as close as possible to making the “ordinary” choices, options and lifestyle elements that society offered.

But for vulnerable people, being treated as a customer creates a far from normal experience.

For example, in 2005, I was at a sheltered housing scheme that had been consulted by their Supporting People team, landlord, support provider, care provider, their warden’s manager, the service involvement manager, a student leading on an outcomes pilot for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and three times by the local authority, which was engaged in Best Value activity.

Bodies that consult users often face resistance from people who submit critical or rejection notes, or shove the paperwork in the bin; they choose not to be “participation-ised”.

As a service user, consultation might happen at a time in your life when you are struggling to keep up with the pressure and commitments of daily living, and harbour feelings of low esteem that sometimes accompany the recognition that one needs a care and support service.

A survey of many older people in sheltered housing at the turn of the millennium by the National Consortium for Sheltered Housing provided a summary slogan of the warden support service: it was “A little bit of help when I need it” – implying that services are sometimes delivered whether you need them or not!

The service user quoted at the beginning of this article also said: “If I were to own my own home or be a tenant of a private, commercial landlord I would not face a barrage of customer or service user consultation overload. I would be allowed to get on with my life in relative quiet and would use other mechanisms to express my dissatisfaction, such as advice centres, my local community centre, democratic representative or other advocacy systems, even a lawyer.”

With so many agencies engaging in consultation, perhaps we could learn from councils which are trying to prevent the same piece of the road being dug up by half a dozen agencies and explore ways of joint consulting to improve quality and reduce the quantity of such activity.

Meic Phillips is assistant director of Epic Trust, a care and support provider in London

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