No need for heroes

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a new breed of superhero.
Armed with supernatural communication skills, Advocate-Woman
understands what clients want and what they should get. With a few
well chosen words she can wrest the best possible deal out of the
grasp of villainous service providers. Her mission – to empower the
powerless, prevent injustice, and improve life-chances.

As superheroes go, advocates have their uses, but they’re not what
you need if you’re hanging from a window-sill by your fingernails.
The thing is, your adversary shouldn’t have been given the power to
throw you out the window in the first place, and/or you should have
been given the power to stop them. In fact, they should not have
been an adversary – their mission too should be to empower the
powerless, etc.

Advocacy is flavour of the month. Over recent weeks it has cropped
up in discussions as diverse as children who foster, careers advice
for young people, young offenders, age discrimination against older
workers, restraint under mental health legislation, victims of
torture, the life-chances of disabled people(1) and the adult
social care green paper. But is advocacy really the universal
panacea this might suggest? Or, is there a more sinister message –
we can deprive you of power, information and even civil liberties,
but never mind, you’ve nothing to fear – your advocate is

It has always been the case that some people have louder voices
than others, and while all may have rights to freedom of speech,
not all will be heard. Traditionally, rights have been seen as the
means to pump up the volume and get demands met. Rights force
action from those who otherwise don’t have to and would prefer not
to hear. They clarify who can have what and on what basis, promote
equitable treatment and transparency. Or so they should.
Unfortunately, it was never that simple, partly because
rights-based systems rarely are. Witness, for example, welfare
rights, anti-discrimination rights and employment rights. There may
be legislative frameworks of entitlement and procedures, but they
can be absurdly complex. To some extent they have to be because so
too are people’s identities, circumstances and needs. If people
could be neatly slotted into one of a few alternative boxes, it
would be a
doddle. But they can’t, so it isn’t.

The broad direction of government policy is towards a personalised
approach, discretion, flexibility and choice. Models such as
“individualised budgets”, offer a promising way forwards. Yet, in
contradiction, there are instances of increased compulsion, such as
with mental health legislation. The upshot of both approaches could
be to give more power to service providers. More discretion could
mean more responsibility and choice for them, not users. This is
particularly likely if users are ill-equipped to exercise choice
and responsibility. Sometimes advocacy becomes essential because
people have less power and control, sometimes because, in theory at
least, they are being given more.

It doesn’t follow that if you’ve got advocacy you don’t need
rights. Neither is it obvious that discretionary systems are any
less complex than rights-based ones. Whether rights-based or
discretionary, service-users are not necessarily empowered to act
for themselves. Droves of intermediaries, whether cast as advocates
or advisers, have long proven essential to inform people, help them
present their case and challenge decisions.

In the new era of personalised flexibility, we should not lose
sight of the importance of equitable (as in non-discriminatory)
treatment, clarity about who gets what and why, and power to
challenge unsatisfactory treatment. Advocacy mustn’t become an
excuse for the erosion of rights or for unnecessarily complex,
inaccessible services and information. It must not become a prop to
support unreceptive providers and passive recipients. Adding to
users’ power through advocacy is not an acceptable alternative to
giving them real powers and capacity-building so they can exercise
them. But it won’t always be possible for users to self-advocate,
there will always be complexity and many will continue to need
expert support. Access to advocacy, therefore, remains

Advocates need to be independent of providers if users are to have
confidence in them. They need the skills and clear standards
against which to be held accountable, to make sure they express
their clients’ views rather than their own. But they should not
have to be superheroes, any more than users should be powerless, or
providers villainous. Despite being merely mortal, advocates have a
vital role to play as part of a much wider strategy to bring power
to the people.

(1) Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, Improving the Life-Chances of
Disabled People, 2005

Sally Witcher is a freelance consultant and researcher. She
was formerly director of the Child Poverty Action

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