Open Forum – Jane Campbell

At this year’s National Social Services Conference the organisers – the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Association of Directors of Social Services (ADSS) – had to decide whether to give disabled service users a platform.

Representatives from a parallel conference of Centres for Independent Living (CIL) requested a five-minute slot on the main stage to tell delegates about problems in the procurement process that are threatening such organisations with closure.

With the current rhetoric about placing users at the centre of social care provision, you might assume a platform was readily provided. Not so. Protracted negotiations revealed tensions between the rhetoric of service-user involvement and professional capability to make it happen. At the centre of this struggle was an unwillingness to take risks. 

Observing the discussions between the LGA, ADSS and CIL representatives’ greater power seemed to lie with the latter. They felt free to negotiate and take risks, even though they were in the weaker position of self- advocating. Eventually the social services directors present remembered their values and purpose and opened themselves up to sound argument. I was particularly impressed by two ADSS members who mirrored the listening, inclusive style promoted by the Social Care Institute for Excellence.

In the end a compromise was reached. Julie Jones, the new ADSS president, agreed to directly quote from the CIL resolution in her inaugural speech. CIL representatives were allowed to witness the statement and distribute leaflets afterwards. A commitment was made by the ADSS to establish a commissioning protocol that will go some way to address the independent living movement’s concerns about user-led services.

So did rhetoric become reality? Partly. An important shift occurred in the mindset of the social service professionals. It must be hoped that defaulting back to old practices will be that much more difficult next year.

Jane Campbell is chair of the Social Care Institute for Excellence

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