A life-first approach: What citizens want from support services

December 7, 2017

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By Rebekah Menzies, Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

On Monday 27 November, the Carnegie UK Trust held an event to launch the report ‘What Do Citizens Want: How professional help and support fits into day to day lives,’ in partnership with The University of Edinburgh and What Works Scotland. This blog sets out some of the key themes that emerged from discussions.

“Command and control is a strain of DNA that runs through our public services,” said Professor Richard Kerley, as he opened our event last Monday. This is despite international research, and our own experiences as individuals, citizens and users of services. Feeling in control, and having a voice and a choice, are known to have a positive impact on the success of our interactions with public services.

Governments and services across the UK and further afield are grappling with how to work against their DNA, and are in the midst of a shift in thinking about the role of government and the relationships between the state, and citizens and communities. Much of this is explored in the Trust’s literature on the Enabling State. As part of this, public services must be designed to support personal and community agency. They must be flexible and responsive enough to wrap around, rather than get in the way, of existing strengths, aspirations and networks. An enabling state recognises that government and public services are just one aspect of our lives and that some aspects of our wellbeing are best improved through interactions with our friends, family and our local community.

Our research with a small number of users of housing services reaffirm this. Three strong and recurrent themes emerged from the research as being important for people who access professional help and support. These are the importance of the joyful and fulfilled life – our friends, family and interests; the shared and neighbourhood life – when we all come together to support each other; and the independent but supported life – the control and ability to pursue individual interests, but with additional help and support to thrive, not just survive. We were delighted that a number of our research participants could join us for the launch.

We heard reflections on the research from representatives of our three partner housing associations – Loretto Housing, LinkLiving and Blackwood. While one partner remarked that research can be uncomfortable as it “shines a light on your own organisation,” they recognised the themes from the research. In particular, they recognised the importance of everyday, informal relationships and networks as being important to people – as they are what everyone would want. How to enable and support these as service provides is where the challenge lies.

Participants at the event were part of a workshop session to identify the barriers and enablers to the joyful and fulfilled life; the shared and neighbourhood life; and the independent but supported life. Some of the barriers identified include the low valued placed on the care profession; a lack of space to come together as a community and engage; and the continued focus on resources and inputs to make decisions, instead of people and outcomes.

Some of the enablers identified include giving care professionals the time and space to be kind, and trusting them to have the confidence to act with discretion; changing the dominant narrative and highlighting good news stories and joy; and particular practices such as participatory budgeting to grow individual and community agency and empowerment.

Dr Oliver Escobar of What Works Scotland and The University of Edinburgh closed the event. Reflecting on the afternoon’s discussion, Oliver spoke about the role of emotions and language in public services. Our public services have been built on the assumption that reason and emotion can be separated. But this is a myth, backed up by neuroscience, and we need to bring these back together.

The language we use in public services is important, as it can be loaded with a number of assumptions. The use of the words ‘customer,’ ‘client,’ and ‘customer engagement’ have emerged from business. Oliver reflected on how this suggests an unequal relationship, where ‘customers’ receive a service from people who are in positions of power, and suggested that we need to rescue the language we use from business and humanise it.

Many of the themes that emerged from the research link with the Carnegie UK Trust’s work on kindness. Kindness is everywhere, despite all the things that conspire against it in our systems and public services.

Oliver closed by saying that although resources are tight, many of the issues we see in our public services were there long before austerity and squeezed budgets. In Scotland, we can see innovation in the community empowerment, social justice and public service reform agendas. But we can go further by putting kindness, humanity, joy and compassion at the heart of our services.

Please share this blog on Twitter and with others who might be interested tagging @CarnegieUKTrust #Services4Citizens

Photos credit of Alan S. Morrison, ASM Media and PR.