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Life Is Not a Commodity

Author: Bob Rhodes

Bob Rhodes reflects on the difficulties of getting people to rethink their view of public services and the welfare system and to move towards an approach which respects citizenship, family and community.

Yesterday I was in a Northern city. In terms of what I have to say I could have been a guest of local government in lots of places, but yesterday that is where I was. I had been asked to contribute to a session that 2 wonderful support broker friends of ours – who are also committed members of the National Support Brokerage Network - had been asked to organise by a local social care commissioner. 

The City Council seemed to want to hear about Support Brokerage and its relevance to their plans in implementing self-directed support and the wider personalisation agenda. They planned to invite both their own key personnel and their partners from the providers sector and they described the session as training - locating the event in the council’s training facility. We had started to plan the event and, as things progressed, enquired what fees and expenses this large public body (which employs very large numbers) was expecting to pay for our skills and knowledge. “There isn’t any money for this”, they said. But we, keen to influence thinking, went ahead.

Before the session started and people set their mobile distraction devices to stimulating silent vibration mode (don’t ask me where they keep them) some took calls and advised folk that they were in ‘training’, so could they call back later?

To my mind education and training is, at least in part, concerned with the acquisition of knowledge and skills. We weren’t naive – we recognised that the session was implicitly ‘contracted’ as a shop window for us to show case our services. But equally we are passionate about what we do and our belief that support brokerage is a simple and self-evident set of principles that are accessible to and applicable to everyone – not something to be occupied and professionalised by self-interested workers and organisations.

We set out with experiential exercises and stories to demonstrate the benefits of helping folk get clear about how they want to live - whatever their difficulties. 

We think that the essential components of a decent life arise when we:

  • build on relationships and the resulting social capital
  • think creatively to generate lots of possibilities before finalising any plan
  • remedy loneliness and isolation, and promote community association. 

We repeatedly stressed the importance of finding sustainable ways of helping people achieve their expectations by exploring relationships, associations, and community assets – the counterpoint to the general tendency to see solutions as paid for services. We reinforced a message that the principles and key guidelines associated with support brokerage can be understood and implemented, sometimes with enabling support, by just about everyone.

This was not what a lot of our audience were there to glean. The most senior Council officer present, after introducing the event by clarifying that there would be no money for new initiatives (while we pointed out repeatedly that there is a lot of cash that can be applied very differently and more effectively). He described a number of ‘personalisation lite’ initiatives in which he was involved, and was seen to continuously finger his distraction device and dominate group exercises, before needing to leave early. After his own session a colleague observed that he only appeared to be fully engaged when he ask about the hourly rate charged by brokers.

An assertive voluntary sector leader, as we broke into groups for “how might we take the principles of support brokerage forward” end session, protested, with support from a colleague, that we had not said anything about principles. When we demonstrated that that was pretty much all we had explored that morning it was quickly apparent that what she really meant was that, in the event that the Council should tender a contract for the provision of Support Brokerage services, we had not provided a template for any organisation to bid successfully. I replied, “Hiyo ni nini ni kuhusu”. Well, actually I didn’t; but I might as well have been speaking Swahili. For those of us who believe that social services are only valid as complementary to what individuals, families, friends and communities do best seem to speak a different tongue to those who have been groomed in the acid consumer rhetoric of the social market. It’s not their fault any more than the integrity of any citizen who doesn’t think to question the incongruity of an inherited monarchy within a professed democracy should be impugned. But it is sad.

Many public service workers I met yesterday came along to find out how to specify and commission – that is commodify – tasks that we can educate most people to do for themselves or for others. Many others came along to prepare themselves to exploit such a business opportunity. How perverse!


The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Life is Not a Commodity © Bob Rhodes 2012.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.