What skills will be needed in a ‘relational state’?

Catherine Needham

The IPPR report Many to Many: How the Relational State will Transform Public Services, has been hard to miss this week. As well as today’s launch event, the themes of the report featured in a speech by Jon Cruddas to the New Local Government Network and were also present in Ed Miliband’s Huge Young lecture for the Guardian on Monday evening.

The key message – that future public services need to be based on deep relationships at the frontline  – is hard to argue with. In a wide range of services including social care, maternity services, schools, youth offending and employment programmes, the report makes the case for moving away from the shallow engagement that characterises many people’s experiences. Lead professionals are seen as one of the key interventions here, enabling the provision of sustained interaction with a single member of staff. ‘Whole person’ and ‘whole place’ approaches need to replace siloed working.

The report had a few important omissions. For example, I was hoping that in the ‘Politics’ or ‘Money’ sections it might discuss the need for a national response to the chronic underfunding of care services, something that goes beyond the very limited proposals in the Care Bill. Without national political leadership to bring more money into the care system it is hard to envisage the emergence of the sorts of intensive and personalised form of home care that the report describes.

I would also have liked to see more on how the interpersonal skills for relational working will be developed in the public service workforce. There was brief allusion to the need for ongoing professional development  (pp.59-60) but much of the report gave the sense that public service workers have a natural ability to relate and emote which is being constrained by bureaucratic and market-oriented systems. We just need people who behave ‘like “real people” (p35). If we can just transfer more autonomy to the frontline and encourage more multi-disciplinary working, the report seems to imply, then we will set staff free to build these relationships. But of course for staff who have been trained in more transactional and technological types of service (recently trained social workers for example) those relational skills may be underdeveloped. Too much focus on professional development ignores the generic skills which underpin relational work (the ability to be a navigator of systems, a weaver of resources, a storyteller helping citizens to communicate what they want).

The emotional labour of deeply relational public service work is also an area where the report could have said more. Turning some hospital wards into units for the rapid processing of routine operations (p70) fails to consider what it is like to  work in that kind of factory-like environment, where relating and emoting are squeezed out by the need for rapid processing. For those who are engaged in the deeply relational forms of support – personal assistants in the care sector for example – relating can take its toll.  Personal assistants have more opportunity than other care workers to build intimacy, spending sustained periods of time with an employer in a home setting, but may experience difficulties in establishing boundaries and appropriate working practices when they are treated as ‘one of the family’. Migrant workers in particular have found it difficult to set boundaries around their relational work.

Of course reports can’t cover anything and hopefully this is just the start of a debate about how to get from where we are to a ‘relational state’.

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