A relational state needs a politics of recognition


Emilie Whitaker

The recent IPPR report, Many to many: How the relational state will transform public services is an excellent starting point for the reevaluation of public service work along holistic and humanistic lines. The paper argues that we need systems which support deeper relationships between professionals and the people they work with and services premised on joint working underpinned by a relational-ethos. It may seem an obvious point to make, but the strength of the IPPR report is in the way it identifies the importance of interdependence for wellbeing. However, the report does not address the ways in which public service professionals need recognition in order to deliver on the promises of a relational state. There is a presumption, identified in Catherine Needham’s post, that public service workers have an ability to relate but are constrained by neo-liberal market logics. Yet, this relational skill within social work in particular, is being undermined by a dearth of recognition.

I have recently spent time with a team of social workers who are trying to implement self-directed support (SDS) with families who have a disabled child. SDS is premised on increasing family choice and control over how they support their child and live their lives. Despite the social workers’ commitment to the ideals of empowering practice and self-determination, they were hamstrung by complex assessment processes and paperwork. The learning was that empowering practice is difficult to achieve within an institutional framework pervaded by risk logics.

Harry Ferguson identifies a pervasive ‘deficit language’ in contemporary social work. He writes that social workers “find themselves without a language to express the highly skilled and meaningful relationship based practice they do perform. The point is that the positive, generous work they do that deserves to be celebrated goes unrecognised by all, themselves included.” The practical help of form-filling for tax credits, or arranging a regular cab service for a disabled child to see friends involves a quiet form of empathy, warmth and understanding that is almost always erased from broader discussion. The recognition of positive work provides a sense of worth.

Those who regularly find themselves in the political firing line and who are denied recognition can struggle to articulate a language of success. Without that recognition, maintaining the strength to do deep-value work is compromised. Burnout, guilt and low morale tend to follow. Recruitment and retention stall. All compromise high quality work with families.

The system I observed and Ferguson’s ‘deficit language’ are symptomatic of a failure to value relationships and to recognise the informal, often mundane supports that good social work provides. Flow-charts, performance indicators and complex assessments, convert relationship-based practice into a series of low-level tasks, stripping the work of its meaning. These processes serve to obscure and interrupt relationships as people are reduced to needs in search of outcomes. They erect barriers between people, who feel ‘done to’ rather than ‘worked with’. They are time-consuming and distract attention away from the vitalism of work with people.

Systems are after all cultural artefacts for dominant ideas – indicators of what we value, how we see people and each other. In her widely supported review of child protection Eileen Munro said, “Helping children is a human process. When the bureaucratic aspects of work become too dominant, the heart of the work is lost.” This sentiment applies across the breadth of work covered in the IPPR report. Yet, the report does not explore how the relational state will be achieved from the point of mutual recognition, the citizen and the worker. Stephen Webb’s wide-ranging politics of recognition piece is an excellent place to start to consider why this matters.

Addressing how we recognise public service work necessarily involves tackling ideas, cultures and systems which inhibit service users and professionals from working together. Peter Beresford, academic and campaigner, has made this point repeatedly; that strength comes from working together in a relationship premised on mutual respect, warmth and empathy. The choice facing proponents of the relational state is in Fraser’s terms, between affirmative and transformative remedies. Affirmative remedies tackle systems through social arrangements without disturbing the underlying generative frameworks. Simon Duffy from the Centre for Welfare Reform has suggested that perhaps personalisation as currently implemented falls into this category. Transformative remedies restructure wholesale power relationships. Transformative remedies attempt to dismantle the processes that separate and atomise people from one another, whilst tackling pervasive ideas driving such logics.

Emile Whitaker is a Doctoral Researcher in the School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham. She tweets as @Whitaker_Emilie

One thought on “A relational state needs a politics of recognition

  1. Dear Emily,
    Sorry for the delay – I have been working in Canberra and Sydney.Fully endorse your observations regarding the interface between professionals and their clientele.Too often the interactions are limited to ‘the needs of the case’ and there is no folow through to the political action required to make a significant difference.In this way we let politicians and other policy makers off the hook by not challenging the ideolgical basis which underpins their actions.This disconnect means that we are operating on the basis of Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s’ambulance at the bottom of the clif approach’ to social problems.Nothing changes.
    Best wishes,

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