To see ourselves as others see us

Okay, so I’m a bit late for Burns Night, but I read something today that put me in mind of his oeuvre, to wit:

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion…”

I’m here to tell you that this very giftie has just been given to me in the shape of the paperwork attached to an ongoing tender exercise for mental health care & support, as a result of which I now have the Power to see the voluntary sector as others see it. Here’s what it says (with some emphases added by me):

The organisation awarded a contract for the Short Term Individual Recovery Service will not be permitted to deliver both these services and ongoing/long term support services.  This is because there is a risk of conflict of interest for a provider delivering both services who may be in a position of selecting/recommending a long term service following provision of the Short Term Individual Recovery Service. Consequently providers who have been awarded onto [the] Council’s Framework for…ongoing/long term support service, are not disbarred from tendering but if successful the tenderer understands and accepts that it shall be required to withdraw from the relevant Framework Agreement for ongoing/long term services.”

I’m finding it very hard, having read this paragraph, to avoid the conclusion that this Council sees voluntary sector organisations as self-serving, rapacious business operations that will, given half the chance, advance their own commercial interests at the expense of the people they support.

And here we were, all this time, labouring under the foolish notion that our public sector colleagues value us as partners, working together to achieve the best possible outcomes for people. I think, in the case of this council at least, we can henceforth consider ourselves freed from that particular blunder.

When I shared this nugget with a provider Chief Exec of my acquaintance, she commented thus: “this basically says ‘we don’t trust you, or your integrity as an organisation, to do the right thing for people’. I have long suspected this, but have never seen it so blatantly exhibited.”

It’s hard to disagree. I am also struck by the council’s implicit admission that its own social work assessment and care management arrangements are so ineffectual as to render it completely incapable of applying any professional judgement in circumstances where a conflict of interest might be deemed to exist. Worse, this clause indicates that even in circumstances where a person’s longer-term needs will best be met by the same organisation that supported them in crisis, that option will have been ruled out from the start.

And so we are presented with yet another example of the professional social work task being totally usurped by the blunt instrument of contracting procedure. Those who have been struggling with the internal contradictions of framework tenders for self-directed support Option 2 will surely recognise this phenomenon, whereby councils similarly award themselves the power to pre-determine, through a procurement process, which organisations are capable of meeting people’s needs, and which are not, before those needs (or even those people) have been identified or assessed.

Once you start peeling back the layers, the problems mount up; and once you see something like this in a tender, it prompts you to dig a bit further. In this instance, it didn’t take long to find another head-scratcher.

Not unreasonably, the council wants its recovery services to be innovative. Yet the tender makes it clear that, ahem, “Variant Tenders will not be considered”. So you can innovate, but only within the parameters set out in seventy-odd pages of contractual rules and limitations.

I will – for the time being at least – spare the blushes of this particular public authority, although at some point I might break cover in the interests of further exposing the harsh reality behind all the warm words that people like to bandy about these days in the context of statutory-voluntary relations: co-production, collaboration, parity of esteem, and so forth.

In the meantime, I shall simply reflect further on the perspicacity of Burns’ insights, and their applicability to the modern condition.

That poem, by the way, is called “To a Louse”. Go figure.