Harley’s daydreams on resilience

My colleague Harley came to a workshop where we were discussing what resilience means for public service. His views, much like his style, are very much his own. Here they are for your perusal (they end on an odd mixed swimming and fishing analogy):

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. For me, this analogy neatly sums up the ‘resilience’ approach. For a long time, the public sector has sought to ‘help’ the communities it serves by doing things for them or, even, to them. Whilst intentions are undoubtedly good, such paternalistic attitudes imply a sense of superiority; a sense that we know what is best.

In health policy, the area where I work, the ideas of ‘user-defined outcomes’ and ‘person-centred care’ have been around for a long time. What is enlightening about these examples is just how different are the things that matter to people and professionals. A frail older person or someone with a long-term condition (diseases that can be managed with medicines but not cured) may simply want to maintain their independence and spend as much time as possible in their own home. Professionals, on the other hand, tend to overlook the importance of these things, focusing instead on the results of a particular treatment. There are some wonderful examples of person-centred care working but still too often, it seems like it is the exception rather than the rule.

The resilience workshop I attended the other day with Alex and some other colleagues really made me think about the paternalistic attitudes which are so often the default setting in the public sector. Why is it so difficult to get away from this instinct to deliver services to people rather than encouraging them to find ways to help themselves?

For me, there are important historical factors at play here. Since the late 70s, government has tried to remake itself more and more in the image of the private sector – efficient, responsive, reliable (see new public management theory). An economic relationship between government and the people where the purpose of government is to deliver more and more efficient services to people in exchange for taxation. This marketised relationship between governors and governed is akin to a sort of customer-consumer relationship – an unequal relationship where the job of the public sector is to serve the public. And of course, a side-effect of this is a kind of unintentional infantilisation of the public it serves.

What the workshop did for me is get me to think about the skills, knowledge and resources of the public as assets that both we, as public sector professionals and others can tap into. As an example, there are a lot of people out there who have poor health because they have a terrible diet. They probably spend a lot of money on expensive, often processed and unhealthy food. But equally, there are people out there who are fantastic home cooks who know how to prepare healthy meals and have a wealth of information to share. Instead of thinking in the first instance, “what services should we commission for these groups?”, we should be thinking, “how can we broker relationships between these two groups so that they can help each other?” And the thing is, not only does this help tackle the health problems associated with poor diet, it also reduces isolation and builds a sense of community.

Just before I go, I want to reflect on the genesis and drivers of the resilience approach. A cynic would be forgiven for saying that this is all just a way of justifying the reduction in public services made necessary by the financial situation faced by local government. The conclusion that I have reached following the workshop is that whilst it is true local government can no longer afford to deliver the scale of public services it once used to, it doesn’t follow that a resilience approach is not a helpful philosophy. The proof in the pudding will be whether we continue to think this way once/if the budgets from yesteryear ever return.

To sum up, if you saw somebody drowning and you knew how to swim, your instinct would be to rescue them. But if this person was likely to fall in the water again and again, the best course of action would be to teach them how to swim. The resilience approach is about teaching people to swim…or fish.

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