It’s obvious that informal support and social networks can be critical to the way society looks after its members. When people can use their social networks to get support without going through formal agencies, there are social and economic benefits. Has the time finally come for this logic to be recognised in policy? (Image from Viil Lid).
I happen to think this is quite a big deal. I’m just back from an utterly absorbing study tour in the Netherlands, organised by my friend Jan Steyaert for researchers from the Centre for Social Justice in the UK. We were exploring policy issues around the changing nature of social care in the post-welfare society, and Eindhoven is replete with thought-provoking initiatives and articulate people who have been reflecting on the significant shifts implied for practitioners and citizens. I tagged along to make wonky observations in the background, a role to which I seem to be peculiarly suited.
The basis of lots of urgent fresh thinking is the 2007 Social Support Act (known as the Wmo) which requires a shift in care work and social work towards what is known as ‘welfare new style’. Of course, as in the UK and elsewhere, much of this is driven by the mismatch between increasing care costs and shrinking public funds; but here, unlike with big society, there is immediate and valuing recognition of people's pre-existing connections.
The main points that dominated discussion of Dutch care practice were these:
- Focus on the strengths and resources of the individual, not on their problems
- Map, stimulate and involve the individual’s social network as a key resource
- Emphasise collective rather than individual support solutions
- Use professional care as a ‘last resort’.
I think this is both radical and exemplary. Quite apart from the community development principle of bringing collective solutions into the frame, here we have at last got governmental justification for stimulating social networks, with policy makers pushing care agencies of all kinds to pay due attention to people’s social connections. For example, one disability adviser who visits people with particular needs begins with a conversation based on a simple social network mapping template. Expect to see rapid standardisation of social network mapping in the Dutch public sector.
No-one seemed to know how the idea came so marvellously to be given such primacy, but here it is. And the logic is straightforward. For a long time it has been apparent that formal care is too dominant, has unacknowledged negative effects, and is provided at unaffordable levels. Ergo, we need to recognise and invest in informal support; ergo, we need to emphasise and encourage social networks – especially at local level. Why has this not happened before or elsewhere? Is it because we don’t make measureable claims for the part played by social networks, because we can’t see the results? Is it because no budget gets attached to them, so no-one with influence wants to ‘own’ them? Incidentally, this is not about consigning professional care to insignificance, but about re-establishing an appropriate balance between formal and informal.
In theory the Wmo seems to use the term ‘informal care’ with reference mainly to long term intensive carers. But the term seemed also to be used to imply what we might call informal support, thus covering a broad spectrum from low-commitment, dip-in dip-out five minute neighbouring; through something regular perhaps like weekly shopping with or for a frail elderly person; to high-intensity 24x7 unpaid care for someone with physical disabilities. This breadth of meaning may reflect developments in thinking since the act, and would account for the emphasis on social networks.
One advice worker rationalised the process by saying that as a society,
‘We have to go back to normal and look after each other.’
And so philosophical and anthropological questions about ‘community’ get raised. On what scale and under what circumstances is it 'normal' to provide informal support to others? The nostalgic plea doesn’t work very well, I suggest: some people challenge the mythology of the close-knit community, others point to the downsides and the basis in necessity neighbouring, and so on. Against that, we need some basis on which to establish the levels of trust that can in turn give rise to useable network connections.
An acknowledged problem for the Dutch approach is that many people are reluctant to ask for support, to make claims on their social network, to invest in their social network or exploit it for such purposes. One observation we heard was that in some cases ‘the social network is broken’. Another story concerned an individual who appeared at first to have no appropriate sources of support, then when they went out onto the street with the social worker there was plenty of recognition by others and the individual acknowledged,
‘yes of course I have a network, but I didn’t want the network to know my situation’.
We heard about this on several occasions and in particular in the significant research of Lilian Linders – which I happen to know a little about and which I will describe in a separate post in the near future.