Saturday, 19 December 2009

A Copenhagen for the ageing crisis? Short moan. This past couple of years I've been at quite a few events about social policy and older people, and on each occasion conscientiously made a point from the floor about the ageing population and the looming crisis of informal care. I've written to people in think tanks and the Guardian and so on, and blogged about it. Policy concerning older people in this country is largely concerned with pensions and benefits, and those themes dominate the debates and the thinking. Back in July I sounded more patient, referring to 'the simmering question of quite when policy will get hold of the issue of informal social care and start to do something about it. Given the difficulty I had in getting the ageing agencies interested in neighbouring I'm not sure where the impetus is going to come from.' Just for reference and as an indicator, the recent government consultation on the Ageing Strategy had just two questions in the section (ch.8) on communities and neighbourhoods: Q9. When you stopped driving, what helped you stay mobile and active in your community? What options would have helped? Q10. We want to improve attitudes towards ageing across society. What more could be done to challenge outdated stereotypes and tackle negative perceptions about being old? Can you share good examples of where this is already happening in your local community? I'd feel even more disillusioned if it weren't for the fact that in the Netherlands they're doing something about it, running several pilot projects on how to stimulate informal support at local level, and I'm lucky enough to be involved in that work. In the UK, policy blindness to this growing crisis is a disgrace. End of moan, for the time being, because here's Jackie Ashley in the Guardian with more influence, arguing that 'It could be as serious a threat as climate change, yet so far politicians have barely considered what needs to be done about our ageing population.' How long will the politicians leave it before any Copenhagen-style twelfth hour consideration, I wonder?
Pause, look back, reflect Julian Dobson uses a handy live metaphor, a 404 on the community empowerment action plan, to illustrate the fickleness of priorities in government policy. He points to the amount of energy that gets put into whatever is the current Big Idea until it moves into the 'file and forget' phase. I was told at the time of the empowerment white paper that more than 100 officials were working on it, suggesting a CLG equivalent of Parkinson's law, that work consumes the time of as many people as can be made available for it. Julian notes that: 'This form of leadership, sadly, appears ingrained in our political system,' and goes on to link the syndrome to international political failure in Copenhagen. To be fair, the CLG website is a large and very fluid organism and I hope we can forgive the occasional 404. I hope we can also recognise that not all politicians have been slow to respond to climate change and not all can be blamed for the failure of the summit. But the connection between transitory, even capricious, attitudes to policy and critical failures of leadership is wholly valid. I'd like to add that it's part of a wider culture which may or may not be fuelled by government attitudes. This culture includes over-emphasis on novelty and innovation; reluctance to refer to the past of more than a few months, in case it tells us things we don't want to know; and systematic dismissal of the experience of older people. It also encompasses the cultural devaluation of loyalty. Sports celebrities aren't expected to show loyalty to their teams; nor employers to their employees or vice versa; nor teachers to their schools, nor consumers to their brands. Nor families to each other. Nor, as Julian's post reminds us, do governments seem concerned to remain loyal to their policies. Only people of faith seem to be exceptions to this rule. If young people are supposed to inherit values from the adult world, this does not bode well. This phenomenon plays out in a curious way in our hurried public language, nowadays saturated with Important Verbs. Take this for example from Steph Gray's Helpful technology blog, coralling verbs from various government departments: At the FCO, it’s Listen, Publish, Engage, Evaluate. In the DIUS of Justin Kerr-Stevens, it was Educate, Enable, Engage, Promote. For Steph, it's listening, explaining, engaging, convening. Others commenting think 'connect' and 'collaborate' should be in there. I've played this game meself in suggesting a model for participative evaluation (Listen, Interpret, Play back, Listen, Interpret, Report). And so it goes on. A few weeks ago DCMS published a widely-condemned document called Empower, Inform, Enrich - of which Rachel Cooke wrote 'sounds like a scented candle'. Why are we all doing this? I suspect the media and politics engine driving this culture can't stop itself accelerating and we're at risk of losing the habit of reflection. I'm not sure I want to be on board. (Just a quick observation, feel free...

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