Personalising Public Services - Understanding the Personalisation Narrative

Article excerpt

Catherine Needham

POLICY PRESS, 2011

It is not often that praise should be given for authorial ambivalence, particularly when that ambivalence is directed towards one of the most controversial welfare reform agendas of recent years. However, Catherine Needham's account of the personalisation agenda is absorbing and insightful precisely because she remains ambivalent about its professed virtues. Instead of offering her own take on whether or not personalisation has the potential to re-invigorate or destroy the welfare state she provides us with a genealogy of the concept, explaining how it has become dominant and what this means for our understanding of policy change.

Personalisation as a concept is central to the notion of the post-bureaucratic welfare state and has been seized upon by all three main parties as the future for welfare provision. It has, as Needham shows, become the new orthodoxy, to the extent that during her extensive research interviews with policy-makers she struggled to find anyone to speak out against it. Thus it has become self-evidently true within the policy community that welfare services must be tailored to the needs of individual users and that the post-war welfare state of the past was a 'monolith' characterised by a 'take what you're given' attitude to meeting people's needs.

Needham's main concern is to understand how this orthodoxy came about, how it has captured the imagination of so many people and how front-line practitioners interpret this agenda when implementing change on the ground. Her central claim is that 'personalisation' has spread because it is a potent story that is told about public services, both their past and their future.

She takes the example of social care, where the personalisation agenda has been most dominant and has led to the most radical transformation of welfare services. Thus against the forces of so-called producer interests (state bureaucracies, professional care workers, corporate care providers) disability rights activists - representing, in the main, young physically disabled adults - have succeeded in achieving their demands that users be given direct control over the state funds allocated to meet social care needs through utilising a narrative that promises liberation.

Under these arrangements - known as 'personal budgets' - service users are given cash from the state to buy the support that they need to live independently rather than receiving a standardised care package arranged by a local authority. Controversially, this cash can be spent on hiring anyone and anything which assists an individual to lead an independent life and in some cases has been used to purchase a holiday or a football season ticket. The success of the personalisation narrative can be seen in the fact that the current government expects that 100 per cent of social care users should have a personal budget by 2013.

Advocates of these reforms have achieved their goals in the main through disseminating very powerful personal testimonies about the transformative effects of personal budgets. Ministers looking for the 'next big idea' were found to be susceptible to these overtures and whilst the 'choice' agenda in health and education had connotations of consumerism and privatisation, personalisation was, Needham finds, 'legitimised by its deep roots within organisations of disabled people and links to citizenship'.

And as Needham also points out there is a tendency to use these testimonies to show that the benefits of personalisation are self-evidently true. This is even the case where the formal evidence base in support of the reforms is weak or even demonstrates that it leads to sub-optimal outcomes for certain groups. …