One of the interesting findings of the RSA’s Whole Person Recovery project was that the very act of engaging people with substance abuse issues in discussing how services could be organised seemed to be beneficial. Possible explanations included providing a different, more constructive, self-image (as participants rather than passive users) and opening up new more positive social networks.
The value of participation may also be reinforced by the most recent Sure Start evaluation published last November. Although outcomes for children were mixed, there were very significant gains in terms of styles of parenting and parental well-being.
These findings chime with the RSA’s interests in social networks as potential sources of opportunity, resilience and well-being. We have tended in the past to see levels of social and civic participation as a consequence of someone’s self-esteem and circumstances, but we should also look at the reverse process through which starting to engage can help people feel better and develop new resources.
This was one of the ideas I got from an interesting meeting hosted by Making Every Adult Matter, an alliance of organisations which work with multiply disadvantaged people, and Revolving Doors. They had invited me, Hilary Armstrong (whose political roles included being minister for social exclusion) and Naomi Eisenstadt , former national director of head of Sure Start and Director of the Social Exclusion Task Force, to reflect on the highs and lows of Labour’s approach. Among the highs were real improvements in life chance indicators like school attainment, among the lows was the failure ever to solve the problem of joining up local services to the most vulnerable people.
But for me there was one point in the meeting which was really memorable. The feisty Ms Eisenstadt was talking about how she often got frustrated about the ambiguities of what was inelegantly called ’the Every Child Matters agenda’.
‘I used to ask them’ she said in her New York drawl ‘what are we talking about here: all children, poor children or f***d up families?’
If everyone in Government was as ready to ask the tough questions so directly we would have a lot more clarity in policy making.