Radical help

Posted in: Social policy, State

by James Copestake
Is the UK, in 2020, a developing country? If that means one that recognizes its own deep problems and has the capacity to identify and embrace radical solutions to them, then let’s hope so. Hilary Cottam’s book, on how to remake its creaking welfare state, draws on her international as well as UK development experience to explore one possible pathway for change (and one that entails almost no discussion of party politics or Brexit). In brief, her clearly written and richly grounded book explores scope for social policy based on the creative co-design of supportive networks to expand personal capabilities and opportunities, thereby shifting debate from how to secure more money and efficiency in delivery of welfare services to meet targeted needs and to manage designated risks.

The core of the book comprises case studies of five experiments: with struggling families in Swindon (‘Life’), young people in Brighton (‘Loop’), job seekers and better health seekers in London (‘Backr’ and ‘Wellogram’), and elderly people in Rochdale (‘Circle’). While focused on personal stories and the intervention design process, Cottam provides evidence of their value for money, and reflects frankly on the resistance they encountered – success being less about pinning down a model that can then be mainstreamed, and more about propagating a set of linked ideas capable of achieving scale in a more organic way. These ideas centre on building enabling relationships between those people facing problems and anyone who may be able to help – family, friends, employers, neighbours and volunteers, as well as professionals. While emphasizing the critical importance of self-help, the book grapples with the challenge of how to foster effective outside help: from appropriately authorized and funding agencies, yes, but above all from experienced individuals who know when to ‘step in’ and when to ‘step out’, and who have the power and confidence to make such decisions based more on their assessment of personal capability than statutory needs, rights, risk management and control.

As a prologue to the case studies Cottam traces problems with the UK’s social protection system back to Beveridge’s original plans, and the book finishes with a useful distillation of lessons about intervention processes gleaned from Participle, the NGO behind the documented experiments. These touch on selection of facilitators, use of participatory tools, construction of network-enabling digital platforms and strategies for tackling resistance, for example. In its emphasis on gleaning useful lessons from practical experience the book eschews more abstract discussion (e.g. about power, complex adaptive systems, capability theory, relational wellbeing and social norms). But those engaged with these issues will find useful material here, and also inspiration.

James Copestake is Professor of International Development and the Head of the Centre of Development Studies (CDS) at the University of Bath.

Note: This blog discusses the content of the book titled -'Radical Help. How we can remake relationships between use and revolutionise the welfare state' by Hilary Cottam, published by Virago in 2018.

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Posted in: Social policy, State


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