Tuesday 7 July 2015

Batmanghelidjh represents the killer question for Whitehall

Charities during the Blair-Brown years tended to go on one of two directions.  They either abandoned their services in favour of marketing to change government policy (the NSPCC springs to mind), or they became subject to central government targets by delivering public services.

In both cases, they kind of sold the pass - one of the virtues of the voluntary sector, at least from a Liberal point of view, is its independence from government. Its ability to see beyond government agendas and see through their targets. It's refusal to accept that governments have a monopoly on action.

The ultra-utilitarian approach to services was largely carried on by the coalition. It has a peculiar attitude to innovation.  On the one hand, no funding or grants is ever forthcoming without some claim to be doing something new - it is hard for charities to get funding to do the tried and tested things that always need doing.

On the other hand, when you measure answers in the way approved by Jeremy Bentham, you tend to become blind to big new ideas.

Camila Batmanghelidjh is bound to be an object of suspicion in Whitehall because she has partly bucked this trend.  Yes Kid's Company delivers services for the government, and I'm very glad they do, but they have been promoters of a big idea - and a vitally important one  - that doesn't really fit into the assembly line services that Whitehall currently aspires to.

I've never met Camila, though I've been hearing about her for the past 20 years or so, and the way she brought the latest understanding of child development into her practice - the idea that love is what literally switches on the brains of young children. Starved of love, they never quite come alive.

Yet can the way services are presently constituted ever provide love, when they are so obsessed with process?

And, if they don't make these kind of relationships possible in children's lives, are they making a difference?

So I've been feeling pretty dismayed at the whispering campaign against Kid's Company over the past week. I can see why they are extremely inconvenient for some of those in Whitehall, and my fear is that by sidelining Batmanghelidjh they may also sideline her radical edge.

She may not represent the answer yet for how we shape humane and effective services for children and vulnerable families - though she has presided over vital pieces of the puzzle - but she represents a deeply uncomfortable question for anyone who believes that the welfare state is effective in its current shape.

Or that it will remain even as effective as that after George Osborne has chopped away at it in the budget today.

I'm one of those who believes that the way to save money in public services is to revolutionise their effectiveness.  The worst of both worlds is to keep the existing model and then cut back the money. That is a recipe for ineffectiveness and therefore more expense in the medium-term.

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