Throughout history, most revolutions fail in the first instance.  Some never really ignite and others whimper out in a short space of time.  However, even revolutions which seem ‘successful’ at the time often fail to bring about anticipated results.  Sometimes this is because previous elites are unwilling to give up power and find ways of going with the flow in the short term, but quietly re-emerging near the top of the new system.  ‘Turkeys do not vote for Christmas’, as the popular saying goes, and it is rare to find a ruling group that voluntarily gives up power.  On other occasions, the different groups demanding change can have much in common at a superficial level when united by a common enemy – but ultimately have different aims and objectives which become more apparent after the common enemy has been defeated.  At the same time, many of the initial revolutionaries have been charismatic or powerful personalities that others want to follow – but the same traits can make it easy for people to fall out after the event and for previously coherent movements to fragment amidst significant jockeying and personality clashes.

Professor Jon Glasby

Many of the contributors to the new collection I’ve edited with Catherine Needham, Debates in Personalisation, seem to be suggesting that the personalisation agenda may not have led to the revolution (or at least to the subsequent long-term changes) that many people seem to have been hoping for.  For Simon Duffy, a key figure in the development of self-directed support, we have ended up with “a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly” at best – or “zombie personalisation” at worst.  Moreover, some of the changes which have taken place under the banner of ‘personalisation’ might not only fail to deliver the positive changes anticipated – but could actually make things worse. 

Debates in personalisation book cover

And yet, there is a danger of being overly negative.  For all the barriers and problems identified in the different chapters in this collection, there are also many positives.  Where some authors are wary, it is sometimes because personal budgets seem to have advantages for some groups, and the contributor is nervous that this may not be the case for everyone.  Although this is an important issue, it is hardly a vote of no confidence in the concept of personalisation itself – more a plea that it should be designed and implemented in such a way that everyone can benefit. 

Indeed, one of the interesting things for us has been the extent to which different contributors seem to agree on some of the underlying issues at stake.  People may be writing from very different perspectives and taking different approaches to different aspects of the personalisation agenda – but they seem much more united than might first appear to be the case around a number of underlying principles.  Throughout, many chapters are critical of a traditional system which they see as doing things to people (or even for them) rather than with them – and they argue for greater choice, control and independence.  Often, these contributions seem to be influenced by an underlying citizenship or civil rights-based approach, with a fundamental belief that disabled and older people should have the same choices and the same degree of control over the lives as non-disabled people.  Where people seem to disagree more fundamentally is about whether personalisation as currently conceived and implemented will help move us in the right direction (or not), whether the potential risks are too great, the motives of key players and the likelihood of unintended consequences.

Many contributors of the book seem disappointed that the current personalisation agenda seems to have lost touch with its initial roots and values, almost as if it has been hi-jacked by other stakeholders for purposes other than that for which it was intended.  Perhaps unwittingly, we have seen something of a revolution in adult social care, only to find the old system re-invent itself under the guise of the new language and, in an era of austerity, that we are now left with a shadow, a pale imitation or possibly even a parody of what personalisation could be.  Whether you believe that personalisation is a ‘Trojan horse’ for Neo-liberalism or that a well-meaning policy has been  ‘de-railed’, the fact remains that there seem to be major problems and concerns with the current state of affairs.

Different commentators keep coming back to understanding and being clear about our own values and motives.  If the aim for many contributors is greater social justice, a deeper sense of community and a more fundamental commitment to civil rights, then direct payments, personal budgets and other ways of working as well are simply a means to an end.  They may be potentially powerful approaches in their own right, but at the end of the day they are simply mechanisms.  In a target-driven culture, there is a real risk that adult social care and other public services hit the target and miss the point – that they deliver the ‘zombie personalisation’ described by Simon Duffy but that they ultimately fail to do anything meaningful to improve outcomes for people using services or to enhance independent living.  For all their disagreements and differences in emphasis and interpretation, many of the contributors to this book seem united in calling for a more genuine and longer-lasting revolution in which direct payments and personal budgets are potentially only a small part of a broader change.  In doing so, they are aware of how unconducive the current policy and financial context is to such a scenario – but they seem fundamentally committed to continuing to campaign for a better society and a better life together.