19 March 2007

Advocacy for criminal court proceedings

I was in Leeds Crown Court recently, on very short notice unfortunately. Luckily I managed to get some last minute legal advice that made me completely change the hurried approach I'd prepared and which I think is worth passing on to other advocates.

Background: I've written about this man before, in the post a different way of thinking, and although he doesn't fit into the usual categories for advocacy I think there is a clear need for supporting him. Also it seems that if he doesn't get the right support he's very likely to end up needlessly back in prison which will ruin all the positive progress he's made over the last nine months and cost the taxpayers a fortune. The other update for those who remember the original post is that I finally managed to help him into signing a tenancy agreement for a bedsit on the last Friday before Christmas, which was a huge relief for me as well as him.

Advocacy: I'll call the man T for the sake of argument. My work with T has centred around the fact that whenever he talks to professionals, mainly housing related with me until now, he never seems to be able to keep his facts straight, he is very sugestible, and he often seems to try to say what he thinks they want to hear (which quite often isn't what they actually want to hear).

When I first saw him the night before he was due in court it seemed that he had never had a chance to put his point across properly, either to the police or his solicitor. I have plenty of experience of helping him to get his facts straight, and my first approach was to help him to make a proper statement of events. This was wrong.

Not only was it wrong, according to the legal advice I got at 11pm that night, but it was so wrong that it's worth putting in bold type and writing about on this blog. The problems are:

  • T had already been interviewed by the police
  • although he had no solicitor at the time (a very foolish error) and he felt as if he had not been able to say clearly what happened, those interview notes constitute a legal statment before the court
  • any new statement will be compared to the existing statement:
    • inconsistencies may lead the court to doubt all of T's statements
    • new evidence may be found in the statements that could incriminate him further
  • statements in any supporting letter may lead to an advocate being called as a witness for the prosecution (my friend told me of a well meaning social worker that this had happened to)
  • any suggestion that an advocate helped T to make up a believable story could lead to charges of perverting the course of justice against the advocate
I was strongly advised to delete the parts of my letter that consisted of statements of the events and to instead concentrate on explaining from a detached professional perspective why I am working with T and what his needs and vulnerabilities are.

Additionally when I met T's barrister the next day he advised me that with this particular judge my letter would be worth nothing if it didn't start with a statement of my professional qualifications and competencies to be writing the letter. The court probably places greater emphasis on traditional professional qualifications than I do, but I think that statements of the number of years experience working with this sort of client, position of responsibility within your organisation or in your work history, etc. are a good start.

Court: The other piece of advice I was given was to go to court with T and help him speak to his barrister and solicitor. This was very important as it turned out, although with such late notice I had initially been reluctant to rearrange my plans.

When the barrister first arrived and I asked if I could have a word he initially looked as if he could not possibly be interested in talking to me, but we found a small room. He told me that he would only consent to talk to me because he wasn't T's proper barrister, he was only standing in for the pleading hearing. He also seemed amused to hear that I was T's advocate (that was surely his job?) and needed an explanation of the role of an independent advocate despite the fact that he said he was a mental health specialist.

The next thing he asked me was if I had discussed the material facts of the case with T or if I had given him any advice about how to plead. I foolishly told him the truth, that I was working with T because he had communication difficulties and I had initially been asked to listen to his version of events. Luckily of course as an advocate I certainly hadn't been giving any advice, and especially not on the tricky area of pleas. He immediately told me in no uncertain terms that he felt I was compromising myself in the eyes of the court by even admitting to listening to T's story (as I was supposed to be an independent professional working on other aspects of his life). Actually I think I probably could have argued this point in court, at least I hope so, depending on the attitude of the presiding judge. It is worth knowing in advance that this is tricky ground that must be carefully negotiated however.

Finally, amongst various stories of how experienced he was as a barrister and how things had changed over the years and what he knew about breaking arms with sticks from other work that he did, he did listen to some of the things T had to say. I was able to prompt T at various times to tell the barrister what his story was about a couple of the charges, and there was a productive discussion. Not your ideal discussion, but compared to the liklihood that without my presence there probably would have been little or no discussion, well worth the time and travel. T came out of this meeting without much hope, sure in fact that the barrister was going to stitch him up, and it's hard to say really, and from an advocacy perspective this was disappointing (although probably understandable because the barrister went of on so many long tangents talking to me between my attempts to divert him to listen to T, and T couldn't really understand, or wouldn't listen, to these tangents, that the whole thing seemed much more negative to him).

The outcome: When we got into the court finally our barrister had been having a conference with the prosecution who had agreed to drop one of the charges. The barrister had been motivated enough by our communication to try a bit harder on the other counts as well and he picked out some discrepancies in the police and witness statements which the judge took a dim view of, although he gave the prosecution some leeway in gathering additional evidence. T pleaded guilty to the most minor charge and not guilty to the other. I can't help feeling that the police and/or the prosecution combined these three charges for alleged incidents that occurred on separate dates six months apart so that it was more likely to get a guilty plea for one of them, but maybe I'm not supposed to speculate in that way. My job will be to provide mitigating evidence and stress the work we are doing to get him back into society when the final sentencing is made.

The dropped charge: I think it is worth telling the story of the dropped charge, and I think that I may legitimately do so now it has been dropped. T was drinking in a park when two men walked past smoking cigarettes. He asked for a cigarette and they said they had none, but he thought they were lying and he threatened them. He says now this was drunken bravado (not in those words) and didn't mean anything, but he said he was later questioned about threatening them with a knife. This was an hour or so later when he was in a Chinese take away, and says he felt so aggrieved about being questioned about a knife that he spotted a wheel brace in the take away and made up a story about having that just so the police would investigate more properly. They promptly charged him with possession of an offensive weapon, namely the wheel brace, and as far as he can tell did no further investigation, at least not in the direction he wanted them to go in.

This is bizarre to me, firstly that someone would invent an incriminating story so that a more serious charge would be investigated and dropped, and secondly that the police would charge someone with possesion of an offensive weapon that belonged to a take away a mile and an hour from an alleged incident. Anyway there were enough holes in the evidence for the charge to be dropped. And in fact this is more evidence of T's different way of thinking and is just why he needs an advocate.

07 February 2007

Two complaints

A few things came together recently to inspire this post...

- my last piece of advocacy work at the end of last year for someone
- the reply which began by refuting some comments I'd made
- the new coordinators comment that she wished it was possible to write letters like the one I'd written (it was my last piece of work after all)
- and another advocate's very true comment... (and I paraphrase:)

'Often when an advocate comes in to support somone with a complaint they end up going to meetings that aren't manged very well. Then the advocate often feels aggrieved that procedures haven't been followed and you immediately get two complaints. The problem is we can't complain about what we see, we can only support our partner/client who often doesn't pick out the subtleties of bad practice...'

Two complaints: one from the partner, one from the advocate. Where does the advocate's complaint go? Isn't this a potentially useful complaint (or bit of feedback) from a 'fellow professional'? Sadly if we do try to express it we get attacked, at least here in Wakefield and I'm sure in many other areas too. Despite all the rhetoric of senior managers welcoming complaints, there's still a long way to go.

Advocates not against mental health reform

I heard that a government minister (probably some months ago now) made a barbed comment at a meeting of advocates that suggested the government thought the advocacy movement was somehow responsible for scuppering the Mental Health Bill.

This seems amazing and unlikely to me. This is mainly because I don't think we have this sort of power. Also because advocates were finally due to get some recognition and support from the bill.

Of course some of us did join in the many voices that said the proposals for locking more people up were unrealistic and unproductive (or whatever was said).

The idea that the advocacy movement was in any way responsible for the bill's failure must be pure paranoia on the governments part however. Now I'm sure this little blog won't have any influence, but if there's any ministers or special advisors or senior civil servants reading this (and if not, why not?) then DON'T BLAME US please...

06 February 2007

Threats to advocacy funding

I was at a meeting last week when the question of funding came up. We went round the table and a variety of worrying stories were told. I haven't been very well since then and my memory may not be fully accurate, but here is a brief précis:

  • There were several stories of local projects losing out to bigger players during the recent IMCA tendering;
  • There was a rumour that a solicitor's firm had won one of the IMCA tenders;
  • One local advocacy scheme was simply told that they would have to start delivering IMCA locally but there would be no extra money available and the new IMCA cases would have to be prioritised over existing clients;
  • Three local authorities seem to have recently done an audit of local advocacy provision. Not very much was known about this but at least two of them have since been ringing around wondering what to do with the results... Let's hope they don't do anything drastic;
In Wakefield we've also had a couple of cases recently of 'advocacy' jobs being advertised that aren't advocacy. It seems people are picking up on the buzz surrounding advocacy but not bothering to find out what it really is, so for example there is an advertisement for an advocacy worker to support child victims of domestic violence, but the job description is all about assessment and knowledge of legislation and working to tight deadlines, and to be honest I don't have much faith in this particular part of the Council.

I don't know if this is also being replicated around the country, but I fear it will lead to a further dilution of advocacy and the understanding of advocacy.

Just at the moment when there is a good feeling that advocacy is rising up in people's consciousness, do we already need to beware of trouble ahead?

26 January 2007

Controversy on the blog

Someone has left a distressed comment on the post about self-healing systems. I've replied, appropriately I hope, but I feel like adding a couple of extra comments here.

1. Re-reading the bit that caused the distress I can see why, and in some ways I regret that I didn't write that bit more carefully. At the same time I've set myself some rules for this blog, and one of the main ones is that I write quickly and I don't go over and edit stuff. This runs the risk of me making mistakes occasionally and even upsetting people, but I think the advantages outweigh this (and it was only a tiny part of a long post that caused the upset - do read the whole thing if you follow the link). (Also many of the concerns of the commenter could have been allayed if they'd read some of the other posts, it does look like they only read the one post and didn't see any of my many comments on professionalism, my post on advocacy and therapy, or other reflections on practice and ethics.)

2. This blog is not about my professional practice, it's about testing the boundaries, it's about challenging myself first of all to reflect further on issues I encounter, and then challenging my readers - but mainly in positive ways by offering other unusual sorts of ideas that may fit in with advocacy practice or may be something to avoid.

3. As such, and this is my main point, I want to be challenged. This anonymous commenter has given me a chance to repair an error and think again about an old post. I like comments, questions, emails, suggestions, etc. I've said this several times before, but I've got plenty of readers and not many responses. A blog is potentially very one-sided, but it doesn't need to be, and you can help... (but please leave some sort of name so I can reply properly and follow your comments on other posts)


11 January 2007

Professionalism, stealth, and Sun Tzu

I know sometimes my posts get a bit long and rambling, and while I maintain that that is a vital part of my exposition (my practice, my methodology, my ethics) I do also accept that I need to try to offer some more bite-size chunks as well...

I've been discussing my thoughts about professionalism (hidden in the review of christmas and Street Angels) with a few people over the last couple of days and I've come to another couple of conclusions. Firstly that it could more simply be described as 'friendly professionalism' (if that's not a bit too cheesy for you), rather than 'stealth', which has its own advantages. At the very least I think most people can see the value friendliness has in aiding communication and this perspective can help us adapt our practice in different ways and give us new understandings of our physical and social environment (and the post about accessible computing is similarly about adapting to new technology).

Another friend immediately started quoting lots of classic Chinese and Japanese texts to me and I'm afraid I've forgotten most of them except Sun Tzu's The Art of War. I did remember a lot of the context though, gleaned from various places. The art of war is stealth (broadly) - you conquer your enemy without their even realising it - and the characterisation of stealth by Sun Tzu has found many other applications. Mark mentioned that people work with a good leader automatically (and I would add comfortably) and don't even question the leadership because it just makes sense. This approach has found applications in many fields over the last 2500 years, and it could be interesting to write something about The Art of Advocacy... (if anyone's got any ideas get in touch).

10 January 2007

Accessible computing

Periodically I write about Free Software (also known as FLOSS or FOSS): this is important in terms of accessibility to all and is closely linked in to openly published standards. From an ethical perspective, an advocacy perspective, and a community perspective I find the free software movement interesting to keep up with and a useful comparison to similar developments in advocacy and society.

I think it's particularly important for people to know a little bit about this at the moment as some worrying as well as some positive changes are taking place which may have a big impact on our use of computers over the coming years.

First of all, let's be bold:

Free software will benefit disabled computer users.
OK at the moment the software isn't up to scratch, but over time free software is likely to be the fastest and most flexible way to respond to the diverse needs of differently disabled people. A more positive (if a bit technical) story is here, but see below why we need to support these developments. I also expect that Linux (the free operating system) in its embedded form running phones, TV decoders and washing machines is also being used for various tools and machines disabled people use.

Free software will benefit the poor.
This is more directly obvious, but it is particularly important if we consider the growing poverty gap and the effect of people not being able to afford computers or the legal software to run on them. Microsoft at the moment is threatening much tougher action against people who copy cds or dvds, download music, or use pirated software. These actions are going to affect a lot of people and cost a lot of money, and it will disbar many poor people who become even more cut off from society. Of course there are projects like the $100 laptop to 'revolutionise the way we educate the world's children', amongst many other benefits.

Free software promotes accessibility.
Despite the fact that it's free, the most important meaning of 'free as in free software' is that it's accessible. For the developer that means you can open it up and see how it works, but it also has other important implications for the rest of us. One important example is the Open Document Format (ODF). This was ratified by the International Standards Organisation as the first international standard for office documents. Many governments and large organisations are transferring to this standard (check the links in my earlier post), and they are transferring largely because of the accessibility features of the software and the opportunities it offers to build effective and appropriate services around them. Other important accessibility developments include systems for archiving and retrieval of information, user involvement and collaboration in the new Web 2.0 (blogs, MySpace, Wikis, photo and file sharing sites, del.icio.us, etc), network and server operation and maintenance, and the posibility of reusing and recycling old hardware more productively amongst others.

Free software is built around a principle of community.
This is very important. Proprietary (non-free) software is owned and marketed for a profit by corporations who primarily want to make money. Most end users of computers just want to get by in life ok, have some fun, avoid too many problems. Quite a few people like to avoid problems by sitting in front of a computer and making themselves busy (or entertained or whatever). After a while you meet others like you and you start to communicate, to work or play together. Out of this has evolved an enormous resource of software and support that is involving more and more people every day. Helping each other out feels good, contributing to something which other people are going to use and appreciate feels good, and many people are able to make a living or at least keep themselves sane by working on free software projects. It is instructive to compare the experiences of these communities to the different sorts of communities we often work with, and they provide some hope (if you're selective).

Free software is the future.
I don't mean that in a grand way, more like I would say that we have to continue as advocates to support disempowered people to speak out and make their lives better... Free software, like advocacy, is something I think it's important to speak out for. It's available now for most of us, and getting easier to use. See the links at the end of this post.


And now the dark side!
Microsoft revolutionised computing with Windows in kind of the same way that Oppenheimer revolutionised war with the atom bomb. Things are certainly different and we have certainly developed a lot, but was it all a good thing in retrospect? I could go on for ages about the history of Microsoft but I won't, just remember the anti-monopoly ruling that was made against them by the European Court (which they pretty much flaunted as far as I can tell, see this Guardian article and just search google for many more examples).

Now Windows Vista is upon us and the situation is getting far worse. I was catching up on a few tech blogs this evening and it looks like there will be some big upsets in store in the near future (you may not even want to run a new computer).

I started on the blog of a moderator for the Ubuntu forums who said there is no escape from Vista, it's going to shake the world. This is complemented by this slightly more readable and comprehensive post which explains it's all about digital rights management (DRM).

Then I was reading various sites about OOXML, Microsoft's competitor standard to Open Document Format, which seems to be designed to confuse people into not using open source while providing a completely inappropriate alternative. Bob Sutor is Vice President, Open Source and Standards, of IBM, a company that has done a lot for open source and revitalised its once flagging business partly as a result. He provides a couple of shocking summary links to information about the impossibility of implementing MS's huge standard and the fact that MS has already released proprietary extensions that will maintain their monopoly.


There's a lot more than that, but the key thing as advocates or nurses or social workers or whoever you are reading my blog is that open source really is accessible and nice, and is destined to become rapidly more so over the next few years.

This is a very interesting time because many IT industry specialists are saying that the free software movement is now a viable alternative to Microsoft based set-ups, and now Microsoft, by releasing Vista in such a controlled and expensive form, could well be shooting themselves in the foot and helping us to move more quickly along the path to freedom and collaboration.

I personally have been using almost entirely free software for almost two years now. I have an old computer (2001) running very happily and playing DVDs much better than Windows ever managed as well as being able to do almost everything else I want. I've also got various other advantages from even my marginal involvement in the community, and I've paid them back in kind here and there.

The following open source software works and is free and easily if you have a broadband connection (and you can get hold of it in other ways if you need to), so make a start soon:

Ubuntu Linux - alternative to Windows, works similarly, community driven and beginner friendly

OpenOffice.org - word processor, spreadsheet, presentations, database, drawing, etc - more than an alternative to MS Office

Firefox - faster, more secure, community-driven web browser
Thunderbird - the email client from the same developers

There are literally thousands of programs, and many more in development. These are the main needs and you can start using some of them straight away - and do check out the Ubuntu Live CD...

09 January 2007

Christmas and Street Angels reflections

This started as a reply to Kez Lama's post on the subject, but became too long and I felt in the end it would be inappropriate to post as a comment. I also wanted to be able to post these reflections here as they were interesting to write and are relevant to this blog. It's also relevant to my earlier post about Street Angels.

It's really about professionalism in different contexts, and about trust, so it should make sense:

From an anti-capitalist and anti-christian perspective, but as someone who is dedicated to different experiences of community and sees ritual and ceremony as important parts of life, christmas is a strange time.

I had a similarly communal and voluntary experience, and I've enjoyed many christmases with various diverse groups of people over the years. This year I spent the day with Urban Space again. I really felt I spent the day with lots of old friends, and they really are friends, even though I've met most of them 'professionally' through their lack of capacity to deal with problems in their life and their involvement with local services and support groups. The great thing was its unpretentiousness. Everyone just seemed to feel free to be themselves, and happy to be together talking and having fun.

I also enjoyed being a Street Angels volunteer, meeting other volunteers, talking to people in the streets, joking about Ru and the Bishop going into Wildcats, and seeing that we clearly provided a useful service that should continue. It was interesting to be in the city centre at that time of night but not being out, as it were. I usually like to think I'm quite aware of what's going on around me when I'm out (I've had a few lapses), but wearing that huge fluorescent yellow coat, coupled with our responsibility to be observant and learn how to blend in and operate effectively still impressed a new perspective on me. I think the main observation I made was that life on Westgate is actually much more safe and enjoyable than I expected. I'm not so sure about the music policies generally, but I'm much more likely to go out in Wakefield after this experience (and avoid the hassle of travelling to Leeds).

I think my conclusion as I write this is that perhaps we should understand professionalism as a sort of stealth movement... That if we are professional enough at our work then the 'professionalism' should become invisible, disappear: whoever we are working with will feel comfortable, should see us as just another (albeit friendly) person, and feel that it's worth their while talking to us; the more familiar barriers of professionalism, often including a mixture of suits and formal clothing, jargon and other formal language, potentially multiple caveats about what we do, who we are, confidentiality and when we break it, complaints procedures, equal opportunities policies, etc., and other more personal barriers like never accepting a cup of tea, not liking dogs or being vegetarian — all these other professional barriers should disappear. Then our dislike of dogs is dealt with professionally and unobtrusively and no one even notices, we will be able to sense when it would be appropriate for our client's comfort to accept a cup of tea from them, and we will be able to slip in the necessary bits about confidentiality exactly at the right time so it's not too mechanical and can be listened to and understood... Maybe we can't get there yet, but it seems to be a reasonable direction to try to head in.

Now is the time to reflect on the experiences of Street Angels, to think about how we worked, what worked, where the gaps or problems are, and how we respond to all this and prepare to start again. I'm sure you and I are not the only people to recognise the specific role Street Angels volunteers found themselves in, and I feel there is an opportunity to capitalise (if I can use that word) on this experience by encouraging volunteers to 'blend in', to be able to give professional support when required, but to make the people they are working with feel comfortable with whatever support we're giving them.

The other thing that comes with this approach is trust. Blending in requires intuition and flexibility, and people will practice it in different ways that suit them, but trying to regulate this in formal procedures doesn't really work. I don't really see this as a big problem though, as we already have a pretty good team of reliable people and we know we can work together. There are various points for discussion, and I think the idea at this stage is to have another Sunday afternoon gathering soon where we can all share feedback and start to plan for the future. Hopefully we can find a way to build on this experience and support and develop our good practice rather than impose too many procedures and expectations that may only serve to create more unhelpful barriers before the people we're trying to work with.

I can't finish without saying something more about trust. Many people say we are living in a less and less trusting society, I don't know if this is true but it certainly seems trust is an attitude that is sorely missing. I see it in the police, who spend so much time being lied to they hardly know anything else and rarely seem able to trust people; in benefits agency and job centre plus staff who are under pressure to stamp out benefit fraud; from mental health professionals who are constantly doing risk assessments; from social workers who think advocates are going to complain and make their lives a misery; from service users who are so used to the veil of objective professionalism and the repeated disappointments over the years that anger often comes out instead of trust... the list goes on.

The sad response to the lack of trust today is often to add more layers of bureaucracy and professional and moral policing to try to cover for the lack of trust, but surely it's obvious that not trusting people breeds distrust and untrustworthiness. On the other hand trusting someone almost always helps to make them feel at ease, and the more responsibilities you trust them with the greater their chance of growing in confidence and skill. Once you trust people, management becomes a collective process of observation, feedback and analysis that provides its own safeguard and lets project coordinators identify issues and resolve them.

Hopefully Street Angels will be able to continue to capitalise on its trust in people and get back out on the streets as an effective and satisfying experience for everyone.

07 January 2007

An advocate's winter menu

I've just spent a thoroughly enjoyable day cooking, something I should do more of really. I do regularly cook for myself, almost always from fresh ingredients, and I try to be good to the environment as well as my body (although I do have quite a few bad habits...).

Anyway today's food was a bit special and unusual, and hopefully I will be able to make your mouth water as you read about what we ate:

  • Celery and celeriac soup: put in very big chunks into a casserole with stock and some extra flavourings and baked for 4 hours on a very low heat before being roughly blended - very tasty cooked slow like that!
  • Stoved jerusalem artichokes with walnuts, almonds and cashews
  • Braised red cabbage with anise, cardomom, cloves, juniper berries, cinnamon, and lemon
  • Steamed broccoli tossed in Tamari sauce with toasted sesame seeds
  • Baked sweet potatoes
  • Organic italian brown rice
I actually had a very abstemious christmas because I've been feeling a bit poor and unemployed, but this was an absolute feast and thoroughly delicious. The fact that I cooked everything (except the rice and broccoli) so slowly and in advance and then reheated it when we were ready to eat made it even more full of flavour.

Hopefully this marks the beginning of a year of doing more entertaining and experimenting with more delicious flavours...

Bon apetit!

Advocacy principles

In my post about relationships yesterday I mentioned the benefits of advocacy approaches that are needed to be able to form successful trusting relationships. I actually referred to some old unfinished work I did on producing some quality standards for advocacy in Wakefield, and I thought I should actually remember on this blog the eight principles I set out then:

  • Empowerment
  • Loyalty and tenacity
  • Inclusion and respect
  • Effective communication
  • Independence
  • Sustainability
  • Quality
  • Advocacy dilemmas
These are based on the principles set out in the Advocacy2000 Principles and Standards document, and they take into account various things including the Advocacy Charter and Rick Henderson and Mike Pochin's book (much better than the Advocacy Charter).

I won't add any more commentary here or I could end up going on for ages. The full (draft) standards are available on the Advocacy Action website here and there are various comments in and around the standards.

For now, I just found it nice and refreshing to see the principles again, and you can make of them what you will...


I agreed in an article for Planet Advocacy (March 2005, pp.10-11) that advocacy was all about 'relationships, drama and expression'.

It's not really possible to pick out one of these terms and stress it above the others, but I do want to say a few words about relationships at this point. I'm talking about 'professional' relationships between advocate and partner, and I'm also thinking about other types of professional relationship (e.g. doctor-patient, etc.). I also wonder what we can learn from our experiences of all kinds of relationships (including with friends or children say), although sexual relationships are far more complicated and I'm not thinking about them here.

Firstly we do form some kind of relationship as soon as we meet someone. Sometimes we immediately find ourselves in some kind of conflict, occasionally we seem to have a meeting of minds, but mostly there is an initial period of getting to know each other. Whatever, if we are engaging or communicating with someone, there is a relationship.

Very often today as soon as we start to think about relationships in a professional context alarm bells start to ring: there have been so many scandals and abuses of trust that professional relationships are clearly prescribed and objectified - in particular they must be objective and dispassionate.

I think this is the wrong place to start: I've already argued that we need to protect vulnerable people from objectivity, and surely a working relationship should be about identifying some shared goals first of all, and, as advocates know well, this is often irreconcilable with having a dispassionate and objective relationship (where a 'person' inevitably becomes known as a 'client'...)

On the contrary, advocacy has a history of being partial, of being on the side of the partner: the primary goal is to form a relationship of mutual understanding and trust. This is very important as it's the only way to get to be able to really communicate with someone. It's very hard to break through the barriers of distrust and suspicion that many service users harbour, and we need all the benefits of independence and sympathy, loyalty and tenacity, inclusion and respect to be able to support people properly. Yes, boundaries need to be clear, but they come after (or at least during) the informal negotiations about trust.

All I'm going to do in this post is to open up and question the role and type of relationships. They certainly form a key part of advocacy practice, yet I think their role and the way we work with them is far more complicated than most people have acknowledged in writing about advocacy.

Food for thought hopefully...?

Publish, publish, publish!

This is a post for my next blog really, but I'll write a draft as a sounding board here...

There are several starting points for this idea:

  • Organisations seem to be very wary of publishing things (maybe becasue they are scared of being judged, or losing out somehow commercially?)
  • This blog is an opportunity for me to publish snippets of half-formed ideas, or bits and pieces that may or may not be useful - this is a very interesting sort of opportunity, and I think it's valuable to be able to do this. I would like to see a place where many people could collaborate in a similar way (probably more consensual). One example I thought of is prison advocacy: it would be good if there was a webspace where anyone could publish ideas about this (however vague), find others who are interested, and over time develop a collaborative resource out of the ideas. Very different format from this blog, but quite open and unpressured still. Subjects in this space would be wide ranging, but easy to find.
  • The Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) community are an interesting model. The alternative is proprietary software where companies like Microsoft protect their intellectual property and charge a lot of money for the software. FOSS developers share the intellectual property and give it away for free, but at the same time they solve problems and improve things as a community, and they make money in other ways, e.g. from selling support (services) instead of software (products).
  • Advocacy can benefit from this model by recognising, for example, that if we shared good practice and published our policies, that many more people could benefit from good quality advocacy, and well-run projects would still have a good chance of winning contracts and remaining sustainable.
I suppose it's the glass half empty or half full situation. I find it a bit sad that a lot of organisations who work with people who are entitled to social care are so careful about publishing things and sharing them. I think we could create an opportunity for shring good practice in many common areas, celebrating different approaches to our work side by side, and opening up new areas which aren't written about (or at least published) because they're too new or exploratory...

I'm still going to be thinking and writing about this in the next few weeks, in amongst hopefully more direct material about advocacy.

06 January 2007

Keep on skanking

Hey hey. 2007 is moving on already, and I've been busy doing things I want to blog about and not having time to write (actually I've got two quite long drafts from the last week, but haven't been able to finish them).

At the same time, I'm managing to get a bit of consistency back with my posting, and this seems to be rewarded with more hits and more returning visitors: nothing amazing, but gratifying just the same, and also some positive comments. In return I feel like I need to be keeping people satisfied with new content...

Skanking means moving to me, but with a bit of flava. I'm looking forward to getting back to dancing next week, and our teacher always wants us to ‘ben' up’: keep on moving, but not in too straight a line, not with a straight back at all...

This blog is about dancing a similar bent-back dance, while circling vaguely and persistently around a centre known as advocacy. In some ways this crazy bent up dance of advocacy keeps on tempting me in different directions. I'm thinking at the moment of trying to sort this out and create some alternative spaces that would be more appropiate for those sorts of thoughts, other kinds of dances. One of these alternative spaces at the moment would be more experimental and philosophical (based on visctrix.net), and one would be more strict, accessible and sensible (the advocacy community site).

Hopefully that will leave this for more focusing on advocacy in a quirky and independent way. I've had a good conversation tonight about upsetting people: my friend thought that although she loves me, maybe I upset people unnecessarily. In the end we agreed that there are some people who I should be free to go on upsetting: this is partly the necessary sacrifice (for me) to be able to work successfully with and gain the trust and understanding of vulnerable people and others I already know and work with; and it's partly to avoid the grey area where I could try not to offend anyone and end up completely bland and with nothing interesting to say.

So I think this blog will stay a personal space for me to try some challenging ideas and remain philosophical, but I'll try to be a bit more focused on advocacy in the future. I would also like to make it a more integral part of my work and be able to devote some core time to it instead of mainly writing late at night when I'm tired. That should also give me more chance to write responses to publications of various types (not just the videos I mentioned in my plans for 2007). Finally for now, this will be more of a sounding board for ideas that may be written more carefully and inclusively in other places.

I hope this makes sense... the key is to keep posting I guess, but in the meantime any comments or thoughts or any sort of feedback will be appreciated :-)

02 January 2007

Quick 7-step stress management technique

It would be nice to think that everyone is feeling relaxed after the recent holidays, but the sad fact is that all the expectations around christmas, coupled with all the over induldgence, often makes it quite stressful.

Maybe the advice I was sent by email last year could be helpful:

  1. Picture yourself near a stream.

  2. Birds are softly chirping in the cool mountain air.

  3. No one but you knows your secret place.

  4. You are in total seclusion from the hectic place called "the world".

  5. The soothing sound of a gentle waterfall fills the air with a cascade of serenity.

  6. The water is crystal clear.

  7. You can easily make out the face of the person you're holding under it...

Hopefully you'll already be feeling in a better mood, and I do think there's a place for these sorts of meditations, although to be honest I think the cure for stress is probably best found in other ways... ;-)

30 December 2006

A new web resource for advocacy?

So at about 8 o'clock last night I wrote about my wish to explore social networking and content management systems, and at about 11 o'clock some guy I met at a party said he thought Joomla was the best option out there, he liked my ideas, and he could offer some free space to start to try them out on... Maybe it's a good time for wishes...

I've spent a bit of time exploring Joomla today, and it has just won the Packt Open Source CMS Award (click on logo for link) as well as winning the UK LinuxWorld Best Linux/Open Source Project for the second year running. I was aware of the two runners up, Drupal and Plone, and I've also been looking at some of the also rans, most notably MediaWiki (a different type of CMS really, so not in the running). So far most of my attention has been on MediaWiki and Plone, although I knew Drupal needed to be looked into more carefully. Various examples of what I'm interested in include the townx blog (using Drupal, more than just a blog), Wikipedia of course (using MediaWiki), Schoolforge-UK (also MediaWiki), the Ubuntu Wiki (based on the MoinMoinWiki), the Free Software Foundation website (based on Plone again) and finally the Sheffield Social Forum Wiki which gives a good idea of how a community can be organised through a wiki.

I must say that so far I like the aesthetics of Plone and MediaWiki best, and I look forward to being shown that this can be emulated successfully in Joomla. I also think that it will be important for lots of people to be able to contribute to page content easily and quickly - and to feel like they want to! (like a wiki). [Edit 1/1/07 - looks like this shouldn't be a problem.]

First I need to get together some kind of spec for a website and start discussing this with people, and we'll see if Joomla can deliver...

Watch this space.

29 December 2006

Things to do in 2007

Experience shows me I shouldn't be writing this - I usually do best when I sit down and write something spontaneously. I also want this blog to be pretty spontaneous - I'm not writing carefully thought out essays, just thought-provoking thoughts...

Anyway, there are a few things that I began writing and never finished, and a few things that I want to write about, and a few related things I want to do, and before I go out tonight I think I'm going to jot some of them down here.

  1. Get a job. More about that later (any offers gratefully received).

  2. Get some funding for Advocacy Action. It has loads of potential, but with no funding it's not going to achieve much.

  3. But I want to focus on things for the blog here, so

  4. I want to write something about risk management. I've started twice already but each time it's got too serious for a blog post. So I should work on a risk management policy, and blog about that perhaps. Something for the resources section of the Advocacy Action website.

  5. I also want to work on an Engagement Protocol, hopefully for all the advocacy projects in Wakefield although maybe they would each have to negotiate individual agreements with the Council and PCT. I will probably blog about engagement protocols, their use and value, and the difference between them and things like quality standards. This will hopefully help me to get my head around what I want to include in the protocol I write.

  6. I want to do a survey of advocacy related videos on YouTube and Google Video. I've found a couple of interesting ones, but most of the results you get from searching are related to political advocacy, and some of the others are quite dire. I need to set aside a day sometime for doing this.

  7. I want to add some films to these online video sites. A friend of mine is interested in doing some video work with me, and I feel that the advocacy community should start making use of some of the opportunities offered by these Web 2.0 sites.

  8. I did suggest at the NAN conference last November that one way of helping such a dispersed organisation get moving would be to develop more of a web presence. I will look at the various social networking sites like Ning and Elgg and the sort of 'community-based project management' sites like Basecamp from 37signals (and many others). Then I will try to work out how these resources could be used to support and develop our advocacy community. I need to do this by the end of January for the next NAN meeting.

  9. Running out of time now, so more creatively...

  10. I'm going to be a podcast host, all being well. I've had the invitation, it may end up being NSFW, but I may let people know if it happens.

  11. I've got to finish off my posts about visctrix sometime.

  12. I'm going to read Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (review, download electronic copy). I got it just after it came out in paperback in 2001 and never got around to reading it. I may even read Negri's The Savage Anomaly and develop my knowledge of Spinoza's ethics which I borrow from.
At the end of the day though, just keep coming back to the blog to see what's going on.

22 December 2006

A cancer amongst charities

Last night in the pub we were approached by an ageing woman wearing a cowboy hat and a waistcoat covered with badges. As if that wasn't enough to scare us away, she then thrust a collecting tin in our direction and asked for donations to Cancer Research (or whatever it's called these days).

Now I think it's rude to just ignore these people, so while my foolish friends all put their hands in their pockets I explained that I never supported cancer charities and maybe she should consider collecting for some smaller local charities instead (like those represented around the table).

It turns out she's been doing the rounds of the local cities week-in week-out for years. She did Wakefield, Barnsley and Huddersfield one week, and Sheffield and Doncaster the other, one evening in each city. She claimed to have raised £140,000.

While I can only admire her dedication and persistence in some ways, at the end of the day I find this sort of practice both perverse and divisive. I've decided to use this strong language – maybe a bit stronger than I really need to, but it does serve to emphasise the point in a way that needs to be done occasionally.

So here I get the chance to explain myself in a bit more detail:

  1. OK so I've spent ten years working with vulnerable and disadvantaged people, but I put the emphasis on working with them, and I think that charities need to get away from the patronising approach to helping the needy.
  2. Really being a charity is a tax choice. If you are a registered charity (or you have charitable status in whatever way) it means you enjoy certain tax breaks. Yes, it also means that you agree to follow charity law, including limiting your work to certain areas and not making a profit, but at the end of the day you agree to do this so you can enjoy the tax breaks.
  3. Cancer charities spend a lot of money on expensive laboratories, highly paid researchers, and glossy marketing. The people we are supposed to be working with are rarely in sight, except maybe as guinea-pigs. I support hands-on, grounded charities that are working directly with people and with volunteers and who see the value in cheaply photocopied annual reports or newsletters.
  4. The big headline charities are getting more public donations and more Government contracts (see this article from 2003, no time now to search for anything more recent). This is at the expense of smaller charities and other voluntary sector organisations.
  5. I don't really support street collecting, or its close relative TV campaigns. It's not all bad, but I'm not trying to give a balanced view right now. It's very easy to put 2p or £10 in a charity box, or even ring up and give £100 from your debit card, but you have very little connection with the result - it's just a feel-good thing really (and that's assuming it wasn't 2p just so the girl you're trying to impress doesn't think you're tight...)
  6. In terms of cancer in particular there seem to be some very ironic competing urges in Government policy. Yes they are finally moving towards banning smoking, after many years campaigning, but they are still only taking small steps in this direction, and what about all the other environmental hazards that seem to increase our risk of cancer:
    • holidays in the sun...
    • destroying the ozone layer in our cheap planes on the way there...
    • all sorts of other pollution in air and water from commerce and industry
    • additives in foods
    • pesticides and herbicides (on food and in the cotton in our clothes)
    • powerful detergents and all sorts of other chemicals in our homes, offices, and in the streets
    • prescription drugs
    • and many others
    It seems that much of our economy is based on cancer inducing chemicals, and rather than taking affirmative action to avoid these, the Government and the cancer charities seem determined to just add to the whole system - more investment in chemicals, more refusal to address the underlying problems.
There may be other issues, but that will do for now. Basically if you want to support charitable activities the best thing you can give is your time, your energy, and a bit of your human self. In most of the work I've been involved in, people are most grateful for a bit of human contact and respect, someone to talk to, someone to bring a bit of happiness and involvement into their life, something that will enable them to feel as if they've been able to make a contribution to something. I don't think these big laboratories and research projects will ever have as big an impact, and I'm quite happy to continue to give a bit of lip to the collectors who are out harassing me on my nights out.

21 December 2006

Don't write everything...

More christmas drinks...

I met a social worker from another town. Seems like she challenges expected practice. Had a nice chat with her...

One thing that stuck out. She was asked to do a social circumstances report for a MHRT with about 3 days notice. On her first visit to the patient she decided he was too sedated to engage properly, she told staff she would come back the next day and she hoped his medication would allow her to talk to him properly. This didn't happen - his meds were still too high, and she couldn't get the information she needed from him.

The report she wrote was therefore very brief. It mainly said that she had been unable to get sufficient information to be more comprehensive. She then came under some pressure to explain why she hadn't gone into full detail (although she had explained this in the report).

It struck me that very often people are expected to deliver comprehensive reports, but also very often it is difficult to be so comprehensive. Social workers and psychiatrists and others use their professional experience and judgement to fill in the gaps, which is of course what they're trained and paid to do. The problem is twofold: that this gap-filling process is fraught with difficulty (it's hard enough to assess how people are, let alone guess what fits in the gaps); and the second problem is that whatever is written could well be referred to for years after.

These two small problems combine into one big problem: the guesses people make with the best of intentions then become the 'truth' that can dog the patient for years to come.

What a good idea then to produce a minimalist report that leaves gaps where there are gaps - at least there are fewer chances of making mistakes that could affect people for years...

Another way of saying what I'm trying to say: when we work with people with mental health problems, in fact whoever we're working with, there are bound to be gaps in our understanding and assessment of them... what we need to do is acknowledge these gaps and let them be reflected in our reports, instead of trying to be comprehensive and ending up misrepresenting people.

A resolution for 2007? Shorter reports, more gaps?

The road to success - don't be an advocate

Just had a quick christmas drink with someone in the pub, and they admitted that the reason they were being more successful in their job was because they'd finally realised that they shouldn't always try so hard to be an advocate...

Maybe everyone thinks this, but I do still believe the Wakefield is a more difficult place than many to be a proper advocate. The fact is that politics is still so important, sometimes it seems like you get better results if you play the game. So you sacrifice advocacy for results...

My friend thinks there will be a backlash against the increasing professionalisation of advocacy, and that projects like his, like IMCAs, etc, will eventually be rejected by the common people who want a 'proper' advocate who is going to try to make their voice heard rather than just try to get the result they want.

I think this is a challenge many of us are facing, in various ways...

20 December 2006

Cool Yule

Tomorrow is the shortest day of the year, celebrated as Yule in the old Celtic calendar.

This solstice was well known a long time before people developed instruments to measure this sort of thing. People were aware of it because they were aware of the changes in the seasons and the wider world around them. From tomorrow the days start getting lighter and the nights start getting shorter.

When the 'pagan' celebrations were taken over and lost by things like christmas, we lost.

I hope you can enjoy some sort of celebration tomorrow - have a cool yule!

I'll also wish you a happy new year, and all the best for 2007.

(Although actually the Celts celebrated new year at the Spring Equinox, 21st March, when the daylight becomes longer than the night. This is also the New Year in Iran, Afghanistan, and the Kurdish lands amongst other places, known as Newroz.)

16 December 2006

Internet Explorer still not working

N.B. Now fixed, 20 December. Thanks to Christine - see comments.

I wrote a post some time back about the benefits of Firefox (a far better way of browsing the web).

I am shocked and disappointed to find that this new blog, based on a new standard Blogger template, doesn't display properly in either IE6 or the new IE7.

The banner at the top is orange, the title Advocacy Blog is a link, and the photo of lichen from Moel Siabod should neatly fill up just the subtitle row with the text showing up neatly on top of it (no white background).

IE just doesn't work.

Now I think Blogger must have some responsibility for this - I'd expect them with their expertise to be able to create templates that work in IE.

On the other hand all web designers know that IE is notoriously difficult to make pages work in, especially if you're interested in accessibility and standards compliance.

So to all you IE users, please switch to Firefox so you can see this post in the way that it's intended. (Feedback from any Safari (Mac) users would also be welcome here.)

14 December 2006

Self-healing systems

[End of post edited 16/12]
When we think of cybernetics we usually think of bits of machines being incorporated into people, but this is an error caused by film and other media. It's actually a useful idea for patients in psychiatric hospitals and many other people too...

Cybernetics is really about self-managing systems. It comes from the Greek Κυβερνήτης (kubernites - meaning steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder; the same root as government).

A very simple example of a cybernetic system is a bathtub. You turn the taps on and go to make a cup of tea or iron some clothes. There's plenty of space to hold the water most of the time, but the space is limited. If you are distracted by whatever else you're doing, there is a safety mechanism: the overflow. When the water level gets too high, it starts to escape down the overflow. This is self-managing in a way - you don't need to intervene in order for the overflow to start to work - it works when a predefined critical point has been reached.

In a way this example is oversimple: it almost fails to be cybernetic because it is only a very primitive loop (and the taps fill the bath up quicker than the overflow can empty the excess water, so it does overflow eventually anyway. There are more impressive examples from many fields, but I think this one reflects nicely on the fragility of the cybernetic system that is the human body.

Which brings me to my experiences in psychiatric hospitals, and out in the community for that matter. Quite a few years ago now I read some of Carl Jung's writings. While I liked these quite a lot, I always felt that he was just missing some of the context of what he was thinking about and I never bothered remembering sources or doing anything too 'academic' with what I was reading.

Despite this I now find myself regularly recalling an idea I certainly read in Jung's work, though I can't find a direct source tonight. I talk about this to people and it seems to help (but I don't go into the detail I'm mentioning in this post).

What Jung said was that as we live our lives we develop 'habits' (this may be my term, but I know he was a fan of Bergson too) to deal with situations we come across regularly. So we go to work and we have quite a small range of different things we need to deal with, and at root there is only one thing we need to do - 'our job'. There is a similar situation at home and in the other places we go to regularly.

I don't have space to go into it in detail here if you haven't come across the idea before, but many people have observed and commented on the role of habit in our lives. In many ways we let the habits get on with themselves so we can concentrate on the more interesting things in our lives.

The problem comes because the world around us is constantly changing, and over time the habits we developed to be able to cope with the world usually begin to fall out of sync with the changes around us. The fact that we don't pay much attention to our habits makes this even more of a problem: we do things automatically because in the past they've helped us to live, but now as our automatic, habitual actions begin to cause us problems we remain blind to the cause as we're not paying attention to those parts of our life.

So we find ourselves increasingly having problems that are distressing because we can't understand them - they even seem irrational and unjust. The natural self-healing process that then comes into play often characterised as depression, although it can appear in slightly different ways or be given other labels. The point is that even if our conscious mind can't see what's happening to us, our subconscious can feel it and does react. The subconscious reaction is not particularly directed or understandable (my earlier post on the space not enclosed by words is relevant here in a way) but it takes the familiar form of a 'turning-in-on-oneself'.

The outward affects of this 'turning-in-on-oneself' are a tiredness, a difficulty in engaging with people or things, a slowing down. Eventually the conscious thought processes that define us as individuals can become so broken down that strange and unruly elements of our subconscious are regularly coming through into our consciousness. Sometimes these incursions of the unconscious are distressing and unpleasant, but some of them are much more positive. The key that Jung discovered is to engage with them. This is one element of his work that became a foundation for the various practices of psychotherapy that we find today. We can engage in them through journal-keeping (or other forms of writing), through drawing or painting, or through a range of other expressive practices.

Eventually, after the body has been shut down sufficiently to break the bad habits that have been constraining it, the idea is that we will be able to begin to go in new directions, begin to learn new approaches to dealing the world, techniques that will hopefully become habits that are more appropriate to today's world.

OK, so I said I don't go into that sort of detail. I suppose the main thing is the idea of habits, those habits getting out of sync, and then our bodies shutting down so that we can have a new start. This is a positive way of thinking about mental distress that seems to be sadly lacking in some institutions (as far as I can tell from what the patients say to me).

[added bit:] The question is, how can this be used, especially from the more non-interventionist stance of an advocate. Clearly it would be wrong to go and start talking to all our new clients about this idea: the main thing is to get people to speak out, and it's important that we concentrate on listening at first. I think it's more about putting things into context, especially after we've known people for a while. Advocacy isn't all about listening, it's more proactive than that, we set goals and develop action plans, and in between we need to care about the relationship we have with our partners. This relationship needs to be empowering, and it seems to me that helping people to find a context where their 'illness' can become more of a 'healing process' can help to give a little more hope to their situations. [end edit]

A more extreme example: when a very ill patient talked about his medication killing him, and wanting to die anyway but not by being poisoned by doctors, I talked about these ideas very productively with him. I explained the idea that mental illness was a self-healing process, that it could be seen as a 'little death' - a death of the old to make way for a renewal, and that these feelings of dying were a natural part of the process. I even went so far as to suggest that in a way the meds needed to make him feel like they were making him die, as they were trying to help him along and speed up this process of (partial) death and rebirth (though I think this is probably taking the analogy a bit far). N.B. Please see the distressed comment and my reply below.

I hope that some people who read this may get some insight, that this may ring a bell or touch a cord of recognition inside you. If that does happen then you'll find your own way of using the idea in your practice.

This is not advocacy in its pure form. I struggled with doing this sort of thing at times, and I do it sparingly. I do think it's relevant to engage with people in a wider and deeper context as an advocate than would happen if we simply did our jobs. Of course citizen advocates and others have known and practiced this for ages, and perhaps it's because my recent role has been as a professional/case work advocate in a very formal setting. I did also touch on these issues in my earlier post about advocacy and therapy.

I'm going to publish this without even proofreading as it's getting late. I hope it's come out ok.

12 December 2006

A4A Forum

I've linked to this already in the external links section down on the left, but it's worth adding in a separate post.

While this blog is about advocacy, it's still quite quirky and personal. I am trying to stir up thought, and even controversy. I do think that this will gradually have the effect of developing a resource that people can hopefully use.

The Action for Advocacy Forum on the other hand is a much more serious and accessible place where some similar discussions are being had. I try to contribute to it as well (though I had quite a lull after I started this blog). Last night I added my bit to a discussion on confidentiality in advocacy practice, I've also added some thoughts about conflict of interest policies and independence, a case around reporting abuse (also covered under the confidentiality post), and various other things.

The great thing about the forum though is that there are loads of people, and it's attached to a prominent and vital organisation (A4A). There are currently 110 members and 288 articles about a wide range of subjects.

The one frustrating thing for me on the site is that the discussions and contributions are usually quite short. I personally don't think any important question can be answered without at least 1000 words (!) and I was writing too much there so I made this blog for my verbal excesses. On the other hand, these are busy advocates contributing to the forum, and the articles and responses are far more approachable than this blog for many people.

Anyway, if you haven't already, go there and contribute. The A4A forum is another important resource for advocacy.

11 December 2006

Getting the house in order

Or rather the Home Office...

All I could do was laugh when I read that

"The Home Office does not have adequate controls to reconcile the payroll and personnel records to determine exact staff numbers."
The Guardian, 11/12/06
I think the laughter was more out of fear than real mirth, but it seems deeply ironic that the body behind all these sudden withdrawals and demands for reassessment of incapacity benefit and disablility allowance is in itself in such dizzy disarray.

Either the Home Office should immediately suspend all funding to itself for six months and force each employee to complete a 29,000 page questionnaire; or alternatively it should develop a monitoring system that more properly reflects the new professional standards that the government is clearly so keen on embracing.

Spam Shakespeare

If we sat a load of spammers in front of computers, gave them drip-feeds and catheters so they had no need to go anywhere, eventually, the story goes, they would spam us all with Shakespeare (if we haven't all ripped out our internet connections in terror before then...)

Actually sometimes I find we're not so far from that already. I get quite a lot of spam that appears to be made up of sentences gleaned from various web pages and then cut up and reorganised. I don't know which websites they use, some seem quite literary, some pretty trashy, some boringly technical, presumably none too high profile.

I remember the first time I got one I thought it was very strange and interesting. It was very short, had no links or images, and I spent a while wondering whether it came from a real person or was an attempt to get me to confirm my email address. In the end I waited, and sure enough more started to come in. Now I don't usually bother looking at them, but this one today reminded me of that first moment... There are too many of these really, and I've deleted a lot, but take any bit on its own and see if you can make any sense of it, it's quite an amusing distraction (these lot would have enjoyed it at least).

Together firmly mandates outcome determined upcoming wishes problem. Cia, married, arrested escapes kills. Handles seventytwo, traffic while consumes sixteen.

Playing isnt, fun, debut earlier.

Again, illuminate job guides talking printed. Zealot generally turn down speaking those? Join book club australia categories arts childrens literature.

Moonraker bernard lee spoof cut cast crew bondrobert.

Locate outside must mind when assessing benefits proposed affect.

Defying, sounded, cool drag solid progressed slow fake hookey.

08 December 2006

New look

So I finally got the invitation to upgrade to Blogger Beta, and ended up going the whole hog and setting up a completely new design and colour scheme!

I hope it works. I'll try out the colours for a while and may revert, but as for the layout I think this is a big improvement, especially the new Archives, the bigger text, and the fact that most of your screen should be used (plus IE users will be able to see the sidebar now hopefully).

I also like the new labels which should help people find their way around a bit better (once I've added appropriate labels to all the posts that is...)

I've managed to sort out a couple of niggling little problems so far. I even created a new class in the css so I could format my name (that's hard-core programming for me!). The fact that the blog title is not aligned with the sidebar text is an ongoing annoyance though.

Let me know what you think.

06 December 2006

Xmas list

Not that I believe in this sort of thing really, but take a look at this for an inspiring list (and I own none of them yet!)

The Atlas Arkhive


Street Angels in Wakefield

I was part of an interesting experiment last weekend, volunteering to be a Street Angel on their first weekend in Wakefield city centre.

As Street Angels we try to offer a safety net for people who become vulnerable, mainly around the main clubbing area at the top of Westgate, but also potentially as far as Henry Boons or Kirkgate and the bus station. We met all sorts of different people, but we expect our main focus to be people who have become vulnerable after too much alcohol. We go out on Friday and Saturday nights between 9pm and 3am in teams of three or four, and we have a base in the Westmoreland Centre that offers a safe place where people can come to get warm, have some water or a hot drink if they need it, and we hopefully work with them to make sure they can get home safely.

It was an experiment because it's the beginning of a pilot scheme that will run until New Year's Eve, that's 12 nights over the next five weeks. The project was initially proposed by the Wakefield District Partnership's Sustainability Advisory Group. Trying to show that their work wasn't all about Fairtrade and recycling, they were looking for a practical project that could make a real difference with a low investment through partnership working.

The model was provided by the Street Angels project in Halifax, set up last year. They have provided a lot of support and information to the Wakefield pilot, including their name. Other partners include Wakefield MDC, West Yorkshire Police, Wakefield Churches Together, Wakefield Cathedral, and Urban Space, together with numerous individuals (this isn't an official blog, just my observations, so sorry to whoever I've missed out). There are already 40 volunteers and we hope to get a few more over the coming weeks.

It's an interesting project to be a part of, butI'm beginning to feel a bit like I'm writing a travel brochure... I think it gives a good background, but what happened on the night though?

Well, apparently, we saved three arrests (I think), two of which would also have meant that a police officer would have had to take the person to A&E and wait until they were discharged back to the cells - all using up valuable time they could be using on the streets. We also helped about half a dozen others. One young woman was eventually taken home by the police and her father rang us later to thank us for our help. Another man was picked up by his mother. Both of them had suffered minor cuts to their faces and were in a state where it took over half an hour to get them to shelter initially and then over an hour each before they were taken safely home. In both cases if we hadn't been able to help then the police would have ended up arresting them, something no one wants to happen.

We also seem to have made a good impression on the Nightlife Marshalls which is useful because they seem to be the main calming and managing influence on the City Centre. We in return were very impressed by them, and they also seem to have an important caring role, offering first aid and managing taxi queues as well as being able to respond rapidly to any incidents along Westgate. The Nightlife Marshalls also work very closely with the doormen who also offered us a warm welcome as we started to discover our place in the night-time economy of Wakefield.

It was a nice quiet weekend, and the rain held off until about 2am on the second night. Friday in particular gave us very little work and was a good opportunity to get a feel for the role before the hard work really sets in nearer Christmas. Starting at 9pm we do a briefing and then go to a Police briefing with the Nightlife Marshalls. We have radios linked into the CCTV system which is also used by the Police and the Nightlife Marshalls - these were used to call us to the help of various people through the weekend, and can also track people who are identified as a risk as they move through town.

The easy start on Friday was useful as on Saturday night things were much busier. We got the last woman safely in a taxi at about 3.05 and all felt as if we'd done a good night. Quite a few people stopped and talked to us and a lot of people must have seen the papers because they were recognising us and shouting out Street Angels. There was a small amount of vaguely abusive comments, 'you look like twats' being most common, but it had a fair amount of truth to it, so I could only laugh - nothing threatening.

I'm going on a bit here, but it's my blog and I'll ramble if I want to.

So to ramble on to something maybe a bit more relevant to an advocacy blog, I'm wondering about the links and differences between the experiences.

The thing that stood out for me is that rambling drunk people don't hang around for the supportive empowering approach we take such trouble to practice. I was reminded more of the mountain rescue man who once shouted questions at me to say my name, what day it was, where I was, etc, etc, insistently for ages to stop me from falling asleep. That's another story, but I did find myself suddenly being forced to give orders: Stop; You Don't Know Where You're Going; You Have To Get Some Help. I managed to get his consent to this before I commanded: Come With Us Now. It worked. I don't think I'll be changing my career though.

In fact the delicate matter of gaining consent, and not being offended at any abuse hurled at you in the process, was important on the night too. Understandably when people have just fallen down drunk, their body takes over and most of their attention is focused on calming their churning stomachs and spinning heads. They probably don't want some unknown person in a massive flourescent yellow coat to come and ask if they're ok or want a coffee. The speech that then emerges is instinctive and obscene, but usually amounts to 'leave me alone'. I personally think it's very important to leave people alone when they're in that mood. In fact things can change very quickly in situations like these, so if we come back in 5 minutes we may get a better reception, but one good thing about Street Angels is that we have time to watch and work with people. There's no need to get an instant answer as we can continue to observe from a respectful distance and offer assistance when it's more appropriate later (or call in the professionals if necessary). The extra time we have helped us out with everyone we worked with over the weekend, and it's well worth using some of it to ensure we have the proper consent and agreement of people for us to help them.

Finally, many people have asked me how I can be involved in a project which appears to be so christian in it's orientation. I'll explain more of the background to this in the last post I'll write about visctrix on 'spirituality', but for now suffice it to say that despite (or perhaps because of) having been instrumental in the setting up of three charitable organisations, I have little time for the concept of christian charity. I think there are a lot of truths in the stereotypical images of christian 'do-gooders', and I think people can do a lot of damage through naïve efforts to 'help' others. I think there are a lot of 'blame' issues in christianity and the various christian doctrines, indeed christianity can effectively be called the first blame culture, and it has been well argued that this culture of blame has insidiously affected all the institutions of today's society. I don't think the humanists have grasped the problem really, let alone solved it, but I do think that person-centred and advocacy based approaches to working with people are a positive move away from what I would characterise as the more 'doctrinal' approaches to health and social care. I'm not sure if people will be able to follow my argument, I'm aware that I'm taking many short cuts in order to explain succinctly. This sort of effort is bound to failure, but it has its own rewards. For the more philosophically minded, references that spring to mind are Nietzsche and Foucault.

My reflections are going to get too metaphysical if I'm not careful, and I will try to explain the background to these suggestions a bit more sometime soon. To get more down to earth, while we do have a wide range of volunteers, because of the partnership approach and the origins of the project in a WDP advisory group, Wakefield Churches Together got involved early on and did a lot of advertising and recruiting for volunteers. It's also true that the Halifax Street Angels is run by the YMCA and has quite strong christian roots. And there are other issues that are not really worth the bother listing.

Given this background, what have I to say to the people who have questioned my involvement with Street Angels? At the end of the day I don't mind working with any individual people. It doesn't matter to me whether they're christian, muslim, drunk, sober, paranoid schizophrenic, disabled, from Iraq, or work as a police officer or social worker. I've met great people and insufferable people in each of these groups and I'm happy to work with many of them. What I think is important is that when we're working we don't impose our views on others. I have no intention of challenging people's beliefs while I'm working on this project, and I expect that they won't put me in a similarly difficult position. I do know that despite the cheesy name, this organisation does focus on the job of being a Street Angel, and throughout the meetings there have been no references to any christian practices or beliefs, except in the context of not imposing them on others.

I volunteered to be a Street Angel for two reasons. I've spent a lot of time out in the night-time economy over the years (and I've got quite a lot of time in me yet), and together with a few communication skills and a dose of common sense I think I can offer some support to the project. And I have been lucky enough to be hearing about the project since soon after its inception, and I think it will be a breath of fresh air for Wakefield and that it should hopefully inspire other people to find simple practical low cost initiatives that can really make a difference without the need to invest so heavily in capital and bureaucracy.

[Update 9/1/07 here.]

04 December 2006

The right to advocacy

I just read in someone's engagement protocol that ‘access to advocacy is a right to which service users are entitled.’

My immediate thought was that this must be wrong: where does it say in legislation that people have this right? And why are people now saying that IMCAs give some people the right to an advocate for the first time in England and Wales?

But then I realised that it was true in an important way, and that we should say it loudly and clearly.

People do have a right to the support of an advocate much of the time:

  • If someone arrives at a meeting with an advocate, they have a right to ask for the advocate to attend the meeting, and there is no law which prevents an advocate from attending most meetings (though they can be denied entry on a similar sort of ad hoc basis)
  • If someone wants to speak to an advocate they can, as long as they fit into the advocacy scheme's criteria
  • If someone asks an advocate to obtain information from an agency, and they fill in the appropriate form of authority, the advocate then has the same right as the person to access information about them
People may not have a statutory right to our support, but they do have these informal rights, and we can thus correctly say that people do have a right to advocacy support.

02 December 2006


visctrix is an important name for me, and now seems the right time to say something about it. As I explained on my Wikipedia user space, a visctrix is a space of creation of bodily affects that cannot be put properly into our usual words or names. I use it as my email address and as my online identity, especially in web forums, ICQ and games.

This comes from the Latin viscera or visceral - relating to feelings, affecting the internal organs - and playfully mixed with the end of the word matrix which is Latin for womb (a space of creation).

This name was created about six years ago when I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to run a 'cultural studies of the internet' course in the Fine Art dept of Leeds University. It picked up on a range of themes that can be found explored both in internet based spaces, but also in various discourses around art and identity politics (I prefer the word ethics to politics).

It is a name that doesn't like the concept of naming, a name that is constantly, hopefully, in progress or transition. Right now I'm certainly in a process of transition, and this needs to be managed carefully somehow - the aim is to be able to sustain myself and to be able to create... Part of this is a re-evaluation of where I find myself and where I'm going - a process in itself that people often write about in journals, diaries, and today, blogs.

So I am going to try to remember and rethink what the name visctrix means to me. The aim is to bring together some of the previously sustaining pathways that are beginning to diverge and disappear, and to try to reinvigorate them. I do think that this will be relevant to readers as it's also another way of naming my approach to life and philosophy, and hence my work, my thinking about advocacy, and this blog.

1. The Name
It seems Plato bears a lot of responsibility for this one, which has dominated the way we think in the West. Many people, including myself, think that the Name (with a capital N, meaning that it is somehow special, and Known, and a sort of fixed thing) is damaging and restrictive. Writers and artists and mystics and all sorts of people who fall outside the mainstream economic system have instinctively realised this and used pseudonyms and false names throughout time. The Name comes from the tendency towards control, originally from the wish of various people in history to control power, money and knowledge, now prevalent as the managerial and bureaucractic system we're all so familiar with.

Three examples will be quite grounding and constructive here. The first is about Joanne Bloggs whose community care assessment identifies eligibility for substantial access to care services. Unfortunately Joanne presents as a very angry young woman, so angry in fact that services are beginning to be withdrawn or withheld. I'm sure most advocates have met some people in similar situations where social care professionals simply seem to have labelled them 'Joanne Bloggs' - meaning aggressive, demanding and difficult. Of course they are demanding and difficult because their lives are demanding and difficult, but 'Joanne Bloggs' is well documented and she just can't sit down quietly and gratefully accept the help we offer. Often, not documented, there is joanne, or jo, or josey, or... These others don't have capitals, and in some ways they may feel they're better off without all that paperwork and managerial pressure. Outside the realm of paperwork and benefits and housing they put a brave face on life, have a laugh with their friends if they have any, and work their way through various problems in between. But then people come along and call them Joanne (even if they say 'Jo'), and ask horrible questions, and don't seem to listen, and they get upset and angry, and then the police are called or they get sectioned and everything goes even further downhill. Joanne is a Name, jo is a person, and tomorrow jo could feel much more friendly and pleasant because the sun's out - if only you'd come for the assessment the next day...

The second example is something I touched on in my note about the NAN Conference. This is about the Name of Advocacy (if Advocacy is a proper Name, it gets a capital too). It's a constant question, not just of Rick's, about whether we should rename 'advocacy'. No one understands it, some say. It gets confused with legal advocacy. The definition is too long and unwieldy, or too short and imprecise. To define something is the same as to Name it - once it has a definition we Know what it is, it's somehow special, and it's kind of fixed. This is useful for the legislators and commissioners, even the managers and the trainers: we can give people rights to it, we can manage contracts, and we can construct advocates to do the work. Maybe that's enough reason for you - we have to live in the real world, and if that's the way to get more advocates what's the problem? I would say wait though. Think for a moment about the link between Joanne and advocacy. At the moment advocacy has no capital - it's still a fluid concept, and it's practised in different ways. Without a capital, advocacy is a bit like jo, slightly out of reach of the catogorising tendencies of some of the people we work with. At the same time we seem to be able to communicate better with jo and others like her than many professionals. It's a subtle prediction, but something I think many of us kind of feel in our bones (or our viscera), that if we move too far into the realms of Advocacy, everything will become more defined and controlled and we'll end up only being able to communicate on Joanne's level again just like all the other Names. I think it's also important to remember that most of the people like jo seem to cotton on to what advocacy is pretty quickly after they start working with a good advocate. They don't need paper definitions, they need feelings, and I think many advocates, and many other people too, also work very productively in this space: let's celebrate and protect this slight vagueness and stop talking about burying advocacy under the tyrrany of the name.

My final example is just a quickie. Of course Social Worker, Psychiatrist, Police are all names, all names which are used to limit, constrain and abuse ordinary jos and johns who are often trying to give something back to the world, who often do extraordinarily sensitive work, and who are not described in my examples above. We are stuck with this tyrrany in some ways, and stereotypes are always breeding other opposing stereotypes. I am just trying to indicate the positions we find ourselves in as advocates when we meet the clients of some of the less accomplished practitioners.

Now this has already got long enough for one post. The other things I wanted to write about are listed below (they will become links as I write them up, hopefully soon). Feedback welcome as always.

2. Creation
3. Communication and movement
4. Community
5. Spirituality

28 November 2006

We can't help the social workers if they won't help themselves

Quite a while ago now I was in a meeting with the Directorate of Social Services in Wakefield trying to persuade them to support Advocacy Action. It turned out later that they weren't having a good day, but since I wasn't asking for money at the time I had a relatively easy ride.

In fact the closest anyone got to challenging me was with the question ‘how are my social workers going to benefit from advocacy?’ The Director, bless her, told me I didn't need to answer that question: the point was, she said, that advocates help service users, not social workers.

I thought it was a good question though, and I insisted on saying that of course if people were supported to communicate more clearly it should be easier for everyone. Ok people may be more assertive or demanding, but at least they will explain their demands and their needs more clearly, and be less likely to resort to shouting or end up crying in despair.

In fact I probably take this further on many occasions as I actively try to empower nurses, care assistants and social workers to make decisions for themselves, adopt more person-centred approaches, and even feel they might be able to question their managers' decisions on occasion…

So it's been a long time since that conversation, and for various reasons I haven't had many opportunities to directly help any of his social workers, until now, and sadly so far is hasn't run as smoothly as I would have liked…

The first thing to point out is that I have managed to make a good impression on the Team Manager, his Senior Social Worker, and the Service Manager (as far as I can tell from their feedback). They have acknowledged that I have helped them to have much better conversations with the ‘service user’ (I'll fall into this jargon for confidentiality's sake).

I've also made a good impression on the service user and their family. They feel happy that their case has been much better described and documented over the last couple of months. We've been through some basic person-centred planning to help with the preparation for the community care assessment, and this has put things into perspective and brought out some issues that had not been discussed before. From their point of view the main problem is that I have been too trusting, and at the end of the day Family Services are still going to turn around and refuse to offer what they need. The sad bit is that last week they were proved to be right, and as we seemed to be near the top of the struggle to get proper services, now it feels as if the fall has been much harder.

It's not all over yet though, and it is worth noting at least a couple of problems that have occurred in my observations of Family Services. I will stress that I am writing this so that people may be able to see and understand these experiences, not in order to make any particular criticisms or complaints.

Problem 1 There's never been any negotiating.

I first became involved over a confusing and badly argued letter that said the service user person was not entitled to a service they'd received. When I went to the meeting that was arranged about the letter, the Manager said he was simply there to explain the letter (which he couldn't do anyway) and the decision had already been made so there was no room for negotiation. This amazed me, because by this time I'd got a lot of background information and the service seemed quite reasonable and in need of some compromise.

I had a discussion with a senior manager about the need for negotiation, which could well have got no further, but then last week, without any information or consultation or apparent consideration of the arguments that the use of this service had been reasonable and legitimate, there was another meeting where again there was no space for negotiation. This second meeting was the conclusion of the community care assessment, but there was no final paperwork, no care plan, and the only item on the agenda was basically that the service would not be offered again as it was too stressful.

Problem 2 Family Services complain that this person is argumentative and difficult…
…but then they back them into a position where they have made a decision and refuse to negotiate, so it's no wonder they become argumentative and difficult.

It’s even worse than this. They really do seem to have decided that it's impossible to communicate with this person. They complained to me that their partner is always butting in, and it's difficult for them to talk to the person directly: then they spent the entire first meeting addressing themselves to me instead of the service user. I sat there for some time looking at the person they were supposed to be talking to and they still didn't get the hint. At one point I suggested they should be talking directly to the person, and they looked at me as if I'd said something rude about their mother…

In fact throughout the several hours I've spent in meetings, every time the service user has become upset and raised their voice the social worker has basically ignored them and just seen the outburst as a barrier to explaining what they needed to explain, rather than a perspective that needs to be engaged with.

Problem 3 The service user has a history of complaining to the Director of Family Services, and to their MP — and getting services

I have been told from the outset that Family Services don't want this to happen, but bizarrely they never listened properly and never opened any spaces for negotiation. Then they said you can't have the services you want.

In between they seem to have ignored most of the material I have helped to provide them with through my direct work with the service user — evidence which if we do make a formal complaint will certainly help the service user to argue their case persuasively.

All of these factors really make a complaint likely. Looking back I can only assume that someone realised they made a mistake early on and has then entrenched and become determined not to admit it, but from my perspective this entrenchment is turning into a deepening black hole they are digging themselves into.

I have really tried to offer opportunities to the social worker that I've had most contact with to avoid this problem, but for whatever reason these opportunities haven't been taken.

Anyway, now I've warmed up with this anonymous blog post, I'm quite looking forward to writing in more gory detail to some senior person who will hopefully turn the decision over and help to make sense prevail. I'll try to put up an update when we get to the end.