Problems in Disguise

Problems in Disguise


Susan Downer

20 April 2005


Adults are as resistant to taking orders as children and this week a study for the Scottish Executive confirmed that professionals really, deeply resent it.


The report tells the life story of a project called Starting well, set up in the year 2000 to break disadvantage by throwing a team of professionals and community workers at poor families with new babies. Like many evaluations it concluded that three years and £3m later, life for 1800 families was better than it would have been but not as good as anticipated. But the report raised some fundamental questions about how policy is developed.


These days we know disadvantaged communities are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. We know policy has to be developed with the people rather than for them. But back in November 2000 when Starting well was launched, ministers and civil servants apparently didn’t feel the same about professionals.


When the evaluation tells us that health visitors baulked at the standardised approach they were expected to take, it would be all too easy to imagine civil servants as ambitious architects and health visitors as unimaginative developers who insist on doing things the way they’ve always been done.


But one of the most powerful messages in the evaluation is this: ‘be alert to the potency of context’. Organisational cultures matter. The people who supposed to be delivering these projects matter. And if you work against them, the best laid partnerships and initiatives are almost certain to flounder.


An intellectual shift is needed in which policy attempts to develop in harmony with professional cultures rather than acting as if they’re not there or seeing them as part of the problem. Inflexibilities should be challenged, but from under the skin rather than from on high. Organisational capacity has to be respected. Real world complexities may be confusing but oversimplification is confounding. It’s not a solution. It just treats the problem as if it’s not there.