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Can Government Create User-Led Organisations?


Today I witnessed the beginning of the next phase in the evolution of Oxfordshire's newest 'user-led organisation', tentatively named 'The Oxfordshire Wheel'. In a packed room in East Oxford, people with a wide experience of overcoming disability and exclusion gathered to discuss the next phase of the project. The new organisation is being formed with the intention of delivering key elements of the County Council's Transforming Adult Social Care (TASC) programme, as well as ensuring that local service users have a voice in the new-look social services of the 21st century.


One of the drivers behind the formation of the organisation was the outgoing Labour government's requirement for each local authority to have at least one 'user-led organisation' in their area. This idea, which originated from the Putting People First family of initiatives, seems to have been linked to the apparent success of 'Centres for Independent Living' or CILs in many parts of the country. These typically managed by user-led organisations, and form a 'hub' for other 'spoke' services such as information and advice, independent brokerage and advocacy.


So far so good. But can a central government really sponsor grass roots activism in this way? And are the type of organisations produced ever genuinely independent? Whatever the answers to these important questions, I think we have to take our hats off to the outgoing government and the civil servants who worked in their administration for getting even this far. For decades previous governments had paid lip service to the idea of user-run services whilst raising innumerable obstacles to their operation. At least this lot put their money where their mouth was, and the Oxfordshire Wheel has benefited greatly from a small but significant start-up grant from the Department of Health.


Sadly, though, many of the barriers facing user-led organisations are still very much in evidence. One example is the apparently unstoppable momentum towards 'professionalising' roles such as advocacy, which can make it too expensive to train volunteers unless they are prepared to make time commitments  that many disabled people find impossibly demanding. Another is the fashion of tendering contracts to run local authority and NHS services, which favours large regional and national organisations that don't spend a lot of money on consulting with and involving the people who use their services.


I think it was Gerry Zarb of the Equality and Human Rights Commission who once described the New Labour government as having a '…pluralist heart but a centrist head'. It is probably too early to say if the incoming ConDem government will suffer from the same inner conflicts, but the early signs are that it will. Despite lots of rhetoric about decentralisation and an increasing role for the voluntary sector in the ‘Big Society’, the white paper Liberating the NHS seems to signal an intention to hand large chunks of health and social care provision over to the giant private health firms.


Meanwhile, the Oxfordshire Wheel is taking its first faltering steps towards maturity. We wish it every success.


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