Advocacy & accountability in a changing public sector…

[Summary: Reflections on the Children’s Rights Officers and Advocates 2010 conference – and some thoughts on the details of a re-engineered state…]

I spent a few days last week at the annual conference of CROA, the network of  Children’s Rights Officers and Advocates, supporting delegates to discover and use different social media, and facilitating an open space session. The Twitter logs from the days of the conference give a flavour of the themes and discussions, and you can find video interviews with a number of participants over on including an interview with Tim Loughton, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families, after his hour-long presentation and Q&A session at the conference (MP3 recording).

Like just about any public sector conference taking place right now, a lot of the discussion focussed on an uncertain future for services supporting young people. However, one theme that started to develop, if not fully, was the increasing importance of advocacy as state services shift from top-down management to ideas of bottom-up accountability. As the website of Action for Advocacy put’s it “Advocates and advocacy schemes work in partnership with the people they support and take their side”. Children’s Rights Officers and Advocates are often working with young people in care, or in touch with the care system, supporting individuals to be heard in decision-making that profoundly affects their lives, and working with groups of young people through fora such as Children in Care Councils, to ensure systems and provision are up-to-scratch and improved.

Where a lot of the focus of recent years has been on improving systems and processes through collective participation, with the axing of central targets and a push for greater localism, there is a new focus on holding services to account on the local level. However, when you are in a crisis, a tough situation, or a conflict with services, securing a good outcome from the processes you’re individually engaged with, let alone holding wider systems to account, can be incredibly challenging. For bottom-up accountability to work, advocacy support has to be accessible to those who can’t speak up for themselves, and individual advocacy also has to be connected to collection action on accountability.

That’s going to need a number of developments:

  • Advocates will need to develop their skills in holding government systems to account within new environments. We had an encouraging open space session at the conference looking at how advocates could develop their role as both users and creators of open government data – using data such as the cost of providing care in different contexts to secure young people’s rights to quality care and education provision. After that open space slot, I’m hoping to take part in an open data workshop with CROA members some time in the near future so we can explore how open date fits into advocacy in more depth.One challenge, however, to advocates as key actors helping secure outcomes for young people is that many (most?) are employed by their local authority, and if the best channels for securing change are ‘outsider’ channels, how might advocates semi-‘insider’ status in the authority affect or complicate their ability to use new routes to secure changes for children and young people?
  • ‘Participation work’ needs to focus on building the capacity of young people to input into local priority setting; and to track how well authorities are keeping their promises. A real fear expressed at the CROA conference was that some local areas don’t put a high priority on children in care at all, and with the loss of national requirements, securing good quality care for young people could become more challenging. Participation work has often focussed on engaging young people in thinking about issues within ‘The Children’s Plan’, rather than focussing on wider strategies and priorities. Just as the RightSpace video from Liam Cairn’s talking about the importance of a dialogue of Children and Young People’s Human Rights replacing a focus on the exceptionalist idea of ‘Children’s Rights’, there is a real challenge for youth participation work to recognise itself as part of a broader capacity building for civic participation – enabling and empowering young people to operate as citizens now, influencing priority setting and playing roles, individually and collectively, in holding services accountable*.

(*I’ve focussed on the accountability dimensions of the changing public sector here; but connections should also be made to the role young people can play in social innovation and collaborative work to create change).

As the public sector is ‘re-engineered’, it seems vital to focus on the details that matter for socially just outcomes to be secured…

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