Thursday, 17 May 2012

When more isn't better

Over the last couple of days at Action for Advocacy’s conference we’ve been helping the advocacy sector to think through some difficult choices for the future. Not just asking “what is advocacy?” but trying to figure out what advocacy needs to be in the future. We’re still working on it.

I’m proud to be part of the independent advocacy sector, but I believe that we must challenge the idea that more advocacy is an inherently good thing. More control for people over their own lives is a good thing. Better ability to speak up is a good thing. People shaped services and dignity in care, all good things which advocacy helps to bring about. Advocacy is merely the tool for achieving these, and independent advocacy is only part (albeit a very important part) of what advocacy is.

In my presentation I asked the question, “Who is my advocate?” We need to move beyond advocacy being only about the independent advocacy role, otherwise we exclude natural advocates (e.g. friends, family and carers) undermine self advocacy, and subvert the need for nurses, social workers and all health and care staff to  speak up for the person in their care. Yes, there are times when independent advocacy is needed but we must be clear that the responsibility is on health and care professionals to listen, to include, to build person centred services, to put the person at the centre of decisions about their life, to ensure that all are treated with dignity and respect.

The provision of independent advocacy must be seen as a supplement, not a replacement, to this duty of care. We need to do more as a sector to work inclusively, supporting people to speak up about their own lives and ensuring carers (paid or unpaid) have the tools and support to enable this to happen. We need to look at how we respond with true meaning to our diverse communities. We must find ways of supporting groups that have an advocacy role within their wider purpose. We need to work together, develop skills create contacts for us all to make rights a tangible reality for all. I’m determined to explore how we can play a role in making this happen.

And despite a climate for increasingly tightly case managed services, when independent advocacy is used it must aim to truly give people more control over their own life. Advocacy services should seek to create change at a system level by being willing and able to robustly challenge poor practice and using data from advocacy work to build a case for wider change. Without this, advocacy runs the risk of being complicit in accepting poor treatment, abuse and denial of rights. We would be saying that we now accept that services will fail people, and that we’re fine with that. We’re not.

We’ve achieved much in the past 10 years but we have a long way to go. Advocacy is a sector that should not celebrate a growth in demand. In the long term we don’t want more independent advocacy; we want better services, tangible rights, fulfilled lives and a strong and equal voice for all. In the meantime, we need to prove to ourselves, our service users, our commissioners and our communities that advocacy is really making a real difference, that it is narrowing the glaring gap between how people should be treated and how they are.