Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Truth is Out on Personal Budgets

If I went on Mastermind, my first appearance would see me answering questions about the Bolton Wanderers wilderness years in the early to mid 1980s. My second would be on the the Smiths B-sides 1982-87. My third would be on personal budgets. Not exactly my specialist subject but up-there.

I spent my last three years as CEO of Speaking Up (now VoiceAbility) thinking through how civil society organisations would respond to this. Personal budgets felt like a long overdue reform of a local authority funding system which had ossified in its own defence. I came to the conclusion that this was not going to be an overnight change and that, during that period, serious investment in new services was too risky. The Local Authority turkeys were not going to vote for an early Xmas. And even those that wanted to change would find it hard in practice to do so.

Today's report ( from the Audit Commission vindicates this: progress has been pretty slow in many places. Yes there have been 'trailblazers' but they are the exception not the rule. Councils systems are not yet geared up. People with mental health problems are missing out. We need more independent brokerage services.

Beyond imploring councils to get a shift-on, the Commission's report doesn't hold out much that is new. All of its recommendations can be found in guidance from years back. The only difference now, of course, is that councils are broke. In-house services are no longer economically viable. Divestment is back on the agenda and with it the most pure form of divestment - personal budgets.

Now, cards on table time. I am a fan of personal budgets. While the evidence base is quite favourable but not glowing, I glow like a Christmas tree when I think about them. I have seen too many successes and too few failures to not be a fan. Yes there are all sorts of challenges and problems, not least the Norwich man who used his personal budget to be pleasured in an Amsterdam brothel. While part of me wishes him the very best, I realise this isn't a good use of public money.

However, the risks - and they are legion - do not make this a bad idea. State control of funding does not make anything accountable in the way that unions and left-wing politicians want us to believe. All state control does is ensure that it costs us five pounds to spend ten. Councillors, in practice, do not hold state services any more accountable than they hold a private provider or individual budget holder. In fact, I would say the reverse is true because Councillors, as employers of state employees, are conflicted between loyalty to the public and duty to be nice to our employees.

Anyway, back to personal budgets. I predict that as councils are forced to reform themselves in response to the CSR, a by-product will be lots of people moving to personal budgets. In public bodies c

hange only comes out of necessity. Events - like the CSR - play the forcing role that in other sectors is played by the market. In that sense, one can be grateful for the end of the Good Times in the public sector.

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