The shrinking of local advocacy

Large organisations are sweeping up tenders to provide advocacy services across the country. This is threatening grassroots projects that have grown over the years to meet the needs of individual communities, fears Peter Dawson

Advocacy started in the 1970s and 1980s for me, when I worked as a nurse for people with learning difficulties then as a service coordinator and training officer in social services.

I mistakenly thought at first that nurses and other caring personnel would be the most appropriate advocates for the people they looked after. Gradually, I realised that effective advocacy should be independent of services and based on clear, strong ideas of equality and citizenship.

Having been part of institutionalised care and knowing how disempowering it is, I felt strong support for the self-advocacy movement. From 1990, changing from service provider to advocacy enthusiast, I was able to work with colleagues with learning difficulties to develop self-advocacy groups in Derbyshire and elsewhere.

It seemed to me that groups should be as independent and self-managing as possible but also often need to be appreciated, understood and supported by people without disabilities to some degree.

Local voices

I had a role in the early days of Our Vision Our Future, which is still going strong in North East Derbyshire after 25 years. It manages itself, has not been hijacked or taken over by any other organisation and, despite funding cutbacks and other challenges, continues to grow.

It gives its members constant opportunities to develop self-confidence, skills, interests and a collective voice. They have always employed their own support and occasionally turn to trusted advisers outside their group for help. It is no thanks to me that they are still flourishing but, nevertheless, I am proud of that fact that, as someone without a learning difficulty, I am trusted to be consulted from time to time.

In the early 2000s, while working for Values Into Action’s advocacy project, I came into contact with many advocacy groups across the country. People First, based in London, is just one voice of people with learning difficulties; I cannot disagree with its strong commitment to the principle of “nothing about us without us”.

In 2004, I became manager of Peaks & Dales Advocacy, a small charity based in Buxton in the Derbyshire High Peak, an organisation that recognises the importance and centrality of self-advocacy.

We believe that good advocacy starts and ends with those we call our advocacy partners and what they want to say to other people who are usually in some sort of decision-making role, whoever they may be. The need for this sort of advocacy will end when society gets the message that everyone has worth and a right to a valued voice in their own lives.

For nearly 30 years, Peaks & Dales Advocacy has offered support to anyone in its area who needs it. These are not only people with learning difficulties but also those with mental health needs, older people and others – anyone who could be vulnerable to being ignored and marginalised.

Professional shift

However, I fear that much good, independent, locally based advocacy, which uses volunteer advocates and knows communities well, is being replaced by something different.

My own organisation lost its funding last year in a demanding, high-level tendering process. Now, one large organisation provides advocacy for everyone throughout Derbyshire.

Good luck to them and to the growing number of people who need and deserve advocacy support. I feel it will be hard for one major organisation to provide the locally sensitive, customised response that is so often needed.

This is a trend. Advocacy seems to be getting increasingly professionalised and “nationalised” – by which I mean there are large, national organisations sweeping up advocacy tenders throughout the country.

The best advocacy is consciously based on the principles of unconditional, positive regard promoted by Carl Rogers (1959). Like self-advocacy, it is a tool for empowerment.

Peaks & Dales Advocacy may have lost most of its funding for one-to-one advocacy but it still exists. We support a regular self-advocacy group who have recently made their own video and plan to produce more. We also are developing another tool towards empowerment – community development.

Many people in our area want meaningful things to do and opportunities to make and develop proper friendships and relationships of their choosing. For this, vulnerable people need information, communication and support to make and sustain informed choices. Maybe this is advocacy by another name Ð inclusion and equality continue to be our aims.

The work must go on. Our values have to be expressed in the way the work is done, not just in the outcomes – which is why the people we work with are our advocacy partners.

Peter Dawson is an advocate/senior advocacy development worker at Peaks & Dales Advocacy

Rogers CR (1959) A theory of therapy, personality, and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In: Kirschenbaum H, Henderson V, eds (1989) The Carl Rogers Reader. Boston: Houghton Mifflin