Fight the Power? Personalisation and Power in England

A guest blog post from Professor Chris Hatton, Lancaster University:

This blog was prompted by a question posed by Martin Routledge (currently Head of Operations for In Control) on Twitter, which went as follows (I've added some vowels…):

"Reflecting that we are good about talking about personalisation, less willing to accept ways of actually transferring power to people - why? Institutional history of services? Risk averse organisations? Interests of commissioners, providers, staff not same as people using?"

I've worked with In Control for over a decade on a series of tools (POET) to evaluate the impact of personalisation on people's lives, and this question has never been far from my mind. I've recently been wondering if this is the right question, and if asking the question in this way actually sets up as adversaries people who might otherwise be allies.

Dennis Johnson, a PhD student I've been supervising, introduced me to a set of dictums formulated by Michel Foucault, the French philosopher with an interest in how challenges to patterns of established power or authority have historically been successful, who came up with six common features of such successful challenges. Given the formulation of the personalisation project in England as a challenge to established structures of power in social policy and service provision, I wanted to see if Foucault's ideas would translate into a set of strategies for how personalisation can develop into a meaningful reality for everyone.

There is a longer blog here that 'shows my working' - In Control invited me here to focus on the conclusions and what they mean for personalisation in England by going through each of Foucault's six dictums and outlining what they mean in terms of strategy.

1) Avow 'transversality' or transnational citizenship

Foucault's first dictum suggests that ideas that change the world do exactly that (at least partially) - they are thought of as international and beyond a certain point inevitable and 'common sense'.

For good reasons, the personalisation project in the UK has largely focused on the mechanics of implementing personalisation within existing legal, policy and service frameworks. However, in my view personalisation gains strength from taking its place as one part of a broader international movement focusing on the rights of all citizens to self-determination, which can shape how societies think in ways that any national programme cannot.

Strategic lesson 1: Embed personalisation as part of broader international movements towards self-determination for all citizens

2) Target the effects of power rather than confront the sources of power and authority.

Foucault has an important notion about power being networked, without an obvious 'centre', such that everyone in the network feels (in different ways) constrained and relatively powerless. This isn't to say that differentials in power are not stark and are not real - clearly a person trying to negotiate the social care labyrinth is all too often forced into a place of screaming frustration. But it is to say that if we go searching for the person sitting on a sack labelled 'power', with the aim of persuading them to give it up or taking it from them, we'll be searching for a long time.

My sense is that many proponents of personalisation see themselves as an insurgent force (think the rebels in Star Wars), but instead of blowing up the Death Star they are seeking to persuade the Stormtroopers to dismantle it themselves and give the parts to people to build their own homes. We might think we need to kill Darth Vader first, but Foucault's second dictum suggests that working systematically through the policy and practical barriers and their consequences for people is likely to be more effective than all-out confrontation with 'power'.

This has been complicated by the adoption of personalisation as government policy - can it stay true to its radical principles? (have the Jedi been turned to the Dark Side?) Foucault would suggest that such accommodations are necessary as long as the personalisation project stays focused on understanding the effects of systems on people and how personalisation can make a meaningful difference.

Strategic lesson 2: Stay close to the lives of people involved in the personalisation endeavour, documenting and understanding how personalisation works (and doesn't work), and using this understanding to improve how personalisation works.

3) Contest the privileges of knowledge (and contest what is privileged knowledge)

Much of the debate around personalisation rests on a sometimes acrimonious contest about what counts as evidence for what is 'really' happening with personalisation (academic research? accounts of lived experience?). For me, Foucault's third dictum suggests that we need to contest the idea that any particular type of knowledge is in a uniquely privileged position, and learn what we can from all the sources of knowledge at our disposal.

Strategic lesson 3: Use all forms of knowledge to improve our collective understanding of what is happening, rather than privileging any form of knowledge or engaging in needlessly adversarial debate about what counts as 'evidence'.

4) Engage the immediate problem rather than the "chief enemy"

Partly because pretty much everyone feels powerless and frustrated with how things are, there is a temptation to identify someone else as the 'enemy' who is the barrier to a goal that seems to be generally agreed, that of meaningful self-determination for everyone. This might make us feel temporarily better, but does it make enemies of potential allies?

Foucault's fourth dictum is a real challenge, as it suggests that campaigning against the iniquities of power is not enough. Foucault suggests that there needs to be ongoing, practical engagement with existing power structures focused on solving 'real' and immediate problems for people.

Strategic lesson 4: Rather than trying to identify 'enemies' to the achievement of self-determination for all citizens, work together to understand the systemic constraints and facilitators to achieving self-determination in specific circumstances  and use these to build better ways of achieving self-determination from the ground up.

5) Oppose efforts to separate individuals from the society that nurtures them

As with much else, opinion is polarised about the intended and unintended consequences of personalisation on relationships between individuals using self-directed support, other people close to them, and the communities and societies in which they live. For the personalisation project, Foucault's fifth dictum suggests it is vital to work on these broader aspects of social connectedness which stretch far beyond services and embrace the importance of the collective and belonging in people's lives.

Strategic lesson 5: Ensure that the maintenance and development of people's social networks and the promotion of nurturing communities is seen as just as essential as paying attention to funding and service support mechanisms.

6) Preserve the right of self-determination and resist efforts to control "who we are"

Self-determination is clearly at the centre of the personalisation project, but the terms self-determination, choice and control are often used interchangeably. For me self-determination is the fundamental idea. Being self-determined does not necessarily mean having to make choices over every aspect of your life - you may decide to cede control over certain areas of life, for example, with the proviso that you can set the limits of this and take back control when you wish.

With its conflation of choice and control, there is a widespread perception that 'real' personalisation effectively means direct payments, with the person having to act as employer and co-ordinator of their support. A truly personalised approach would have no such assumptions, with people being able to determine at what level they want to have control, the terms under which control is being ceded to others, and when they can take control back - all of which may change at different times in the person's life. Foucault's sixth dictum suggests that it is vital that the personalisation project keeps its eyes firmly on the ultimate prize of self-determination.

Strategic lesson 6: Keep the aim of self-determination (not necessarily choice) in mind at all times, and design and evaluate personalisation projects against this standard

So, what is the answer to Martin's question? I'm not sure there is one, and even if there is I'm not sure how far it would take us in making personalisation a meaningful reality for people. Despite the attraction of the grand theory for academics like me, Foucault's analysis of power suggests that there is no substitute for the hard grind of working through the issues person by person, and working through them together.


Foucault, M. (1994). The subject and power. In J.Faubion (ed.), Michel Foucault: Power, The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984 (pp. 328-348). New York: The New York Press.

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Last Updated : 14 October 2013. Page Author: Laura Bimpson.