VITAL LAUNCH: David and Goliath in so many ways...

We have been watching small advocacy organisations disappear all over the country for the last few years, as bigger national organisations came in swallowing up advocacy contracts for better or for worse. We knew from the moment advocacy was introduced in to law back in 2007, and the advocacy ‘qualification’ was born, that sharks were circling our waters.

We had a big decision to make back then. Do we, as a small user led organisation, jump on  the bandwagon of ‘professional advocacy’? Or do we keep fighting for it to be the independent thorn in the side, the organic service that is grounded in the user led movement that had given it so much prominence? Ultimately, it was the advocates of advocacy that had made it high profile enough, that it was recognised as essential for vulnerable people and enshrined in to laws.

It was a tough decision, hotly debated here in Bradford, and nationally across the user led movement. Ultimately, we knew if we didn’t hop on board we would be swept aside and that there would be no user run advocacy service left in Bradford. Even though we had helped define it, we had to book our advocates on to the newly designed ‘Advocacy Qualification’ just to be eligible to run the services as deemed by national commissioning standards and codes of practice.

There is no us and them

We did this, at times with reticence, but with the noble belief that user run and local was the best type of advocacy service. We have been where our service users are; we really do care, we really do get it. And we know that people using our advocacy services felt reassured and secure in the knowledge there was no ‘them and us’ when seeing our advocates. We all have mental health, and sometimes, we all have a struggle to be heard.

The benefits of being local brought with it history and a wealth of knowledge and contacts meaning that even if we weren’t able to help, we could signpost to others that might. We kept our doors open even when funding was tight to ensure that people were entitled to our support regardless of status under law, or formal diagnosis. We stood up to be counted when services failed, or people’s rights were disregarded.

Inevitably, we knew that our pots of funding from CCGs and the LA would soon end up as commissioned contracts and ensured that we kept relationships strong with commissioners. We made sure they valued all types of advocacy regardless of its requirement by law. This became harder as money was squeezed and commissioners moved on, leaving us vulnerable and struggling to engage the very people that would commission these vital services in the future.

Nonetheless, here we are a year after the relationships dwindled, despite the blows we have been dealt. The money was all put in one pot and the contract went out to tender. This was a different advocacy service to the one we wanted to deliver, the one which service users had told us they needed, and the one which we had discussed with commissioners past. Again, a debate ensued… do we really want to provide a statutory advocacy service with little resource for those who are often the most vulnerable, those not entitled to support?

We did of course feel that the merit of local and user led services still deserved a place in the statutory framework, and as such bid for the contract. For an organisation such as ourselves, and our chosen partner Choice Advocacy, this was a huge resource heavy undertaking. We don’t do this every day, we don’t have expertise in tender or bid writing… our expertise is in delivering services, and supporting those who deliver front line work.

Goliath gains a lead

Inevitably and unsurprisingly, the contract was awarded to a large national provider. The fact it came as no surprise however, didn’t make the blow any easier to bear. In fact, I think it was felt even more deeply. We continuously stood up and fought for those without a voice, we pointed out the failings in statutory organisations, we worked with them to try and find resolutions for vulnerable people, we did what advocacy is meant to do. What was so hard to deal with was the uncertainty and change that was about to befall some of the most vulnerable people in the district, particularly those who had received our support for many years.

We had a choice… we could shout and scream that it wasn’t fair, that it wasn’t right, that we were still best placed to provide services, or could re-evaluate, take stock, and see the opportunities that might arise from it. And that is what we have chosen to do. We have gone back to the reason why we were set up in the first place. Advocacy was our solution 30 years ago, but the advocacy that was, has been high jacked and changed. It was meant to re-dress the balance of power and put service users back in the driving seat of their own care, but now, in the majority of statutory cases, the referral has to be made by a professional… the irony is both painful and worrying.

So we have to ask, are user run, local advocacy services still needed?

We think the answer is yes, and we think there is a whole heap more that we can run alongside it, including volunteering, befriending, and self-advocacy training to name but a few. Because there are people that will still go unheard. Small unheard voices in the huge systems that are social and health care.

David will fight back, stronger and smarter for all those that remain unheard