Learning and Reflection – Developing good practice.

The biggest gain from my activity as an Independent Consultant has been the variety and interest of the work I have done. My Advisory Teacher work involved much cross-disciplinary and cross-agency work, and this aspect of my practice has increased many times since becoming an Independent Consultant, with extra geographical dimensions – local authority, region and country. The richness and challenge of this experience has been accompanied by the development of personal friendships. I have become increasingly involved in writing and editing, acting as book reviews editor for DrugLink (alas, no more…) and Drugs and Alcohol Today, and now working along with Axel Klein as co-editor of Drugs and Alcohol Today. I have also contributed to Project HOPE UK’s Thoughtful Path Munsieville community development project in Johannesburg, delivering a first work-shop on monitoring and evaluation there in February 2013 and writing a health education curriculum for the township residents, delivered by local activists.

My early focus on school-based work and work around substance misuse and sexual health – to use public health rather than educational terminology – has made me increasingly and constantly aware of the links and relationships which these areas have with each other; and with child protection, emotional health and well-being, parenting and socio-economic status – or what we used to call ‘class.’ I regard each of the areas in which I work as being parts of a system or syndrome, not separate, single-issue topics. To respond to one means to consider all.

I claim as one of my professional skills the interpretation of legislation and guidance into practice, and this has been the focus of much of my work. The introduction of colleagues to the evidence base remains a constant need and feature in most of my – and others’ – work. What this also involves, especially since the emergence in the UK of children’s services, is the ‘translation’ or matching of terminology between services and disciplines. Although most services have equivalent terminologies – and aims – the vocabulary used frequently differs, so that terminologies are parallel, not identical. This linkage and joint-working seemed to be coming under threat as the Department for Education (or whatever it is now being called by whimsical ministers) distanced itself in early 2014 from discussion and debate about any aspects of young people’s development and needs other than the academic and cognitive.

I maintain my interest in what in the UK we have come to call ‘work force development.’ However, I have some reservations about the ways in which this strategy has been implemented in many geographical and professional areas. I have come to make a distinction in my work between practitioners and managers, which I think is valid for the wider field of social policy. I make this distinction because of the increasing number of occasions when I have experienced managers and decision makers, including commissioners of services, demonstrating a lack of understanding of the areas for which they have responsibility. At an extreme, this can result in practitioners’ skills, experience and learning being dismissed or ignored. Although they often occur for understandable reasons, such extremes can prevent the mixing and sharing of strategic, decision making and practitioner skills for the benefit of all, above all those for whom services are intended to operate. They can also represent the desire of a new-in post manager to make a clean sweep, impose new practices and staff and ignore existing good-practice and wisdom. The separation of professional roles can impede greater understanding of needs, situations, evidence, experience and the range of ways in which aims and targets can be achieved. Ideally, work-force development applies at all levels and should be implemented across disciplines and throughout hierarchies, not just top-down. Hierarchical status should not replace dialogue and exchange.

By ‘managers’ I also include politicians. In autumn 2010 I attended a conference on violence against women and girls at which a government minister spoke. Although he emphasised his and the government’s commitment to the developing national strategy on VAWG, it was clear from his subsequent comments that he did not understand the extent or the impact of domestic violence on those subjected to it. It seemed to me that the views expressed were at a lay and ‘common sense’ level, where I would have expected an informed and professional comment. Not for the first time, I was probably being naïve.

This incident gave me pause for thought – about the extent to which social policy making at a national level can be driven (or opposed) by individuals who have grasped a small part of an issue or phenomenon but do not have the broader knowledge or context which would help them to better understand exactly how such issues can be responded to, and that very often they can at best be managed but not ‘solved’ – a difficult recognition for politicians. All too often this illustrates a focus on symptoms rather than causes. The obvious historical example here is the ‘just say no’ approach to substance misuse, which simplified and mis-represented a highly complex social issue and set out responses which were not evidence based, had no realistic chance of succeeding and set a frame-work (essentially, prohibition) from which we are still struggling to escape. Where such approaches do not meet the expectations which politicians have set, such ‘failure’ is presented to the public as a failure of practitioners, not a failure of the strategy or approach. So the response is, often, to subject practitioners to ‘work-force development,’ with the politicians and decision makers ignoring or denying their own lack of understanding and judgement and their need for ‘work-force’ development.

My other emphasis is on the good practice – best practice distinction. I find the use of ‘best practice’ unhelpful, as it implies one universal response and solution where there are no mono-causal explanations or solutions. One example of this has been the replacement of a harm reduction approach to substance use by a recovery and abstinence approach or dogma. The possibility of co-existence does not seem to have occurred to the politicians responsible. Good practice, by contrast, seems to me to recognise that there are many ways in which aims and outcomes can be achieved, and that each of these ways has reasons and advantages which can make them more or less suitable for adoption in specific settings.

Terminology is important for me – my wife says that I’m a pedant, but I don’t think that’s the right word. At the most basic levels, I continue to emphasise the difference between education and prevention as used in the drugs field – interestingly demonstrated at a Home Office conference in March 2005, when a DfES civil servant was clearly taken by surprise at the suggestion that there is a distinction to be made between the two.

In my recent work on drug policy, I found it sobering and frustrating to hear constant references to human rights and gender sensitivity being made at the March 2019 High Level Review and Commission on Narcotic Drugs meetings in Vienna. With no sense of shame or awareness of evidence and reality, nations with what NGOs and CSOs have described as poor and oppressive civil and human rights records claim that they implement drug policies based on human rights, public health, evidence and gender-sensitivity. As has been said in other contexts: such practices mean the death of satire (not to mention hundreds of thousands or people). So all respect to those working in NGOs and CSOs who continue to amass evidence of real situations, the existence of alternatives to the status quo, and to challenge false and hypocritical claims. And to those, mostly smaller, nations who actively implement policies which are based on evidence, respect for human rights, and a response to the needs of all of their populations, regardless of class, sex, ethnicity and immigration status.