National Commissioning Conference Chair’s introduction 2015. By Jonathan Stanley

Reflection, appropriation, acceleration, activation, democracy and dialogue.

The National Commissioning Conference Training is undoubtedly amongst the best programmes of any conference. The reason is that the programme is put together by those doing the task for those doing the task. It’s the place we come to hear who is doing what. It’s a place of hospitality, learning and sharing.

As Chair I’m looking forwards to us all learning about becoming more effective and efficient. I am also looking forwards to having some ripples in the sense I make of the work, even waves.

I’m reminded of a saying of a colleague, ‘We might not always agree but we remain friends.’

So I’m looking forwards to doing better. But also doing different

It’s that latter I want to spend a few moments reflecting on as the opening remarks for the conference.

Bernard Williams, a philosopher wrote about

‘… the difficulty when we abandon the idea of the reflexive mind on favour the curious view that experience itself tells us what we’re thinking.’

He wrote that in 1962.

However I think it highlights something we need to consider.

We all involved in business. We are all involved in busyness, achieving the action plan.

Yet do we know where we are going?

There’s a sing on a road near where we live that says, ‘Do Not Follow Sat Nav.’

If you do the road gets narrower, bumpier, and ends.

Do Not Follow Sat Nav.

I worry that we have a Children’s Services robust in its instrumentality, where everything is going well according to plan, until there’s an unintended consequence or more often unforeseen as we didn’t spend time considering all the potentials.

Thankfully someone thought about the unintended consequences and put up a sign, ‘Do Not Follow Sat Nav.’

I’m told there is a role and an office in the Vatican for someone with the official title of ‘Devil’s Advocate.’ Their job is to ask reflective questions about what seem to be good ideas. They ask the question,’ Where will we end up?’

The busyness we are all involved with is all consuming. We have little time to stand and stare, but it is an important thing to do. It is powerful, but it is often seen as non-productive. Standing back the world looks very different than close up.

Standing back from commissioning, procurement and provision there are big influences we have to take into account.

We are living in an ideological and economic age. Too little we look at Economics. We look at Finance. The two are not the same thing at all.

There’s a German economist called Streek. He sees we have had the Tax State, this developed the Welfare State. This was followed by the Debt State, this brought to introduction of market forces to the fore. Now, he writes, we are in the Consolidation State, the significant character here is of a smaller State.

Smaller he writes demands different relationships. We have to be doing different; we cannot afford to be complacent, only curious, about a co-produced collaborative creation. A critical stance can be a committed one too.

One current of economic thinking is being influenced by Sociology and brings three important factors for us to note. I’m sure we will all recognise them, though perhaps we haven’t had sufficient time to reflect on them and their effects – Appropriation, Acceleration and Activation.

Appropriation is concerned with territorial gain.

We can see this most visibly when larger companies needing to incorporate smaller ones to keep the financial vehicle going as noted by the IPC research into the Residential Child Care sector. Or we can see it when local authorities work together in a formal partnership. Or (written later), when voluntary agencies are absorbed into larger agencies, e.g. BAAF and Coram). Innovation can be appropriation too as it develops new ways of doing things.

We can see that appropriation is an active factor.

Where do we end up?

We have an ‘economic habitus’ (Bourdieu) that the market is the only way to do things. Markets are inherently unstable no matter how you try to steer, shape, regulate. This often unseen, unacknowledged, instability is a factor we are working with all of the time.

I am not saying it is right or wrong only that appropriation as a big influence has to be factored into how we think. Competition isn’t the only way of doing things, social living requires co-operation too.


Everything today is seen as ‘performative,’ ever quicker, leaner. There is ‘time compression.’

Where do we end up?

There is now interest in what is called the ‘exhausted self.’

Despite the acceleration the ‘jaws of doom’ graphs where costs cross finance continue. In such a situation self-observation and self-reflection can be a corrective to what has been termed ‘blind running’ that allows escalation to continue.

Where might we see ‘time compression’ in Children’s Services? Perhaps in the diminishing length of placements, in programmatic time-limited approaches to placements, in defined intervention sessions of an evidence-based practice.

Again I am not saying this is right or wrong but that it is an observable factor.

Where do we end up?


At its most grandiose this can be seen in an expectation that all can do everything. Necessary for this is the reduction of boundaries developed over time to make things operate. The reduction may increase speed, yet it has a corresponding increase in anxiety, this maybe predominates a person’s experience. Anxiety and stress are different.

If we can identify these factors as present the question I hope we can consider in the context of the title of this conference, Rebuilding Better Children’s Services Together’  is ‘What is the world we are contracting for ourselves and those we work with?’

These factors are not personally driven or chosen but structurally determined. We have to consider our structures – where will end up?

‘Doing different’ is about a reworking of power and resources.

I’d like to propose that we do not yet know how radical that doing different has to be – but in the next two days we might just be able to get a glimpse.

Part of it might be being able to live with an ‘unfinishedness’ of a journey, (Friere) being OK with being unfinished makes everything still possible.

Part of it might be recovering the ‘social’ to stand alongside the economic and financial.

As the National Audit Office report on LAC guides us for a discussion over Quality and Value. For a good short description of where we are on this subject please read the DfE research on Fair pricing.

This is good research because it stands back, looks at where we are, asks some questions, acknowledges the situation, and describes what might be done democratically and in dialogue.

Democratically and in dialogue sums up NCTCC perfectly.