In the UK one of the big new buzz words in local and central government is “commissioning”, and as usual an industry has grown up around it explaining how it is different from and better than purchasing of services, contracts, fees, grants and the like. It is built on some very dubious foundations.
For example, there is an assumption that you can produce evidence (“evidence-based intervention”) of change in peoples’ lives that has been caused by certain interventions. (It is difficult enough philosophically to prove that a red snooker ball hit by the white cue ball moves because it was struck by the white ball!) Another associated term is “outcomes”. So an organisation such as an NHS trust will commission services with the outcome that obesity is reduced in a targeted area of the local population and so on.
I have been profoundly uneasy about this, not only on the grounds that the logic is specious, but because it misses a more fundamental point about what makes the world go round. For humans to flourish there must be relationships and communities in which any number of unforeseen and uncommissionable acts of kindness take place.
And this is where Wordsworth’s poem, Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, continues to provide much wisdom in social life and care for those who will dare to put their heads above the parapets of government-inspired bureaucratic policies. In this poem, and also The Old Cumberland Beggar, Wordsworth sees that it is in the myriad little and forgotten acts and responses that human life, individual and social, is supported and nurtured.
Even if there were world-class commissioning, unconstrained by budgets, so that every conceivable service a person might desire is provided by the state, (or local authorities, private or voluntary organisations working as arms of the state), human life could never be adequately understood, described or sustained by them alone. It is in the spaces between and beyond them that the real pulse-beat of humanity is to be found. In short, it is what cannot be put in any contract that is the stuff of human relationships and development. Not in planning but in spontaneity; not in purchased provision, but in freely offered responses and help; not in provision but in reciprocity, lie the keys to the best things in life.
The Little Things of Daily Living
With this in mind let me try to remember some of the little things that make up the stuff of life at Mill Grove and our neighbourhood beneath the radar screen of the commissioners. I trawl through fragments of memory of the past few days (the diary is, of course, no help with such little things) …and try to recall that which even now is almost beyond reach of my memory.
A neighbour who had suffered a brain tumour two years ago wanted to say thank you for some words spoken in passing as she recovered: for some reason it was yesterday she spoke with my wife. A boy came to play snooker each evening to give his parents a family a break. A young person came to collect the keys to her house (we keep a spare set for her family) because there was no one at home as she returned from school. We helped a family move into their new home using our Ford Tourneo: it took several late night trips to their flat and day time visits to the refuse tip!
There was some baby-sitting. We phoned the police about some wire-cutters that appeared mysteriously overnight on one of our flower beds. We invited a neighbour in for a meal: he was clearing his family home after the death of his father. We passed on some harvest gifts from the pre-school nursery to some of the elderly people in the area. We chatted with a Sri Lankan mother about the sadness in her heart about the ethnic conflict (now beneath the surface) in her beautiful homeland. (It was special for her because I knew Sri Lanka from a teaching visit there.)
We talked to the postman about the impending postal strike and possible long term demise of this traditional service. We buried a squirrel that had expired face up beneath our willow tree. We gave the name and contact details of a plumber to someone with a leak. I listened to a neighbour recount his teenage years in the care system, his feelings of anger and regret. (This happened while we were waiting for our turn on the badminton court). We listened to a widow and her son talk about their feelings of grief and loss as they retold the life-story of their deceased loved one.
We prepared the garden for pre-school nursery children to use each day, and let two young children have the run of our home as they played for two hours with a hand-made wooden train. (There were something like 25 cuddly toys as passengers, and teddy was the driver.) We passed on a couple of newspaper cuttings following conversations about matters of mutual interest. (One was about young people and cyberspace, the other was about the psychology of birdwatching.)
We talked over the anxious feelings of a local mother giving hospitality to a family for the first time. We cooked lunch for a group of local young people after they had played football in our yard. I took a visitor from Finland to the Tottenham Hotspur Shop, so that he could see the hallowed ground (the club was started as a Bible Class team by a church called All Hallows) and purchase a shirt for his oldest son. We lent a range of items to neighbours and friends from Pritstick to Sellotape, screwdrivers to bicycle pumps. We supplied a packet of frozen peas to someone who had injured himself.
The Unforeseen Dangers of Overspecification
And as I begin to get into a mode where the memories are coming thick and fast I think it may be time to stop. You have probably got the point by now: records will bear no trace of these actions and conversations, and memories will dim. But you know as well as I do, that this is the stuff of life: this is what makes things tick.
The more a government sets targets (however necessary or laudable) the more it will (unintentionally) squeeze out the flexibility and forgiveness of organisations and communities that alone provide the space and opportunities for spontaneous acts of kindness and love.
And this may be why the real heart and nature of Mill Grove, the community in which I live, seems so elusive to those who look for plans, methods, treatment programmes, targets, outcomes and evidence. It is not that we live without clear boundaries and vision, without careful planning and professional input, but that ultimately we know that inner healing and growth come about in their own ways and times. Our task is to provide a context and environment in which love can grow. And that setting will not be commissioned: for no one can predict the minute particulars that go to make up what it is to be a person, or a community.