By Winnie Agbonlahor

29 Sep 2014

Victor Adebowale may be a peer of the realm, but his ideas for public service reform – built on 30 years’ experience in housing and social care – challenge established thinking. Winnie Agbonlahor meets him

"Lord Victor Adebowale!” My greeting sounds formal in my ears – but he is, after all, a peer of the realm and a leading light in the voluntary sector. “Victor is fine,” he says quickly. Lords don’t always respond like that; Adebowale, however, seems to have kept his feet on the ground. The chief executive of Turning Point, a social enterprise that offers adult social care services in areas such as mental health, drug addiction and unemployment, he was among the first group of ‘people’s peers’ appointed in 2001. And while he says the title is a “privilege”, he’s keen to emphasise that “you shouldn’t let those things go to your head.”

If he did ever start getting an inflated view of his own eminence, it’s likely that his fellow peers would bring him back down to earth. Asked what it’s like being one of the Lords’ few black members, he notes that “it has its moments!” His dreadlocks, he suggests, draw some funny looks. Then there’s his status as a life peer. “I’ve been referred to by a hereditary peer, who shall remain nameless, as ‘not a proper peer’,” he recalls. “Of course he’s a proper peer, you see, because he can trace his family back to the Dark Ages and the presumption is that I can’t – therefore I’m not a proper peer, which is mildly offensive. But you don’t worry about stuff like that!” Asked whether he feels the other lords don’t take him seriously, he says: “I don’t know whether they take me seriously. As long as I take myself seriously, I don’t really care what they do.”

Adebowale seems to take such minor slights in his stride, adding a generous dollop of humour. Schoolmaster and author Anthony Seldon, he says, “referred to my presence in the House of Lords as ‘exotic’, which makes me laugh.” He adds that he’s always happy to have a giggle when people do “stupid things” like bow after learning that he’s a lord. “They take the mickey and I don’t mind that. My family does it and I don’t care – because if you can’t take the mickey, you really are in trouble.”

He is, however, worried about the level of public ignorance which leads to those “stupid things”. Speaking in schools last year, he was shocked at the “very basic” understanding among many school-leavers of how government works. A lot of kids, he says, “don’t understand the difference between the House of Parliament and the House of Lords, or know what politics does and what it’s about.” This lack of understanding isn’t exclusive to young people, he adds: he’s even “more worried about the middle-aged: those who hold economic power.” The lack of knowledge and interest, often coupled with cynicism, allows the people with power – “those who have a really clear sense of politics and policy – to ride roughshod.”

People’s ignorance and cynicism also play into the hands of the press, he says: “The House of Lords gets slagged off a lot [in the media] by people who either don’t understand, don’t want to understand, or do understand but don’t care because it’s a better story to slag off the House of Lords than it is to praise it.” Adebowale himself was targeted in a report about the “most pointless peers”. Journalists, he says, rang him up “asking me where I was, why I wasn’t in the House, what I was doing, how many speeches I give, and how many times I’ve voted.”

Yet being a lord, Adebowale argues, “isn’t a nine-to-five job: it’s not about how many times you speak. I could speak every time the House is sitting, and blurb some nonsense just to get my record up; I could vote every time, so it looks like I’m busy. That’s not democracy.” For him, being a peer is about quality, not quantity. “I like to speak where I think I might make a difference, I vote on things I understand – and I don’t feel the need to apologise for that. I go in a couple of days a week. I like to understand what’s happening in the House generally: who’s doing what; what the legislative agenda is. Then I pick the things I have an interest in, read more, and decide whether I’m going to speak or vote. Some people think that’s not good enough – well, tough!”

The topics he has got involved in debating have included the Health and Social Care Act – in particular, a proposal to remove a section of the bill entitling mental health patients to a ‘discharge and care plan’. It was, to his satisfaction, “one of the few things government backed down on”. Its loss, he says, “would have been a disaster for hundreds of thousands of people.”

Mental health is a big area of interest for Adebowale, who argues strongly that it’s as important as physical health. Ministers have talked up the importance of mental health services, yet only 20% of healthcare spending goes into them: “The necessary leadership, resource allocation” to achieve parity, he says, “isn’t there: that’s a fact. You can praise the politicians for at least stating it – they put their toe in the water – but they need to dive in.”

Why don’t they? It’s not an attractive topic to address for politicians, he explains, “particularly after years and years of ignoring mental health, and almost being party to a conspiracy effectively denying that mental health is important.” Politicians believe that the public “just don’t want to hear about it”, he argues, but “that’s not true: the public are perfectly understanding. Everybody knows somebody with mental health challenges; people know about their own mind and how difficult it is.”

Carrying on as we are, he says, will be too expensive in the long run: high levels of demand are leading to extended waiting lists, but untreated mental health problems can quickly deteriorate. Most GPs are under too much pressure to pick up on patients’ mental health problems, Adebowale says – but if primary healthcare was refashioned, we could provide people with more holistic and effective services. “We need an integrated vision which incorporates primary care, with social care and mental health to be a spine running through all that,” he says. “Then you get a better service.”

In fact, says Adebowale, a similar approach could improve many aspects of the public sector’s work. Services should be much more focused around people’s needs, he says; he prefers to call them ‘services to the public’ rather than ‘public services’.

The latter term, he continues, summons up images of something “pretty grim: no choice, lime green walls, you get what you’re given.” In Adebowale’s view, “we desperately need a new vision for these services which incorporates where we are as a society and where we need to go”. He sees this as an “exciting and potentially scary” opportunity to create substantial change.

Adebowale’s use of the term ‘services to the public’ is designed to “widen the scope” of how we see public services, he says, arguing that these days some private companies provide services which are just as crucial to public wellbeing as core public sector activities such as benefits provision and healthcare. “We discovered with the banking crisis that banks are not just private entities, but that a bank is a service to the public: it is as essential as housing and health,” he comments. “You could argue that companies [providing] a particular service and [owning] a particular market share also have obligations to the public, because if they were to go bust or decide to do something else, we’d all be stuffed.”

The new vision, he explains, “has to incorporate the fact that there are some things that we need, such as telecommunications, the internet.” The 8m British people who are currently without web access, he adds, “might be okay now, but in five to 10 years they’re going to be left behind like they won’t believe. So there’s a question then about [whether] new services to the public [should include] things that we now need that we didn’t need 20 years ago.”

It sounds as if Adebowale would like to see more aspects of private business regulated to ensure universal access – as is the case, for example, in the water industry. Certainly, he sees a need for greater collaboration between the public, private and not-for-profit sectors: “The future is fundamentally collaborative,” he says.

To help foster collaboration across the sectors and reconceive services for the public, Adebowale set up Collaborate: an independent “do-tank”. There is, he says, “lots of work that needs to be done about how services to the public are designed, how they’re commissioned, and how they’re delivered at scale.” The government’s support for public service mutuals and social enterprises is a good start, he argues, but there’s currently “nothing at scale, nothing that’s moved the needle sufficiently to create a new paradigm.”

The peer is just as interested in the policies that shape services to the public. Often, Adebowale says, they’re conceived far from the frontline of service delivery – with the result that their “design can be too theoretical, and based on very little understanding of how people work and what actually happens” on the ground. How can this be changed? He describes the mechanism by which policy is designed as the ‘policy pyramid’, arguing that “lots of policy starts at the top and gets turned into practice at the bottom”. This structure, he argues, ought to be “turned upside down”.

One person who reaped the rewards of inverting the pyramid, Adebowale says, is Sir Stanley Kalms – who turned his father’s photographic studio into Dixons, the UK’s biggest electricals retailer. Recalling one chat, Adebowale says Kalms explained how he’d opened one shop successfully, then worked out why it was doing well and reproduced those characteristics in subsequent shops. So he built success “on the basis of learning from the [first shop] and growing it, as opposed to saying: ‘Let’s write a load of policy papers and do a load of analysis, in the hope that we can think out any risk and then implement it’.” This latter approach is used in government, he says, and “unfortunately, tends to get devoid from learning about the practical.”

Following Kalm’s lead, Adebowale decided to improve the services provided by Turning Point – launching an initiative called ‘Connected Care’. Working in populations of around 10,000, Turning Point trains a representative cross-section of local people in the methodologies of social research. This group then “talk to their neighbours and friends about what is needed; what isn’t; what services could look like – right down to the colour of the walls, when it needs to be open, who works there. They can define the rules, and everything.” The approach, first piloted in Hartlepool, is based on “two simple premises: firstly, that people who live in the area know more about what their needs are than someone else; and [secondly], that poor people aren’t stupid.”

The method resulted in the creation of new services designed to keep older people out of hospital; new ways of reusing derelict houses; and schemes to help unemployed people. And a study by LSE, Adebowale points out, concluded that the new services offer a better deal all around. “The results were pretty significant,” he says: the new services “work better, are more effective, and for every £1 spent we saved between £4.50 and £29 – and that’s happened everywhere we’ve done it.”

The challenge in Whitehall, he argues, “isn’t that it can’t be done, but that doing it is hugely disruptive to the current structures, because you’re saying [to policymakers] that the people who live in an area can design bespoke services to their needs and that [civil servants] need to provide them with the resource to do that”. Adebowale has had many conversations with local and central government officials, and always attracted two kinds of reactions: they either see his proposals as “really interesting, really exciting; or [they think:] ‘Oh my God, that’s my job he’s talking about. That’s my lever of power! It’s not happening!’.” A re-structure of that scale in Whitehall would require a major “shift of power”, he adds.

Among the civil service’s other big problems, Adebowale argues, are its risk-aversion and a mentality that gives preference to ideas from its own people. There is a sense of “if it’s not invented here, it’s not worth bothering about.” This, in turn, “mitigates against open policymaking” – weakening an agenda pursued by the coalition ever since it came to power.

The departmental structure of government doesn’t help either. There is, he says, “in-fighting between departments”; but to tackle the issues of our world today, “we need to look at problems, not departments”. Departmental barriers are sometimes overcome, he says, citing examples of emergency responses. So “it’s important to understand that it can be done – but it’s not done, and that’s the problem.”

Despite all the barriers to reform, Adebowale remains positive. Returning to the areas of mental and physical health, he says that “we’ve come further in the last 10 years than we did in the previous 30”. And civil service structures and cultures may be flawed, but civil servants are “brilliant”, he says: “I have absolute admiration for the fact that, no matter what is done to the civil service – and a lot is done to it: it is slagged off; reduced not just in numbers, but in status; it is attacked; it is the dog everybody wants to whip – it still keeps running round that track and catching the rabbit. The coalition government, NHS reforms, you name it; the civil service will just get on with it, and that’s why it’s the best in the world. But it is in a delicate position where ideas have to sometimes be owned by it in ways that aren’t particularly helpful.”

Will government ever make the changes he so passionately calls for? “I’m an optimist, so yes,” he says. “Those of us who have families, jobs, cars and lovely things – what right do we have to be pessimistic?” Then it’s time for the CSW photographer to take over, and the people’s peer grabs his brolly. It’s really wet outside, but the snapper wants to gets some shots in the park. And Lord Adebowale is smiling happily as he heads out into the rain.

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