Review: Personalising Public Services: Understanding the Personalisation Narrative, Catherine Needham

Heap, D (2014, forthcoming). Personalising Public Services: Understanding the Personalisation Narrative. By Catherine Needham Bristol: Polity Press. 199Pp, £26.99, ISBN 9781847427595. Political Studies Review 12:1

With the current government committed both to ensuring that public services are “more personal, where people are the drivers, not passengers” (Cameron 2011) and to spending cuts which appear to militate against the provision of richer, more individually-tailored support (Lymbery 2012), Catherine Needham’s lucid exposition of personalisation as an often contradictory and highly mutable narrative of public service reform is a very welcome and timely contribution to the debate over one of the most high profile and controversial concepts in recent public policy.

Drawing on policy documents and extensive interviews with policy practitioners and other stakeholders, Needham tells the fascinating story of how campaigns by independent living activists in the previously backwater area of social care has, with the work of ‘policy entrepreneurs’ selling its benefits to policymakers from the New Right and subsequently the New Left in search of an “emotionally resonant” way of explaining their reforms, given rise to an entire philosophy of delivering public services. The strength of the personalisation narrative, Needham argues, lies in malleability and ability to reconcile (or at least appear to) reconcile a range of traditional tensions in public policy: it can be presented as a way of meeting previously unmet needs but in a way that does not entail additional cost and likewise as a radical change in how public services are delivered but one whose appeal lies in its timeless common sense.  Whilst insisting on the impossibility of defining personalisation, the author nevertheless provides a wide-ranging and accessible guide to how it can vary along its various dimensions, meaning that Personalising Public Services will play an invaluable role in introducing students to the topic for as well as shaping the debate amongst scholars and stakeholders

Needham’s analysis flits between discussions of the single mechanism of personal budgets in social care to personalisation as a broader political and organisational agenda in a way that feels a little unsatisfactory at times, with the grounds for extrapolation from the former to the latter not always clear, though given the narrative itself often makes claims about personalisation as a way of organising public services from anecdotal evidence of specific projects, this is perhaps understandable. Similarly, whilst focusing on social care is entirely sensible given the sector is where personalisation first took hold, a more thoroughgoing comparison with the development of the agenda in other areas – health and employment services are discussed, but fairly briefly – might have offered Needham greater scope for exploring how the personalisation narrative further evolves as it is applied more widely (and what is lost or gained in that process ) and to reduce her account’s dependence on personal budgets given that they have not hitherto been as central to personalisation outwith social care.

If the iridescent nature of personalisation is its key strength, it can also be seen as the biggest challenge it represents, not least for those seeking to evaluate it.  Whilst given the quality and rigour of the research we can accept Needham’s argument that personalisation itself is best understood as narrative, the conclusion that it is “not something to be discovered or solved” (p.157) leaves the reader feeling perhaps unnecessarily downbeat about our ability to arrive at an understanding of what impact it has had.

References

Cameron, D. (2011). Speech on public service reform, 17 January 2011, Royal Society of Arts, London

Lymbery, M. (2012). Social Work and Personalisation. British Journal of Social Work, 42(4), 783–792.

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