The institutionalisation of successful social movements: peril or pragmatism?

Nesta’s #peoplepoweredhealth event earlier this week was hugely enjoyable. It built on the vast range of work Nesta has done on this topic over the last few years, and brought together a wonderful and diverse range of people.

“Work” shouldn’t be this much fun.

It was a privilege to be part of the session on “People powered health: how to make it stick?” I’ll write up what I said another time, but wanted to share something else that occurred to me through the discussion and after reading this excellent related report on health as a social movement (pdf).

It focuses on the question of what success looks like for innovative approaches:

What if social movements were so successful that what they advocated for was completely taken on by institutions (such as the NHS)? What if people powered health became so sticky that the NHS completely appropriated it?

social movements and institutionalisation

If this happened, would this count as success? Or would it represent too much of a compromise or dilution of what the pure approach was when it was outside the grip of a big institution?

We don’t need to look very far for examples of where this has happened before. In social care, Direct Payments in 1996 were an innovation proposed and owned by the disabled people’s movement. Fast forward to 2014 and personal budgets are the default delivery mechanism for all community-based social care. Along the way, many disability campaigners have become anxious about the compromise of notional budgets or the use of resource allocation systems.

More recently, social prescribing could be argued to be an example of an innovation whose adoption by the formal health system has meant it has moved away from what it was originally intended to be.

And yet in the case of both personal budgets and social prescribing, their ultimate net benefit is greater for their adoption by large institutions than if they’d have stayed as small but perfectly formed innovations.

I wonder if most social movements start out with the hope of what they advocate for becoming part of the system? And I wonder if the inevitable pragmatism that’s needed to reach that point imperils the very value such approaches represent?

My personal view, as I’ve written before, is that if such appropriation makes things a “bit” better for a “few” more people, then it’s worth doing. But it would be fascinating to know what you think!

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rich_w

Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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