Wednesday 26 October 2016

Control, surveillance and "professional agency hopping"

In 2009/10, communities won a serious victory against this government when the hated, poorly conceived, cost-cutting travesty that was the "ACC Clinical Pathway" was kicked well and truly into touch by survivors, feminists, mental health support services and specialist sexual violence response agencies.

It was a community issue worth fighting.  In the short time the Pathway was implemented, the review forced by activists demonstrated a staggering drop in survivors who could access support, and horror stories of trauma were told by survivors and by the community agencies and therapists trying to support them.

The ACC Clinical Pathway illustrates the dangers of ideological public policy, and the importance of community safeguards and advocacy in speaking truth to (rape culture, neo-liberal) power.  I'm mentioning it now because I think this government has learned from that public policy defeat, but not the lessons we might hope.  Quietly and quickly, calmly and efficiently they have muzzled the community sector so it will not happen again.

There were some warning signs even back then.  I was heavily involved, in my own time, in fighting the ACC Clinical Pathway.  The sexual violence agency I worked for then was quietly told by an ally in government that we lost a large contract because of my activism, which thankfully my boss did not begrudge in the grand scheme of survivor safety. This should be completely shocking - to change a funding decision based on the private activities of an employee of an organisation - particularly when, as it turned out, we were right.  But in a growing context of threats to advocates, it somehow just started to become intimidation business as usual

This government has decimated the community sector with a series of smart, chilling moves over quite some time, dismantling the sector's ability to play watchdog on punitive government policies.  There were the changes to the Charities Commission, restricting the ways in which organisations registered as charities could "advocate" for social change.  Even far from radical groups like the National Council of Women were forced to take legal action to defend their rights to advocate.  This step institutionalised advocacy, away from the public eye.  It's ok for community groups to meet with nice government officials quietly, to talk about their concerns - but don't even think about saying anything in the media.

Another major step was the introduction into contracts of requirements that community groups cannot discuss their contracts anywhere.  This one policy stroke alone would have stopped the ACC Clinical Pathway activism dead in it's tracks - because gone from public view and debate would have been the volume of horror stories from around the country of the impact the Pathway was having on real people.

Then there are the terrifying spectre of funding cuts.  Everywhere you look.  Services going under, like Relationships Aotearoa, despite nothing to replace them.  Services cutting their hours, and relying yet more heavily on volunteers.  Play nice, little community group, or we'll be sending you home, no matter how many lives you hold in your hand.

While the language of community shifts to neo-liberal talk of markets and providers and social investment and demand and results based accountability, the language of "people who are asking for help" has shifted to the obscene "professional agency hoppers."

The latest nail in the community coffin, that community groups will have to report to government the names and personal details of people coming to them for help if they want to be funded, is just the logical conclusion of all the changes over the last few years.  Taken together, these changes severely undermine democracy and the ability to show solidarity with people with little power.  They also turn community groups into de-facto arms of the state and will certainly stop people accessing community services through fear, shame and stigma.

If you doubt this, think about whether you'd be ok with the STI tests you're having being linked to your name in a government database.  The same database which has your tax details, benefit details, student loan, car ownership history - hell, there's no limit to what the Integrated Data Infrastructure might grow to include.  Let's be honest, there's been next to no public conversation about the developing surveillance system this government has created, and what's appropriate to link and why.

But think again, about accessing services.  Let's say you've got a gambling problem, and your relationship and home are both at risk if you can't change.  But if you go ask for help, that will be linked to all your other personal information.  Are you ready for that, or should you wait a little longer?

Or you've got an eating disorder and it's quietly killing you, but if you ask for help and it's loaded onto your system, will it mean you can't apply for that job you want in government?   

Then there are the safety concerns.  Logging women and children escaping domestic violence into a government database every time they go to a new Refuge will make them much less safe, particularly if their abusive partners can access where they are.  I've worked with women whose abusers were Police officers, and to keep them safe we had to make sure nothing was ever logged in their Police files which might help them to be tracked.  Will this new system acknowledge those dangers?  Of course not.  And while we're on this one, women going to multiple Refuges isn't "professional agency hopping," Minister Tolley, it's acting to save your life in the cycle of violence perpetrators use to control their families.  Just as people who've had lots of trauma and difficult stuff in their lives needing to try multiple agencies to find all the pieces of the help they need isn't "professional agency hopping," it's desperation and fear and lack of trust born from experience.  And it warrants compassion, patience and generosity - not sanctimonious penny pinching and vicious judgment - because do you know what?  If I'd survived some of the things women I've worked with have been forced to manage, I can't even tell you what my survival strategies would look like.  They wouldn't be clean, or pretty, or the model of a perfect little social services consumer though, I'll tell you that for nothing.

If funding contracts which force the community sector to pass on names and personal details had been introduced immediately post the ACC Clinical Pathway defeat, the community sector would have fought.  Fought for their place as safety, for people and families they support, to hold together lives which might be fraying a little.  Fought to remove barriers to help-seeking, not add them.

No, the government introducing it now is smart. 

This government has been confident in shutting down evidence it doesn't want to hear, from silencing researchers to these steps to muzzle the community sector.  It doesn't seem to want the well-informed debate when it comes to complex social issues, debate informed by people with personal knowledge and professional experience in supporting communities.  There are even steps to dismantle the long-term funded research in this area, now the government is exerting more control.  When questioned over the cuts to the longitudinal research Auckland University runs in order to understand child development needs - the kind of research which should help us decide community services - Bill English let slip some frightening honesty:
"Finance Minister Bill English said the decision was more about providing "value for money" rather than saving money.He suggested the Government was not gaining adequate access to the data.
"There's a whole history behind the Growing up in New Zealand study, there have been ongoing negotiations for some time, to make sure it meets the Government's needs.
"To some extent the longitudinal studies aren't as powerful as they used to be, because we've got our own administrative data."  What was important to the Government was the "availability of the data".
If the community sector hands over the names of people asking them for help, not only will it stop people getting the help they need.  Not only will it shift what the community sector is for - away from advocacy and support, towards monitoring and policing services.  Not only will it mean advocacy slips further into the distance, weakening our public policy development.  But it is part of a wider and largely unmonitored shift towards the state controlling more information about us than we've ever agreed to, and with that, making decisions about public spending based on data they control and interpret. 

Does anyone seriously think these changes will be good for our communities?  Trevor McGlinchey from the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services absolutely nails it when he says:
There has been a quiet revolution occurring which will have profound impacts on community-based social services organisations......Robust discussion and critique is needed to ensure that the most vulnerable in our communities can access the services they need, and community organisations can continue as independent promoters of civil society and community development.
Call me cynical, but the people that brought us the ACC Clinical Pathway are not qualified to make decisions about communities without us acting as safeguards.  Bill English and his "administrative data" do not fill me with confidence, because this government is ideologically driven to support the powerful and leave the less powerful to rot, in cars, substandard housing, shiny new prisons, a decimated community sector.  It's almost as if, the more they silence our voices and have control over interpreting our voices, the less we matter.

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