Last month the government announced a wide scoping investigation into childrens’ social work and the care system with Frontline boss Josh MacAlister appointed as the head honcho.
Josh is a rising star of private sector social work, he’s the brainchild of Frontline a programme that seeks to fast track top students hopefully from Universities that have rowing and lacrosse teams to be social workers putting the profession on an even footing with legal careers. It offers a short 5-week intensive summer school before entering practice and placement, with a clear trajectory of management and beyond. Why should social work not get the best and smartest kids from University is the rhetorical question it seems? For nearly ten years he has received funding and been a go to man for the conservative government, in short, he is the archetypical Govian innovator (Michael Gove himself in the care system for 4 months as a child).
I hate to bore you all with yet another Catwoman and social work story, but I think there is a surprising link found in the biography of Ertha Kitt.
Ertha was born in 1927 on a cotton planation as a consequence of a rape by a white doctor. Her mother (who was half African American and half Cherokee) was forced to give Ertha up to another family as her then new partner could not abide her “yellow” mixed race skin. Her new family raped and abused her and set her to work as a slave in their home leaving her to be tormented by their own children. Her route to stardom is one of the most remarkable stories in modern American history.
The indefatigable Ertha became a sultry actor (batman, mission impossible, Disney, Miami Vice), singer (Santa Baby) and performer (too many stage plays to mention). One of many big breaks came when she got a once in a lifetime role as Catwoman in the ultra kitch 60’s Batman TV series! KAPOW!!!!.
During this time Orson Wells described her as “the most exciting women in world”
50 years before The Black Panther movie one year before MLK got assassinated there was Eartha holding a gun to the head of the Joker, seducing Batman and generally stealing every single scene. Catwoman’s role would be to upset the status quo make villain and hero feel uneasy and unsure about what they have previously assumed and the positions they occupied.
During this exact period President Johnson’s wife, the extraordinarily named Ladybird Johnson, held a meeting at the White House to discuss why the youth of America had become so disaffected. There was rising crime, broken homes, drugs and gangs, all of which were major concerns. All this set against the disastrous Vietnam War Johnson had started, a war that was a bad idea executed badly that costs millions of lives.
To crack the problem Ladybird assembled a white crowd of socially clambering Stepford Wives and to quietly sit in the corner and to provide ‘faux’ racial balance, Eartha. With the pristinely ironed and noxiously perfumed beige mob assembled, speaker after speaker, talked about the tidy highways, excellent school system and really nothing to do with disaffected youth let alone any offer any solutions. Towards the end Eartha raised her hand and summed up the mood for the youth of America thus,
“Boys I know across the nation feel it doesn’t pay to be a good guy,”. “They figure with a record they don’t have to go off to Vietnam. You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed”.
Hearing this Ladybird Johnson bursts into tears and was furious with Eartha. A little later her husband the president walks in and Eartha again unprompted starts questioning him about the war, motherhood and the root of the problem. The body language in the picture below explains how he responded to her.
TRUTH TO POWER!!!!!
Eartha did not care one jot for upsetting the room or the ultimate decision maker the president, she cared more for the children than her own standing. Her reward for upsetting Ladybird and the president was the CIA basically shut her career down with her not working for over 15 years in the US again.
I am 10000% confident the review by Mr MacAlister will not dim his lights in the hearts of the senior Tories or his bank balance, he will not risk his career one jot so his suggestions will be palatable to his pay masters.
However is Eartha’s position a foolish one to occupy. The economist in me would suggest an outcome that optimizes the probability of something being accepted or achieved and the impact of the expected outcome, even if your right implementation is important. What value in making a suggestion that you know will never be put in place, or if it is watered down. For example Munro’s review (as she acknowledges) got universal nods of approval but little policy or actual change.
The Trade off being
MacAlister – High chance of acceptance + Low potential impact
Ertha – Low chance of acceptance + High potential Impact
Another maverick who spoke to a president is the I Am Not Your Guru documentary maker and motivational zillionaire Tony Robbins. He was invited with another group of the politically harmless to speak with Obama in early 2014 about his health care bill.
Whilst Tony agreed with Obama’s policies, he made a point that stunned the room. Tony explained to the president that the error that he is making is that his policy on issues such as health care are based primarily on Obama being the smart and him feeling his policies are the best ones, however for policy to work this is simply not enough. It’s about relationships and if you don’t take the other half of America with you and your party will pay a price (and look how that turned out insert Trump MAGA emoji here).
The message here is even if you have a good, or even the best idea it has to be gripped and accepted by the populous for its implementation to be successful. Johnson and Obama could not be further apart politically, but they fell on the same trap that is looming over MacAlister’s Review. The first sign of this came when MacAlister jettisoned many voices and tarnished thousands of potential relationships with the people he seeks to aid, namely care leavers and other stakeholders. 1000 care experienced people applied, 40 were successful of which about 10-15 will form part of the review board. (You stand a better chance getting into Oxford or Cambridge with this offering a poignant Irony to the type of student McAllister wants to have on his Frontline programme.)
Imagine for a second a care leaver whose life story is a series of assessments, letters, and case notes on a computer, being asked to help but just getting another generic “no thanks” response to your ideas.
Ex piano tuner Alison Moyet I feel comes close to an accurate description in her 80’s hit Invisible,
You’ve got me so confused and there’s words I could use
But I’m afraid to say them
I feel I’ve been had and I’m boiling mad
You don’t have the time and you won’t spend a dime
Not even to call me
You don’t know I exist and I wouldn’t be missed
If I had the nerve to quit you
Invisible – I feel like I’m invisible
You treat me like I’m not really there
And you don’t really care
I wonder if Josh Mccalister is a Moyet fan?
Earlier this month I attended a conference that Mr Mcallister spoke at concerning Connected/Kinship Care.
At one point an experienced Carer/advocate raised the issue of several disparities between work/leave entitlement between kinship care and adoption and the post code lottery of levels of support and financial assistance to carers. MacAlister responded that he will look into theses issues and address them were possible. His unique cocktail of suave confident good looks, positivity and engagement really convinced me and likely many others in the conference. He on the face of it did better than Obama and Johnson.
However, after a day’s contemplation I realised the scale of ironing out these inequalities in just one small corner (kinship care) of his vast review. The following would have to be re-aligned.
- Employment law, The Paternity and Adoption Leave Regulations 2002
- Children (leaving Care Act) 2002
- SGO support regulation
- Local Authority financing
The scale of this task is tremendous and the votes in parliaments, debates and implementation would need to go on for many years beyond the publishing of Mr MacAlister’s review. Potentially Mr MacAlister is naive, and we can’t expect him to know the ins and outs of every area, but each of his recommendations I feel should be separated between easy wins and herculean legislative labours. Any one can provide a wish list, the real magic is in high quality and lasting implementation.
I wish MacAlister all the best with his review, but would urge him to be the Eartha and Tony Robbins in the room and don’t fall into Obama and Johnsons trap in leaving the Invisible people behind just because you think you’re the smartest.