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Adversaries, collaborators or partners?

28th October 2019

The relationship between the advocate and the professional: adversaries, collaborators or partners?

Advocacy is a tough profession. It’s tough standing with people to enable them to speak truth to power, realise their rights, and make meaningful decisions about what happens in their lives.

The advocacy code of practice sets out key principles and the expectations on advocates under each of these principles. However, while in the thick of casework, advocates can feel that it’s hard putting the code into practice. Especially in terms of their relationship with professionals in the health and social care system.

Quite rightly, the code and the accredited training put a laser sharp focus on independence and on challenging decisions. It’s important to be able to stand up to powerful professionals. But because of this focus, advocates can easily come to feel that they are the last line of defence. And in rare cases or unusual circumstances, this is the case.

However, this “last line of defence” frame of mind can inadvertently cause advocates to take an adversarial stance. That’s not usually a constructive way to engage with the professionals. It backs people into corners. Backing people into corners often isn’t the best way to achieve the right outcome for the person that the advocate is working with.

So how do we maintain our independence? Can you work collaboratively with professional without compromising your independence? Can working collaboratively with professionals result in better outcomes for the people we support?

These are the questions we are grappling with. The danger of being perceived as “too adversarial” is that professionals disengage and it makes it harder for us to support the person to get the outcome they want. Surely, if we are truly person centred and outcome focussed, we would do whatever we need to do to get the outcome for the person? And that includes developing effective working relationships with professionals.

If we’re supporting a person whose main outcome is to get an apology from a local authority about the lack of care their relative received, we need to demonstrate our independence by staying focussed on what and how they want to achieve this, regardless of the obstacles other agencies might face. If it means they want us to go into a meeting and ask some awkward questions on their behalf then that is what we would do.

If we feel that a safeguarding concern should be raised, we should do this regardless of whether this might “upset” a professional.
If we are working as a RPR and we feel a situation should go to the Court of Protection, we shouldn’t be afraid of “upsetting” the local authority or social workers. We believe that you can still maintain this independence but work in a way that is respectful, and understanding of other agencies. Our aim is that professionals and advocates have a mutual respect for each other and their roles: neither party being judgemental of the other. However we also want professionals to have no doubt about whether an advocate would raise concerns and take issues to the Court of Protection as required.

We believe that this is a middle ground – a way that enables advocates to take the right action as set out under the advocacy code of practice in a way that isn’t adversarial. A way that maintains our independence by doing what we should for the person. We call this respectful challenge (given that challenge is the accepted term in the sector). Respectful challenge includes doing the right thing – taking things to court and considering judicial review – but does it in a way that’s non-judgemental and collaborative in pursuing outcomes for the individual.

Our view is that with the right management support and coaching, taking a more open stance and a collaborative approach might produce the right result more quickly than taking a more adversarial approach. We have a range of tools and approaches in our kitbag for challenging decisions, and we need to select the right one for the right circumstances.

Although we’re on a journey and are far from perfect, we have started to change the way in which our advocates are supported and are coached. We’re putting more peer support mechanisms in place and are encouraging supportive challenge rather than adversarial challenge.

Judith Davey, Chief Executive, The Advocacy Project
Nicola Youens, Head of Service Delivery, The Advocacy Project

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