Frontline voices: Thomas Neumark
In the second of a new series on voices from the frontline, Thomas Neumark explains why he blogs.
Writing blogs can be a good chance for self reflection and networking for practitioners in any field of public service.
Throughout my career I have always moved between policy and practice. When I was a housing officer I was also studying housing policy part time, when I was leading a research project on community development, I was also pounding the streets as a back bench councillor. So when I moved to the United States to become a community organizer and to set up a project for homeless people, it seemed perfectly natural for me to start a blog about housing policy.
I have always found my peers to be deeply engaged with policy questions but not in a way that particularly relates to discussions in the media. Journalists often report on ministerial announcements or statements from lobby groups or just on who is in or who is out.
Housing professionals are often concerned with more concrete matters. What do we do about this family that’s overcrowded? What kind of support is there for this person with mental health problems? How am I going to stop the rats from coming back to the bin room? That kind of thing.
If you ask them about a new government initiative, they’ll probably roll their eyes. However, there is a danger that being consumed with the here and now means forgetting about the broader forces that shape our world.
I remember a manager once looking through my open anti-social behaviour case files and asking me if all the cases involved at least one vulnerable person. They did but it was asking this question that made me realize that they did.
Blogging can have the same impact. It is a chance to think about questions from a different angle. Suddenly I am not just thinking about how I can wheel and deal to find permanent accommodation for one individual homeless person but instead I am thinking about why there are so few places and why there are so many homeless people.
When it goes well it is gratifying to be introduced to people who engage with your ideas. Well received can mean correspondence with journalists, activists and advisors that you might never have otherwise met. It’s nice to feel like you are doing a good job but it’s also bracing to have your thoughts scrutinised from different angles and perspectives.
One of the problems with housing policy is that most of the decisions that affect housing are not made by the minister for housing. Mortgage rates, funding for new social housing, unemployment, wages and benefit levels, support for people with adult social care needs, all of these and many more are core considerations for anyone working in housing, but they are well outside the remit of the Department for Communities and Local Government. This can make it harder for housing professionals to influence policy.
Take, for example, the now much derided ‘Big Society’ idea. A generally nice idea that seems to lack almost any concrete expression. Housing professionals could have added enormously to the formulation of practical ideas, drawing on experience of transferring council housing stock to housing associations, organizing tenants associations or working with volunteers and faith groups. However, all we seem to have got is a mandate to publish online all expenditure over five hundred pounds.
The ‘no second night out’ initiative is an example of when things can work a little bit better. A very practical policy, developed organically, over time, that is now being implemented in more and more parts of the country, to ensure that people who are sleeping rough are given the support they want. I am not saying that it is a perfect policy but it’s the type of hard headed approach that professionals who work on these problems can come up with when they are challenged to think big.
This brings me back to why I write a blog. It means that although I am engaged in practical questions, I am still challenging myself and being challenged by others, to think big.
If you’re a frontline practitioner or service user and you’d be interested in contributing to this series, please do get in touch with us at: [email protected]