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Lynn Ruane: 'You can't treat addiction like a business - and people with addiction like objects'

Applying neoliberal tools to community work is ultimately about cost-cutting and power, writes Senator Lynn Ruane.

Lynn Ruane Independent Senator

DEEP PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS need to be answered about why short-term economic growth is prioritised over the growth of communities.

Neoliberalism, the dominant economic ideology, is at the heart of this problem. Its drive to maximise profit makes growth almost a cult in our economy. And it goes beyond the economy too: its efforts to subject all institutions and sectors to the market is quite literally eroding democracy.

We can see this on the local level, with the rise of managerialist language and insular algorithms. By forcing out anything or anyone that doesn’t adhere to market style practices, neoliberalism is threatening the very foundations of community and addiction work. We see its language used to account for the work the sector does and an ever-increasing use of corporate best practices applied to complex human needs.

In a number of publications, UCD Professor Equality Studies Kathleen Lynch refers to new-managerialism as the organisational arm of neoliberalism.

At the end of that arm we can see the use of logic models, productivity metrics, outputs and data entry, which cause eyes to roll in community addiction services across the country.

Managerialism and box-ticking culture

It was 2011 when I left full-time employment in the Community Addiction Service, and in the past eight years it has been alarming to see how drug task forces and their valuable work has been attacked by managerialism and box-ticking culture.

In the boom times we saw what was described as ‘professionalisation’ of a sector that was built on the backs of local people.

Those who survived that process are now at risk from another power and resource grab. Only this time, bodies are aided by the many ‘professionals’ that view working in areas most affected by deprivation as a career rather a vocation. These professionals are often at great distance from communities they are meant to serve.

Many seem to think their university degree trumps the knowledge of a local community worker, who has an intimate understanding of the area and the field.

Community drug teams need strong leaders who get the social context of the community they serve. Leaders don’t look to monopolise and centralise power. Their focus instead should always be to empower and redistribute leadership tools.

I recently read a definition of managerialism in a book called Chaos Theory and the Larrikin Principle. John Quiggin, a professor of economics, defines it like this:

The central doctrine of managerialism is that the differences between such organisations as, for example, a university and a motor-vehicle company, are less important than the similarities, and that the performance of all organisations can be optimised by the application of generic management skills and theory.

As someone who remains close to drug task forces and supports their work where possible, I am frightened to see this doctrine being imposed on addiction-related work.

You cannot treat addiction like a business. And you can’t treat people who suffer from addiction like objects or products. This is essentially what managerialism does.

The role of drug workers, counsellors and community workers are invaluable. Often, they are immeasurable. However, we are constantly hearing about generic, reductive and even counterproductive models of care being championed as a universal answer to the complex nature of substance abuse.

Applying neoliberal tools to community work is ultimately about cost-cutting and power.

So, to see and hear its language in the addiction sector raises concerns among workers who know their field and know that much of their work and advocacy can’t fit neatly into corporate metrics.

They will tell us these managerial reforms will lead to ‘better outcomes’ for people who are experiencing addiction. But what they will really do is strip away the essence of what are deeply humane services.

We are at a juncture whereby community workers, who have lived, grown and served their communities fight to keep the person at the center of the sterile language of state audits and reporting.

With the right supports community projects and evolve and grow and continue to meet the changing needs of addiction trends.

This can be achieved with the understanding of state bodies that a response to addiction and all that contributes to addiction will never be achieved by imposing market style models.

The conversation between communities and the state must remain honest and open and the use of bias algorithms must be abandoned and replaced with support and resources.

Neoliberalism

Complex data systems and algorithms aren’t what people who want to improve their communities have in mind when they view it is a vocation or when they identify the multifaceted lives of people who are living in communities with high levels of deprivation.

Neoliberalism views everything through the lens of profit, outputs, and community services have not escaped that fate.

Just as outlined in New Managerialism 2nd edition (2015) ‘managerialism’ aims to institutionalise market values, systems and processes in the governance of all types of organisations, including schools, universities, collages, the civil service and public sector bodies and NGOs. 

The outcome of this style of governance is public services that mutate from being centres of welfare, education, health, elder care to soulless corporate machines, that often place the bottom line ahead of human need.

Working in a community drug team is about so much more than being savvy with bureaucratic impositions. Yet, learn the language of the preferred reporting style and the actual work you do is irrelevant.

People’s lives don’t neatly fit models and addiction doesn’t fit neatly into a standard definition of problematic drug use. Progress isn’t linear.

Lynn Ruane is an independent senator.

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About the author:

Lynn Ruane  / Independent Senator

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