Peer-to-Peer Network Approach to Psychological Work

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Article: The Independent Practitioners Network: A peer-to-peer network approach to civic accountability for psychological work. An eIpnosis article by Denis Postle April 2010



Denis Postle:


This article introduces The Independent Practitioners Network [IPN] as a thriving example of a peer-to-peer [P2P] organization. It is not an official IPN narrative, no one is entitled to speak for IPN but anyone may speak from IPN.

The article begins with a brief account of the political context out of which IPN emerged and moves on to outline the IPN process of holding civic accountability.[1] This is followed by accounts of how network coherence and cohesion are sustained and IPN’s basic protocols. How IPN provides civic accountability for psychological work is described, along with some of the values that inform IPN. I conclude with a short account of an IPN group meeting, some consideration to what I might have left out, and end with a Q&A listing.

UK psychopolitics

Ten years ago I published a series of drawings of the psychological landscape of the UK. Today I see this landscape as a ‘psychological commons’ featuring innumerable ways of working with the delights and vicissitudes of the human condition.[2]

The increasing professionalization of sectors of this psychological commons was represented by some simple animations that showed the commons being fenced off into what I described then, and later, as ‘walled gardens of professional expertise’, literally the ‘professions’ of counselling, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Following Max Boisot,[3] these can be seen as ‘fiefdoms’ clustered together in ‘clans’. These clans were and continue to be characterized by intense personal relations and loyalty to hierarchical leadership, practitioners and schools, which compete with each other in a market for trainees and clients.

Around twenty years ago, two options emerged for the evolution of these fiefdoms and clans: one was to seek state regulation, i.e. government recognition and endorsement for them as professions that would put them on a par with psychiatry and medicine. While many practitioners welcomed this, others saw it as an unacceptable colonization of the psychological commons by vested interests. However, the status quo of deference to often very hierarchical forms of training meant that, until recently, for many practitioners the notion that they were supporting exclusive ownership of parts of the psychological commons remained on the margins of awareness.

Origins of IPN

A second option saw the diversity of the Psychological Commons as an essential strength that brought mutual nourishment to practitioners and public alike. For practitioners who saw state regulation of the psychological commons as anathema, a vital piece of innovation by Em Edmondson, supported by Nick Totton, provided a viable alternative.

Em Edmondson proposed the establishment of small autonomous groups of independent practitioners linked together as a network. Founded in 1995, the Independent Practitioners Network, as it came to be called, continues to flourish, gaining in importance now that the reluctant UK state, after much prompting from within the psy field, is attempting to impose a highly codified form of regulation on the counselling, psychotherapy and psychoanalytic clans.

The IPN civic accountability process

In honour of the diversity of the psychological commons, the basic level of involvement with IPN is ‘participation’, and this is open to any practitioner.

IPN is a mix of formal and informal structures; formally it consists of groups of between 5 and 9 practitioners who informally take whatever time and methods of inquiry are necessary to get to know each other so that they can ‘stand by’ each other as practitioners.

Any participant is entitled to gather others together to form a group, or participants may join an existing group. At any point in time there may be a number of ‘forming groups’ going through the process of moving towards being able to ‘stand by’ each other as practitioners.

When the ‘standing by’ process is accomplished, the group is formally required to develop and publish to the network a statement of what they jointly assert is their ethical stance vis a vis clients; in other words, how they define civic accountability. At this point they have become an ‘IPN member group’.

Now another formal IPN requirement comes into play: that the group establishes ‘links’ with two other groups. Their task is to validate the process through which standing by each other is upheld and sustained. In practice this means joint group meetings and/or visits by participants to their link group meetings which feature a mix of support and challenge.

When two ‘links’ are established and the ‘standing by’ process is validated, the group is entitled to describe itself as full member IPN group and group participants, may if they choose, describe themselves as accredited through the IPN process.

Network coherence and cohesion

Network-wide coherence in IPN is expressed mainly through attendance at thrice yearly national Gatherings open to anyone. Developments and difficulties are shared at these usually residential meetings, and newcomers are welcomed.

As I have come to see it, the IPN network runs on high levels of trust founded in high levels of sustained face-to-face rapport in the participating groups. Although primarily an oral culture, theoretical or intellectual communication is conducted via a newsletter, NetCom, published following each Gathering.

The IPN protocols

The IPN protocols, formal statements of agreed ‘principles and procedures’, required several years of intense consensus based negotiation, and then settled down as a mix of formal non-hierarchical governance and informal local initiatives. As I said earlier, no one is entitled to speak for IPN, however anyone is entitled to speak from their experience of IPN. In recent times IPN has had some significant influence in the processes of resisting state intervention in the psychological commons, not least because of how it has been researching and modeling a potentially exemplary non-statist approach to civic accountability.

IPN values

IPN values that are strongly and consistently expressed include:

  • That diversity of practice is vital in sustaining the quality of client experience.
  • That governance is by consensus alongside short term local hierarchies of expertise and experience.
  • That while innovation is encouraged and supported, network adoption of substantial changes to the formal aspects of IPN requires presentation and agreement of proposals at a Gathering, and for the most part ratification by a later Gathering. However Gatherings are entitled to decide to take any action that is seen as immediately necessary and that would be judged as not requiring ratification by another gathering.

The purposes of IPN

In recent years I have come to see the main purpose of IPN as holding civic accountability for the client experience. A social process that draws on what we know about our own and others’ behaviour so as to minimize, through continuing scrutiny, the likelihood of client/practitioner boundary violations. In contrast to the professional field in which a one-time qualification entitles life-long endorsement, the IPN process holds practitioners in an ongoing but supportive scrutiny that include those dimensions of their personal life that might diminish or distort the client experience.

IPN Live

Outline accounts of organization tend towards dullness and generality. In an attempt to bring this account to life, I’ll end with a brief account of a meeting of the IPN group of which I am a member. Keep in mind that it is a fiction, a composite of multiple actualities.

The door bell rings and S, last of the six people who will show up today locks his bike and comes in to the sunny room over-looking the river where we are meeting. U, K and N have come on journeys of around two hours to be here. For other meetings we travel to them. One person H, is missing.

I provide tea for those who want it, and after an initial flutter of chat about the journey, everyone settles down, and we ease back into a moment of silence, prelude to a check-in routine. Each of us speaks of the current mix of how we are and what has been happening for us, coupled with a more general update on where we are in our lives. Accounts vary in length and intensity, and while none of this is mandatory, a refusal or inability to say anything would very likely merit a lot of attention. A tendency for check-in statements to drift toward discussion is deprecated. Since, as usual, it is around six weeks since we last met, everyone has usually has quite lot to say.

When we have all been heard we move on to gather into an agenda for the remaining four hours of the meeting, any needs that have been expressed, along with other pending issues. When this has been listed, we bring out a picnic lunch and fall on the houmous, salad, bread, and chocolate, usually nourished by back channel gleanings from the grapevine.

The agenda for the afternoon includes: two people who want to raise supervision issues; a report on professional developments in a professional association’s subsection that may be relevant to the IPN network as a whole; and news of the dissolution of one of the groups with which we are linked. Beginning to plan for a new iteration of our chosen route to ‘standing by’, self and peer assessment. News of legal moves challenging the validity of the government appointed regulator. And also, dates for future meetings and money (we share the costs of travel to the meetings). At the point when this seems settled J calls for an additional item: discussion of how we can stop letting anxieties about regulation swamp our meetings.

After lunch has been eaten and cleared we begin to work our way through the list of topics, allowing each item/person whatever time the issue merits. After several people have taken space, we realize that the agenda feels a bit congested and we agree some time limits.

Note that none of this has required an organizer or a facilitator, and the rest of the event proceeds through consensus. If new concerns emerge, we try to find time for them.

Travelling two hours for an afternoon meeting has often seemed a wearing prospect but some 15 years on, I have yet to find the mutuality and depth of rapport of an IPN meeting other than enlivening.


What might I have left out of this account? The first thing that comes to mind is that I believe that sustained cohesion of IPN groups may depend on what I see as an adequate level of emotional competence that enables a capacity for both support and confrontation.

Alongside this, some prior experience or education that favoured self-directed learning and peer evaluation over hierarchical teaching seems important.

While IPN includes a very wide range of practitioners, I have been inclined to see it as attracting people who share an predominantly optimistic yet non-naïve view of human nature; for whom trust is an achievable interpersonal and social option; who are intolerant of duress or coercion; and who entirely reject rule by fiat. This combination of attributes presently seems to attract more practitioners from the human potential, humanistic psychology, and person centered counselling communities, than say, from psychoanalysts or cognitive-behavioural approaches to human condition work. However IPN welcomes people from all approaches provided they are happy to work within its protocols and values.


Is IPN reproducible?

IPN is a culture that locally waxes and wanes around a settled core of protocols. These formalise the minimum agreement required to sustain coherence across the network. I believe that other analogous cultures, for instance those with a need for civic accountability, could reproduce the process from which IPN emerged; growing and feeding a network culture formed of small groups based on face-to-face contact with high levels of personal disclosure, and functioning free of hierarchical control.

Obstacles to full-strength reproducibility would include the absence of face to face rapport, and the limits on personal disclosure in bureaucratic, corporate, or employed settings. The IPN culture of autonomy and disclosure might also be found to be incompatible with hierarchical/bureaucratic work structures where for instance, participants might also have supervisors, managers, or senior practitioners in the group.

Does IPN train practitioners?

IPN has no formal training function. However, as a form of rigorous personal, interpersonal and practitioner enquiry, it often seems intrinsically educational. Participants in IPN are regarded as autonomous practitioners who are seen as self-responsible in the task of developing and sustaining their capability for working with their chosen client constituency. Dual or wider membership of other practitioner organizations by IPN participants is a commonplace aspect of the diversity that IPN supports.

Is IPN scaleable? Or enlargeable

Yes it may be scaleable. IPN already has a national presence and there appears to be no obstacle to it doubling or quadrupling in size except the level of commitment required for participation. Following the absorption of the human-potential and personal-growth movements into business, another limitation might be the lack of a counter-cultural communities that are aware of the politics of mainstream psychopractice. The groupwork conditioning of trainees seems overwhelmingly tied to hierarchical organization and evaluation, with a corresponding lack of peer-group experience.


  1. Civic accountability is a proposed replacement for the defensive notion of ‘client protection’ that creates of practitioner communities a subtle hint that they pose a threat.
  2. Psychological Commons’ refers to a psychological space where people can find support for enquiries into their particular experience of the human condition. It is a space informed but not dominated by the hundreds of thousands of articles, journals, books, tapes, cd’s and DVDs about psychology, the hundreds of varieties of psycho-practice, plus survivor groups, user groups, help lines, self-help manuals, twelve step programs, Balint groups, infant massage, 5 rhythms dancing, agony aunts, radio chat programmes, co-counselling, re-evaluation counselling and so on.
  3. Boisot, Max, Knowledge Assets, OUP 1999

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