Friday, 15 September

By Olly Swann, Director at Inner Circle Consulting

Fortunately, we are at last seeing a national conversation about the financial crisis gripping councils. Unfortunately, we’re still not talking about a major underlying cause of it: The cost of social care services, which can account for some 70% of a council’s total expenditure.


Social care is arguably the most important area of public sector service delivery, but also the most complex of systems that councils preside over. What it does and prevents, day-in and day-out, and what it can achieve for people and their lives, showcases the very best of public sector talent. But it doesn’t occupy a warm place in the nation’s affections and it is largely misunderstood by those who don’t work directly within it or with it. Worse still in the current financial climate, it’s also cost-volatile as a result of market forces that it struggles to influence.


Only a long-term funding plan will future-proof social care. This is particularly tough in the face of rising demand, complexity of need and limited opportunity to invest in preventative services. But it’s highly unlikely that we’ll see any meaningful solutions coming from a central government that is playing safe for its base until the next General Election. And we cannot afford to wait for a few top-down permissions, or buckets of limited funding from which only some will benefit. Councils must work imaginatively and urgently to give themselves a chance in the meantime.


Clearly the current approach to both adult and children’s social care is unsustainable, making it increasingly difficult for people to use and deliver services whilst budgets typically can’t stretch beyond basic crisis support – and now even that is at risk. Both the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Association of Directors of Social Services (ADASS) recently voiced concerns about the sector being able to offer the minimum social care as required by law. We risk accumulating a mountain of future demand and need, suffering and cost by turning away people whose problems are not yet serious, but could be overcome now, with a more forward-thinking approach.


In April this year ADASS published ‘Time to act: A roadmap for reforming care and support in England’.  The document was well received by the sector, setting out recommended areas of focus over the short, medium and long-term. You can’t argue against any of content, but as always, the devil will be in the detail. This document should be cross-checked against service improvement plans for every council in the land, activities have to reflect the local context and they have to be realistic given capacity constraints. Rightly or wrongly, ‘transformation’ for some councils is not about being at the cutting edge of practice and innovation, but about fixing the basics and ensuring that fundamental approaches are effective and sustainable.


For children’s social care the situation is very similar, but perhaps more acute given the dramatic increase in placement spend over the past few years (this is now being cited by many as the most challenging financial pressure facing the sector).  Like adult social care, children’s social care has challenges in relation to rising demand and increasing complexity of need, but it also has issues relating to social worker recruitment and retention, and disproportionately increasing placement spend that is now crushing the finances of many local authorities.


The Government’s response to the independent review of children’s social care still feels like a missed opportunity for many – what comes of the trailblazer work now getting underway will be crucial, not just for the outcomes of children and families, but also to the financial sustainability of the sector as a whole.


At Inner Circle we’re working with some of the most challenged councils in the country to understand and address the root causes of demand earlier. We’re also working with some of the most forward-thinking council staff to shift the focus of spend from crisis to prevention. Here is our list of top tips for councils to get this important work under way:


  • Genuinely understand what you’re dealing with in terms of demand. Interpreting and utilising data as intelligence is key – from informing service design and targeting interventions, through to corporate transparency and the crafting of inspection narratives.


  • Ground transformation plans in the realities of your local context. Ambition, timescales, capacity, capability, affordability and scale are all vital considerations.


  • Re-set partner relationships. The current challenges require a system response. Nothing will genuinely transform without partner buy-in – understanding their beliefs, practices and pressures is essential.


  • Model future cost and demand trajectories that reflect various scenarios, both positive and negative, and refresh these regularly with real data owned by social care leadership teams, yet developed in partnership with finance colleagues. This will minimise the risk of in-year surprises.


  • Seek your own ‘early help’ before local systems reach crisis point. Somebody somewhere – whether in the public, private or voluntary sectors – will have experienced something similar and be able to help or advise.


And finally – don’t wait. Please get in touch if you’d like to hear more or become part of our growing movement to build a better future for everyone.