I found myself on the Underground earlier this week looking at a poster for a service that streams films. This one is owned by Tesco, though goes under the name Blinkbox.
This is hardly a new service. By my very quick count there are at least 3 other major services that offer something similar: Lovefilm, Netflix and NowTV (and many more besides, no doubt).
It begs the question: why the need for another streaming service?
Well, Tesco has clearly done its homework and determined that:
- There is a known market for their particular product
- Their offer is likely to appeal to a particular segment of that market
- They have a market position and known reputation (though not necessarily in streaming) which means they can exploit the market segment they’re targeting
- There’s money to be had in doing so.
The same holds for, well, anything: think price comparison sites, toilet paper, cars, money lending companies etc.
What does this tell us about the multitude of comparison services for choosing social care?
Well, it tells us that a situation in which there are 44 sites  (at the last count) for comparing the quality of social care provision is a natural situation. It says that, in a world where there is a significant market for providers of social care (be it domiciliary care or residential care), it is perfectly natural for there to be a significant market for information to support people to navigate the huge range of social care providers. (The comparison with comparison websites – Moneysupermarket.com, ComparetheMarket.com etc. – is obvious.)
Of course, Adam Smith would tell you that none of this is new. Nor would Tony Blair. This issue is essentially one about the role of markets in public services and how people navigate those markets.
The interesting point, though, is where the invisible hand of government should be in all of this.
My natural inclination for an issue like information about the quality of social care is that the invisible hand should be visible: such a service, for an important issue that affects the quality of so many people’s lives, should be a centrally-led service. This was once the case when CQC had its star ratings, and a watered-down version of the same has been created by the Department of Health more recently. There are also quasi-centralised versions of social care comparison sites with things like SCIE’s Find Me Good Care (which I happen to think is excellent).
But there are other, more market-driven, invisible ways of doing this. Probably the most wholesome example of this would be Patient Opinion (an approach that is being extended by its social care equivalent, Care Opinion): a bottom-up, user-driven site in which people share their views and opinions on health for both health providers and other users to see. And there are other, less wholesome approaches where the business imperative is more explicit – the business just happens to be providing information about social care. Thus, the 44 sites highlighted.
These market-driven responses are typically pushed by people identifying a gap in the market and seeking to exploit it. I don’t think anyone could reasonably say that providing information about social care is an issue that is sorted, so the gaps in the market obviously exist.
Thus, the challenge to myself is this: is it appropriate to think that social care information / comparison sites should be centrally-led, guided more by a visible hand from government rather than by an invisible hand? Or is it ok for information about social care to be provided through the continued emergence of a demand-driven market, reflecting what we see in the film streaming and price comparison businesses around us?
 There’s a full list of the 44 sites here.