Resilience is recovery

We often take a militaristic, “tough” approach to resilience and grit. We imagine a Marine slogging through the mud, a boxer going one more round, or a football player picking himself up off the turf for one more play. We believe that longer we tough it out, the tougher we are, and therefore the more successful we will be.

This from Harvard Business Review, which then goes on to note:

The key to resilience is trying really hard, then stopping, recovering, and then trying again.

I couldn’t agree more.

It’s something I’ve most explicitly learnt from running – maximum progress and improvement occurs when you push yourself at most once a week, and build in appropriate recovery runs around this, leading to strong development over time.

It’s also something I’m learning more through work. You can’t simply keep bashing away at something and wondering why it won’t give. You have to take stock, recover, reflect and “strategically stop”, in order to be able to tweak, amend and alter the intensity of your approach.

Either way, resilience is in the recovery.

People in power don’t think they have power


Most people who are thought to have power don’t think themselves they have power.

Let’s look at those thought of as traditionally having power[1].

In the world of health, we hear about the “power” of the clinician over the “patient”; in care the “power” of the social worker over the “service user”. In the world of services the commissioner is the most powerful, and in the civil service we think that power resides with (Prime) Ministers or Permanent Secretaries.

Inevitably, the person at the top of any organisation is often thought to be the most powerful: the higher you go the more powerful the people get.

And, to some extent, this is true: their decisions affect larger and larger numbers, whatever those numbers happen to represent (people, staff, money).

So how can it be that the person thought of as the most powerful in the world can lament his own lack of power?

It goes back to my opening: if you ask those people listed above who are traditionally thought to hold power, I doubt very many of them would feel anywhere near as powerful as they are perceived to be by other people.

Take a social worker: from the point of view of someone who uses care services the social worker is incredibly powerful: they potentially determine what money you do/don’t get and what types of services you can access. But if we ask the social worker about their power they will talk about the pressure of their caseload, the policies they have to implement, the limited number of providers that exist on their patch, the pressure from their manager, and several other factors that all act to curtail their power to act.

Ask the social worker’s manager if they are powerful. They’ll probably laugh at you and say they have a team of social workers completely under the kosh who don’t fill out paperwork in the way they should do. They’ll be harangued by management for implementing lovely sounding changes there is actually little resource or appetite to put into practice. They’ll be getting phone calls from providers at all times about placements that are breaking down, and they’ll be pestered to complete monitoring data they’ll never see again by people they’ve possibly never met.

Commissioners in the same area will be thought of as having the power because they hold the purse strings. When they look up from reading the scant information about the latest priority they have to reflect in commissioning intentions with no new money, alongside the 78 other priorities they’ve been given, they’ll tell you that big providers call most of the shots, or that health commissioners are in the driving seat now. For what it’s worth, the supposedly powerful providers will tell you they’re being asked to do more and more for rates that are decreasing rapidly whilst under greater regulatory scrutiny.

At the top of the care staffing pyramid, the director of social care will tell you about the unrelenting pressure of upward demand, downward resources, their obligations under the Care Act, the threat of judicial review from any one of tens of families who have been treated poorly by their department, a recalcitrant workforce working in a culture that can’t be shifted, and the waffling politics of their portfolio holder and the local health and wellbeing board. They want to do good stuff in and for their local area, but the politics (big ‘P’ and little ‘p’) significantly curtails them.

And on and on it goes: “powerful” people for whom power is little more than juggling clouds.

What to do? The only reflection I can give is to try to recognise:

  • The person you think has power probably doesn’t think themselves they have power
  • Helping them in their relatively powerless position will probably help you as well
  • To someone somewhere in the system, you are the person with power.

[1] – There is, of course, a vast literature on all types of power in a variety of different settings. I’ve not gone into that at all here, but a useful starting point for the interested reader is Chapter 10 of Fred Luthans’s Organizational Behavior (pdf).

A mathematician’s view on integration in health and social care

Though the answer may be integration, we don’t always know what the question is.

Similarly, though we often say “integration”, it’s not always clear what type of integration we mean. There are at least four interpretations of what we meant when we talk about “integration”:

  • Integration across any of primary, secondary and tertiary healthcare
  • Integration across health and social care (and education and housing and etc.) boundaries
  • Integration of resources and processes
  • Integration at the level of the individual.

As a mathematician by training, integration has another particular meaning to me. I thought it would be useful to reflect on what integration means from a mathematician’s perspective and so what we might learn from this in the context of health and social care.IntegrationMathematically, integration is the reverse process of differentiation. Differentiation is all about rates of change across different variables in a system. Differentiation is a way of thinking about the world as a result of combining infinitesimally small changes at particular points in time or space.

Integration, on the other hand, gives you a bigger sense of the whole. It tells you not just about rates of change but the overall picture you have: the sum total of what exists in time or space.

Differentiation is easier. It’s exciting (think Mick Jagger swaggering around a stage) and has no room for anything but the most important stuff. If there are any ‘spare’ numbers floating around then the process of differentiation gets rids of them – they disappear.

Integration, as any mathematician will tell you, is far harder. It’s a slower, altogether more considered process that requires more sophistication (think Bjork). There are some tricks you can use to make it slightly easier – such as integration by parts – but the challenge of integration remains.

And because integration is the reverse of differentiation it adds in an unknown factor: the arbitrary constant (from which this blog takes its name). Where differentiation has no space or time for the arbitrary constant, integration very deliberately includes it and recognises it. This unknown factor – an unidentified ingredient – is a vital component of integration.

(Interestingly, the only time the added, unknown ingredient of the arbitrary constant doesn’t play a part in integration is if you explicitly define the boundaries within which integration happens. By specifying these limits so exactly the arbitrary constant is cancelled out.)

If we were therefore to try and summarise what we know about integration from a mathematical point of view we’d say something like this:

  • Integration is harder than differentiation – though there are limited tricks to make it easier
  • It gives a bigger picture across a wider area than a specific view of just one point in time or space
  • It has a secret ingredient – the arbitrary constant – which his fundamental to capturing this bigger picture
  • This secret ingredient disappears only if you define exactly the boundaries of what integration is trying to achieve
  • Integration is a subtle, complex process that takes time and understanding to do.

Thus, though you wouldn’t immediately think it, the mathematical conception of integration tells us everything we need to know about successful integration in public services, especially across health and social care and beyond.

Breadline or Left Behind: social work schemes for graduates from the university of life

Frontline and Think Ahead are new routes into children’s and mental health social work respectively for graduates with a 2:1 degree or better. The principle behind them – derived from Teach First – is to attract the “brightest and best” into a job / career they may not otherwise have considered.

My feelings about these social work training programmes have developed over time. Initially I wasn’t keen, but now I feel that anything which promotes social work as a good profession should be, broadly, welcomed.

How my feelings have developed have probably reflected the way the programmes themselves have been refined since their inception. Where before there was arguably an elitist, Oxbridge focus on who the programme’s participants might be, now it feels they’re much more interested in good graduates from a broader set of universities.

I wonder, though, if by focusing only on people graduating from university with 2:1s or above we’re missing an opportunity?

What if, as well as this, we had well-resourced and targeted recruitment campaigns focused on bringing people into social work who are likely to graduate cum laude from the University of Life?

These would be people who never made it to university; a high proportion of them probably wouldn’t have A-Levels. They will have faced adversity at many points in their lives and been used to navigating a whole host of difficult environments. But, despite the many challenges they will have encountered, their character, resilience and way of thinking has meant they have flourished.

If people like this became social workers, imagine the experience and perspectives they could bring to social work! Imagine the difference they could make to people whose lives they would truly understand!

We could call such programmes Breadline or Left Behind – anything that reflected the exact opposite of what Frontline and Think Ahead represents. Without denigrating these existing schemes, though, I think we’d find ourselves with another group of people whose contribution to social work could be significant.

Now, if only we could a think tank to take up the idea…

It’s person-centred, Jim – but not as we know it

We all have our favourite “I can’t believe that actually happened” stories in social care.

Mine relates to care and support planning: whilst observing a panel process (error number 1), a Head of Social Care instructed a social worker (error number 2) to change a support plan so that all sentences were “I” statements (error number 3) from the point of view of the patient [sic] (error number 4), without going back to the person themselves (error number 5).

It would be funny if it weren’t so normal.

But we hear variations of this all the time, summarised in the line:

Of course what I do is person-centred care – it always has been

If we are honest, relatively little of what currently happens in the care and support system is person-centred (though we’re definitely moving in the right direction).

This being the case, we should ask ourselves: if it isn’t person-centred, then what is it? I think there are at least four alternatives:

  1. Money-centred care: where what people get is what commissioners can either afford, currently buy, or have always bought
  2. Provider-centred care: where the primary objective is to ensure the ongoing feasibility of an organisation rather than the people it serves
  3. Process-driven care: where filling out the paperwork or keeping the IT system happy is the main driver
  4. Professionally-driven care: where the professional knows best and tends to think of the person in front of them as another one of their caseload or a walking set of conditions

Thinking of it in this way shows why the drive to person-centred care has been so difficult: it requires significant change on a number of major fronts – the flows of money, the role of providers, the supremacy and comfort of process, and the culture of professionals.

It’s why I’m personally so excited about person-centred care and what it means for the future. It isn’t just an optional variation of what we’ve always done; it flips public services as we know them on their head. To make this happen, though, we need to be clearer on the alternatives that being person-centred is replacing.

The opportunity for public services of truly engaged expert citizens

The World Wide Web was invented in 1989 and Google was incorporated as a company nearly a decade later, in 1998. AirBnB started in 2007 and Uber in 2009.

I wonder why there was such a big delay between the web and Google, and then Google and AirBnB, Uber etc., and then a subsequent delay in their reaching a tipping point in terms of awareness and use by the general public?

I ask this because there have been a very wide number of approaches and initiatives for improving public services, not least health and social care, through technology and particularly the web. For example, there have been care comparison sites a-plenty, much talk of open data and suggestions of location-based services to replace off- and online directories. And yet we see relatively little evidence of these approaching a tipping point, let alone being used regularly by local authorities, providers and the general public when it comes to health and social care.

The prompt for these thoughts is this excellent, detailed post at Policy Exchange about the rise of the citizen expert.

In it Beth Simone Noveck (former United States deputy chief technology officer and director of the White House Open Government Initiative) takes as a starting point another area of public policy – citizen engagement – and notes how the obvious opportunity to improve public services and local communities hasn’t been taken in the way it could have been.

Citizen engagement isn’t just the equivalent of technology: it’s clearly bigger than that. Beth makes clear this point by showing how better harnessing the interests and expertise of citizens can help both bridge the democratic divide and make the most of people in contributing to their local communities and society.

The internet is radically decreasing the costs of identifying diverse forms of expertise so that the person who has taken courses on an online learning platform can showcase those credentials with a searchable digital badge. The person who has answered thousands of questions on a question-and-answer website can demonstrate their practical ability and willingness to help. Ratings by other users further attest to the usefulness of their contributions. In short, it is becoming possible to discover what people know and can do in ever more finely tuned ways and match people to opportunities to participate that speak to their talents.

But she also notes the most significant barrier to this: the continued dominance / monopoly of policy- and service-elites in the work that they do:

[There is a] long-held belief, even among reformers, that only professional public servants or credentialed elites possess the requisite abilities to govern in a complex society.

Why? Because it is believed

Citizens are spectators who can express opinions but cognitive incapacity, laziness or simply the complexity of modern society limit participation to asking people what they feel by means of elections, opinion polls, or social media.

The shifting of the cause of the problem of a lack of engagement onto citizens themselves rather than the professionals asking the questions is a familiar refrain. We regularly hear laments about “the usual suspects”, limited response rates or adversarial consultation processes that create more problems than they solve.

But this characterisation of this situation only makes sense for one set of players: it suits both the technocratic elites who dominate public policy and services, and the other well-embedded elites with (vested) interests who can mobilise quickly to respond to consultation/engagement that affect their organisations.

It is, of course, a characterisation that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. For example, we know that (proper) co-production in health and social care has a solid evidence base in the difference it makes. But we also know it continues to be at best a nice-to-have rather than a must-have.

Thus we come back to the questions kicking about in my mind at the start of this post: if the ability to do this sort of thing exists (be it citizen engagement or technology), why hasn’t social care and the like made the most of this opportunity?

It’s largely because elites aren’t yet comfortable with distributing leadership and expertise.

One of the ways to overcome this discomfort, then, is to make it valuable and rational for the existing elites to engage in effective citizen engagement by ensuring a ‘good’ group of people are engaged and involved in public service reform in the first place.

Noveck rightly says:

To make all forms of engagement more effective, we need to increase the likelihood that the opportunity to participate will be known to those who need to participate. If a city really wants to improve the chances of crafting a workable plan for bike lanes, it should be able to reach out to urban planners, transportation engineers, cyclists, and cab drivers and offer them ways to participate meaningfully. When a public organisation needs hands on help from techies to build better websites or data crunching from data scientists, it needs to be able to connect.

To do this:

[I]nstitutions [must] begin to leverage such platforms to match the need for expertise to the demand for it and, in the process, increase engagement becoming more effective and more legitimate.

This is appealing. Citizen engagement may not be valued by elites because there hasn’t been adequate effort or ability to engage sufficient citizens to make it worthwhile enough.

As Noveck concludes:

This is about chances for civic participation; to be a member of a local community and to make a contribution based on this… It has everything to do with what it means to be a citizen in a contemporary democracy.

This is why I particularly like this: this isn’t just about technical changes around the edges of public service economies, but the broad meaningful difference it could make.


Social care council tax precept: the beginnings of an opportunity?

social care precept
The distribution of revenue raised for each council per head by the social care precept (Source: Richard Humphries at the King’s Fund)

First, some facts on where we are with local government and social care spending:

  • Local government saw a 37% real-terms cut in government funding between 2010/11 and 2015/16 (NAO (pdf), executive summary)
  • Adult social care expenditure fell by 8.7% in real terms between 2010/11 and 2014/15 (NAO (pdf), para 1.15)
  • There has been a corresponding fall in social care activity in all areas of social care: homecare, day care, nursing care and residential care (between 2008/09 and 2013/14 – when data is available) (NAO (pdf), figure 4)
  • Net local government spending per person (excluding public health, education, police and fire services) has been reduced by 23.4% between 2009/10 to 2014/15 (IFS (pdf), table 2.1)

Second, the effects of the social care precept. (Recall that the council tax precept for social care was introduced in the 2015 Spending Review, and is the ability of local government to raise council tax by up to 2%, as long as it is spent on social care.)

  • LGA analysis suggests the council tax precept for social care would raise £400million in 2016/17, but only if all 152 local authorities used the precept in full
  • The average Band D taxpayer would see an average rise of £24 in their council tax bill if the precept were used in full in 2016/17 (LGA)
  • (The LGA has previously estimated that the social care funding gap would grow by at least £700 million in 2016/17. The introduction of the National Living Wage will cost councils at least £340 million in 2016/17 on top of this gap)
  • Though the Treasury thinks the social care precept will raise £2billion by 2019/20, the King’s Fund notes the precept will (a) widen the gap in provision between richer and poorer areas, and (b) raise at most only £800m a year.

It’s hardly grounds for optimism is it?

And yet, I find myself wondering if there are reasons for hope in the social care precept? I suggest this for two reasons:

  1. By saying that social care costs can be met by a centrally-enabled (general) tax, it feels to me that the government has set a precedent for funding social care through general taxation. This has not been an option government has realistically considered before, though there are plenty of ways general taxes can be levied and used (see, for example, pp.31-37 of the final report of the Barker Commission (pdf))
  2. People will notice if their council tax bills rise. They’ll probably not appreciate it, and will want to know why their bills have gone up by an average of £24 for social care alone. We know that the general public has very little awareness of how social care is funded (see Chapter 2 of Ipsos Mori’s research for the Dilnot Commission (pdf)), so this therefore represents a communications opportunity that could begin to put social care (and how it is funded) on a par with the NHS in terms of public awareness.

It’s not much to go on, but the ability to make the case for adequate and sustainable funding for social care needs all the help it can get. The social care precept itself is neither adequate nor sustainable; but it might be the beginnings of an opportunity.