Is Self-Directed Support the death knell for charities or saviour for people with a disability?

Jonathan 191009Self-directed support is the new social care policy being rolled out, to be in place by 2011.  It means larger charities will no longer be able to provide a ‘one size fits all’ bulk contracted service to local authorities.  Instead, they will have to sell their services direct to each customer, skills which most of them don’t currently have. 

By 2011 the Government wants the SDS system in place and fully operational.  Currently the scheme is creating a major upheaval for local authorities.  Why?  Because they have to assess each individual, allocate a care budget, support the creation of a care plan, approve it and then help the individual and their carers put it in place. 

Many are running behind schedule and right now there’s no clear indication of how, when or what the volume of this fledgling market will be.  And that’s a big problem for charities as many of them are geared to work with local authority contracts worth £000’s and the customers arriving automatically, rather than one-by-one and direct payment in the £0’s.

Added to this potentially chaotic situation, the mindset of many charities could easily hold them back.  Historically, those without a retail operation simply haven’t needed to adopt a commercial approach where customers have to be found, courted and sold to.  Customers have arrived courtesy of a local authority contract or spot purchase.  And, as in any organisation where the customer doesn’t pay directly for the service, customer care and service flexibility is generally at the back of the pack.  Furthermore, a ‘one size fits all’ service is driven almost entirely by cost.  And ironically, one of the things that contribute towards high costs is administration, which without investment in IT and customer relationship management processes is very labour intensive.

One example of this mindset is a label often given to the people served through social care.  Rather than politely referring to those they support as ‘customers’ or ‘clients’, they are rather unattractively labelled ‘service users’; unique to the industry.  And if you Google ‘service user’, you will see that it’s a tag that doesn’t go down at all well.

So what are the specific challenges charities face to deliver in the face of SDS?

The first one is scoping the business.  As it isn’t at all clear how the market will segment, scenarios need modelling to explore shaping the service.  For example how will the provision of consultancy or advice and the service to be delivered be separated?  The cost/income equation needs exploring to see what is and what isn’t viable and the impact, if any, upon their current business should they stop delivering to this sector of the market.

The second is how to tailor what they do and package it in a way that is customer friendly, relevant to the market and presented and marketed in a manner that is attractive so people will buy it.  As many charities have never had to do this, they may need to put in place a basic customer relationship management system along with a sales process and assign and train a sales team to sell their products and services. 

The third is the marketing communications strategy and plan, to deliver the new service to the market, which will have a considerable cost attached to it; one which charities are neither used to nor familiar with. 

Then IT and the accounts process will need upgrading, as the number of transactions, invoices and hence potential for customer queries are likely to considerably increase.  And with this comes the need for tighter credit control.

The final challenge is perhaps the biggest.  That is to transform the culture that underlies delivery of the current service.  Let’s call the current approach the ‘professional gift model’.  Here, care comes as a ‘gift’, something those that receive it cannot control or reshape.  Everything is decided for them by the professionals who assess what they need.  

If this is to change to a system where the client and their carers decide what they need and how, many current assumptions about control, purpose and responsibility will need to be revisited.  Furthermore, where the client has the power of choice, most staff working within this area are likely to feel undervalued and undermined, as choice means there is a need for persuasion and selling, rather than professional advice. 

They won’t be at all familiar with selling skills and it isn’t an area that they will particularly want to become involved with, as selling is often viewed as unprofessional.  And that’s perfectly normal.  As up until the introduction of SDS there was no need to sell; customers just arrived as consistently as the sun rises each morning.

On top of all this, judging just when to enter the market is a lottery.  Too soon and competitors can re-define their offering and pricing to provide greater ‘added value’ and be more competitive.  Too late and the opportunity can be lost.

What remains far from clear is whether or not there will be a place for the major providers.  They tend to have fixed facilities with high overheads, so unless they can be creative and flexible in their approach, the whole market could fragment into a cottage industry of family, friends and acquaintances, providing highly personalised, flexible services at low cost.

However, you can have your SDS cake and eat it.  For the last nine months I have been working with one of the more forward thinking regional charities.  They now have in place their offering for the market, ready and waiting to be introduced and rolled out at the right moment.  And for a win, win scenario, the approach that has been adopted will ensure that current services are delivered in a much greater customer centric manner too, which will help change mindsets.

The last word should be for people with a disability, the group of people that the scheme is designed to help.  For them the concept of SDS is enlightened.  So if local authorities and charities can make it work, they really will have equality, choice and independence.

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