The Collaboration Test

As the Coalition for Collaborative Care gets underway, what should its relationship be with the not for profit sector?

Connecting with people and communities has been something the not for profit sector has for years often done better than the public and private sectors, but it’s only recently that making those kinds of community connections has started to appear prominently in government and NHS policies. Partly driven by the necessity of redefining what public services can do during austerity, a consensus is building that public services are not something that ‘professionals’ do to ‘patients’ or offer to ‘customers’, but are increasingly built on the success with which responsibility, knowledge, resources and – ultimately- power can be shared between people or families with long term support needs and workers who bring expertise, skills and kit, but who can’t magic up long term health and wellbeing for another person.

The need for collaborative care is a strong argument for collaboration between the public and not for profit sectors. It’s also a challenge to the not for profit sector: does every charity and social enterprise have the kind of close, trusting relationship with individuals and their communities that the not for profit sector advertises? How do you maintain a strong connection with a community if you are a very large national charity for instance? Some national charities demonstrate that they can combine the clout of being big with the ethos of being localised, but good local relationships can’t be assumed, just because an organisation has a charity number.

It’s also important to understand that whilst collaborative models of care are a strength of charities, community groups and social enterprises, ensuring those models ‘get into the water supply’ (as Canadian social entrepreneur Vickie Cammack puts it) of public services can’t just be the role of the not for profit sector. We need a way of building the expectation of collaboration into every contract for every kind of service, whether public, private or not for profit. In the absence of a better term so far, I’m calling this the collaboration test and it’s a test I believe should be universally applied. The test would be something like this:

Does this intervention or service leave each individual, family or community it is offered to:

  • Better informed (or mired in jargon and bureaucracy)?
  • More confident of their own capacity and more resilient (or more reliant on outside help and expertise)?
  • Better connected to those around them (or with new barriers between them and their family, friends and neighbours)?

It’s easy to see how many not for profits directly try to achieve these goals, particularly where they are delivering community-based initiatives. Adopting these tests universally would help to drive resources towards such initiatives, because they are harder to pass, the more institutionalised or industrialised a service becomes.

But every intervention, and particularly every intervention which is intended to be long term, can be delivered in a way which is confusing, undermining and isolating, or in a way which shares knowledge, resources and power and which aims to minimise its negative impacts upon relationships and connections (close to home, not in a distant hospital, for instance) and where possible to support those informal support networks, for instance, through the professional sharing information and expertise with family carers and being contactable in an emergency.

The ‘customer service’ paradigm for public services is over. It looked achievable and affordable briefly during the boom years, but it can lead to unmet expectations and weaker civic society relationships, which hurt the whole concept of public service during austerity.

If you do a great job of carrying out a procedure, or providing treatment, but you fail the collaboration test, your service is not giving itself the greatest possible chance of success – which means it’s also failing the value for money test. So ‘efficiencies’ which shave a few minutes off contact times, at the expense of people or families having the knowledge, networks and back-up they need to live well with a long term condition, are, in fact, inefficiencies. But if we think collaboratively, then every intervention becomes potentially a preventative intervention. That’s why it’s the key to a public service culture which we can afford, as well as one which feels like it’s on our side when we need it most.

Alex Fox is CEO of Shared Lives Plus  the national charity for Shared Lives and Homeshare services. He is the lead board member for Building Community Capacity in the Think Local, Act Personal partnership.

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One thought on “The Collaboration Test

  1. A good paper full of ideas that I have been attempting for more than twenty years, but have often been accused of being confrontational by professionals.
    One of the first goals we have to achieve is to overcome the bureaucratic way of looking at things by those in power. If we cannot get families and professionals working together non of this will progress.
    I have evidence that all you suggest can be achieved as I have just returned from abroad where this is happening. We designed a system for families to support each other that was funded by the local government, and it works.
    We need people who can reach the bureaucratic machine to point out the advantages of this type of working. Inevitably it will lead to the loss of some jobs of local authority employees but that will be the price that has to be paid.
    Up until now people have been defending their jobs and pension, and I cannot blame them for that, I would be doing the same. But we do have to find a way to overcome all these problems as the cost of delivering services by local authorities has not shrunk as much as it should have.
    So there it is, we all have a responsibility to face the challenges that we are experiencing to support the people we love and care for. So let us all get behind the ideas in this paper and see where it takes us.

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